The “Re-Objectivity” of Painting
Hang Chunhui on the inspirations behind his recent artistic experimentation
Exhibition View: Intertextuality: HANG Chunhui Solo Exhibition, 2019, Asia Art Center Taipei II
“Objectivity” is a hidden clue to contemplate the visual presentation of painting and its underlying “Subjectivity”. In contrast to subjectivity, objectivity concerns directly with the intrinsic quality of the matter itself. Although subjectivity in painting has long been a critical component in art history, I believe the inception of painting was to depict the world objectively. According to Plato’s theory of form, our reality is an imitation of an ideal form, then painting is a representation of the imitation of the ideal form, thus a shadow of another’s shadow.
Representation of the world has been a cornerstone of classical art; therefore, all the artistic rhetoric such as lines, colors, and compositions, etc.…, all served as methods for the artistic purpose of objective revisualization. I can understand this was the origin of objectivity in painting. In disparate times and regions however, because of the differences in artistic rhetoric and material, the objectivity of representations has differentiated from one another, and manifested in different forms of subjectivity. For instance, one can easily identify the distinctions in objectivity between a linear perspective painting by a Renaissance artist and an ink-and-brush painting by a Chinese literati artist, as the former will appear more objective and realistic due to the application of scientific observations, while the latter will seem more subjective due to the spontaneous calligraphic brushstrokes.
Nevertheless, for both artists discussed above, the apparent subjectivity of their artistic rhetoric is supported by the motive of representing the reality objectively. This is also the motive that gave birth to painting, but revolutionary ideas in art during the 20th century drastically transformed such elementary concern. When we are faced with the Black Square by Kasimir Malevich, any sense of objectivity defined by the tradition of art is completely overthrown. In this painting, all the artistic rhetoric no longer existed for the purpose of representing the world. Through the perpetuating movements of abstract art, the artistic rhetoric was freed from their presumed obligations, and for the first time ever, became the independent subjects of aesthetics appreciation. I believe, this was the first pivotal turning point of objectivity in painting, and as the artistic rhetoric became the sole subjects of painting, the objectivity in painting turned away from the representation of the world to the representation of the rhetoric itself.
Undoubtedly, abstract art has pioneered a new perspective, and formed a canon within the Modernist history. Yet, as abstract painting further evolved into an entirely blank canvas, that is to say, when a blank canvas could be presented and accepted as a complete work of art, then the rhetoric of Modernist art and its system of formality has again become inadequate to explain the new conception. Hence, the corresponding notion of objectivity must also be altered, and this time, the subject of representation becomes the materiality of the painting media. From this perspective, we can comprehend the Flag paintings of Jasper Johns, as he argued a painting itself is an actual matter, where all the materials he used for composition possess their own inherent materiality, and the qualities we attribute to their presence are merely their own existential objectivity as matters. This is an important characteristic of post-modern art: the act of instilling the materiality of matter into the formali
I don’t have an art history background, so my insights on the objectivity in painting all originated from personal experience with compositions. Since 2015, I began experimenting the fusion of painting and sculpture, and I repeatedly questioned the significance, or meaning, of this attempt. While reflecting on the fundamental or primitive motivation of painting, I suddenly realized the notion of “Objectivity” as discussed above. Thinking along this newly formed concept of objectivity, the dimensionality of sculpture and the planarity of painting are to be viewed as a duality of expressions. Painting is to create an illusion of space upon a flat surface, while sculpture is to represent the space through material form. Sculpture has an authentic feel of materiality, which circles back to my initial discussion on objectivity in art (representation of the world); as a result, I describe my experiment of integrating the illusion in painting and materiality in sculpture as “Re-Objectivity”.
In the Table series from 2016, I abandoned all purely representational and figurative paintings, my works become abstracted fields of colors, for the purpose of investigating the interrelation between form and matter. Of course, the matter of this period is not the same matter of Duchamp’s readymade, but rather an artificial matter – sculpture. At my Ambiguous solo exhibition of 2007, the barrier between sculpture and painting is deconstructed through my conscious effort of refining the concept of “re-objectivity”.
To fulfill more experiments and explore more possibilities of “re-objectivity”, I began working on the series of Message Obscured by Form in 2018. Through this series, I began to examine the interrelation between painting and its background, and the capability of incorporating space into the presentation of painting. Because of the light projection and shadows from the works, the supporting wall becomes a canvas for my works. This visual effect leads me thinking, if the painting material can contribute to constituting objectivity in painting, then, can the wall on which the paintings hang be used to develop new possibilities of “re-objectivity”? This concept echoes with figure-ground organization (Gestalt psychology) that is prevalent in 20th century art history discussions.
As I believe, when “re-objectivity” becomes a practice, any material incorporated into the painting can enable new possibilities of representation. Especially when looking at a traditional artistic language like the Chinese ink painting, I came to realized that the paper I used possesses its own material nature, which gave inspiration to the series Transparent Color. I have tried out a wide array of Chinese papers while experimenting with Message Obscured by Form, and these papers were all originally used merely for the purpose of representing the world in traditional Chinese paintings; however, as I handled them with the idea of “re-objectivity”, my system of paintings would be more comprehensive. I also began to wonder the possibility of creating a visual illusion between painting and the paper itself, which brings back the memory of a work I made in 2003 while I was still a graduate student at the Central Academy of Arts. At the time, I was working on a paper with straw texture, where I scanned the straw texture and reprinted the image onto the same paper; subsequently, the works was titled Paper on Paper, to pose a question about the understanding of reality. As I was working this year, I the concept of the work was indeed suitable for my idea of “re-objectivity”, and it would certainly be interesting to re-do the experiment for my new compositions; therefore, I started drawing paper on top of paper, thus the series Transparent Color.
Of course, this discussion on “re-objectivity” reflects my ongoing compositions, supported by personal subjective experiences, and should not be regarded as a critique on art history. In my continual experimentation of creating multi-dimensional visual experiences, I shall repeatedly challenge and refine this theorem.