Tina Keng Gallery | An Otherworldly Realm: Reflections of Shangri-La in the Mosquito Nail Landscape

Tina Keng Gallery
May 12, 2017 8:26AM

by Chang Li-Hao

Utter Void, hollow magnitudes, lacking all limit, there worked elusive presence: What Is Naturally So It is liquefied and formed the streams and channels; it hardened and formed the mountains and knolls. […] Spirit-changes were racing, with lightning swiftness, all at once leaving Presence and entering Absence. Then when I finished my gaze all around my body grew tranquil, my heart was serene. Whatever hurts horses had been left behind, all worldly problems here are forsaken. Always the blade fell into empty spaces, the ox in my eyes was never entire. […] I blur the thousands of images by dark observation, my body, insensate, identical with What Is Naturally So.

— Wandering to the Tian-tai Mountains,
Sun Chuo (314-371)[1]

In the ancient, pre-scientific era, with limited tools and methods for observation, human beings witnessing celestial bodies rising in the east and setting in the west deduced that “the heavens cover us like a dome; the earth is like a game of chess,” which illustrated how they imagined the world. They believed the sky was in the shape of an inverted bowl, covering the flat earth and its angled corners and four sides representing the North, South, East, and West. Of course, this assumption has been fully debunked by the leaps and bounds of technological progress, replaced by the current universally accepted concept of the heavens and earth. However, the thinking of a domed sky over a four-cornered earth encompasses concept of yin and yang that governs the corresponding mutuality of stillness and movement, illusion and reality, being and nothingness, and has been at the core of a philosophy on ​​humanity’s existence and metaphysical essence that has influenced culture and arts in the millennia that followed.

A trans-era avant-garde peculiarity

Interestingly, it is the framework of limited knowledge of the universe that unfettered artists of different eras from perceivable phenomena, allowing them to move freely and unencumbered within the imagination. From the perspective of current aesthetical interests, the strange and peculiar imagery created under the brushwork of a small cohort of artists from the late Ming dynasty, including Ding Yunpeng, Lan Ying, Wu Bin, Cui Zizhong, and Chen Hongshou, which was later labeled as Transformationism, might be regarded as exemplary of the realization of the aforementioned naturalist concepts. Compared to the fountainhead of Western surrealism, this occurred centuries before its time. Whether in the strange landscape formations or the peculiar appearance of human figures, the world depicted under Wu Bin’s[2] brush always brimmed with overpowering visual charm. However, over the past three centuries of development in art history, his name has remained consistently outside the mainstream with only a handful of devotees — including the Qianlong Emperor, who once praised his work as “paintings that can transcend emotions and move the soul,” and ordered court painter Hu Gui to paint an emulation of his long scroll Painting of Shanyindao. It wasn’t until the 20th century when James Cahill, an American scholar of Chinese art history, attributed Wu Bin’s eccentric and unique painting style to a cultural exchange between the East and West that Wu Bing’s work began to be seen as a pioneer of an emerging trend and his work became a focus for heated discussions around the world. There are those who agree and those who disagree with this perspective, but if Wu Bin’s few remaining works are viewed through the lens of today's contemporary art, which fixates on the new and uncommon, it is easy to see his innovative thinking and intuitive interpretation manifest in the skillful combination of traditional painting techniques and his observations of nature, exuding an avant-garde spirit that transcends his era.

Specifically, the twists and turns in the landscapes under his brush go beyond rationality to create fantastic yet realistic scenes that cannot exist in the earthly realm, but like the Shangri-La under poet Tao Yuanming’s pen, “unaware of Han, and heedless of Wei and Jin,” favored travelers may have a chance encounter and linger briefly, but will not find their way back for a return visit. A utopia that can never be revisited is precisely what many in contemporary society long for in a time of chaos. There are similarly arranged enigmas and surprises for the viewer to carefully uncover in Chen Chun-Hao's ongoing series “Spherical Heavens,” “Flat Earth,” and “Transcendence,” apparently not only as a tribute to the wisdom that precedes him, but also as an effort to offer through his work a glimpse of a spiritual path that leads to present tranquility.

In the work Imitating Mountains and Streams Far from the World by Wu Bin, Ming Dynasty (2015), Chen Chun-Hao’s meticulous grasp of the density and pacing of mosquito nails create a scene of overlapping crags and ravines that thrust into the clouds, adorned with surging waterfalls, floating clouds and mist, as well as thatched huts and ancient temples — an otherworldly paradise powerfully and resoundingly re-presented. A majestic tree stands atop a stony slope in the foreground of the work Imitating Steep Ravines and Flying Cascades by Wu Bin, Ming Dynasty (2015), while tiers of towering mountains in the mid- and background seem to be connected by floating bridges that, together with the foothills enveloped in misty clouds, form a landscape of jutting rocks of peculiar prominence. For Chen Chun-Hao, practiced precision and intensive labor is required for the proper upright placement of each mosquito nail on the canvas in order to create the three-dimensional texture reminiscent of sculpture or installation work. The degree of difficulty goes above and beyond the various texturing techniques of brush and ink, simultaneously creating new possibilities and vantage points. As the viewer's line of sight moves between the ostensibly neat rows of mosquito nails, the viewer seems to be transported to a forest, seeking scenic seclusion within the clouds and mist, stumbling upon crystal streams and flowing waterfalls. When the viewer steps back a certain distance, the ordered composition can be clearly discerned; an immediate and forceful visual impact, like dragons soaring across the firmament, emanates from the mountain formations.

Reflections on established life aesthetics

Several works intentionally composed on circular canvases highlight possible perspectives for contemporary artists to pivot toward a dialogue with tradition in the midst of the deluge of information in the globalized digital age. For instance, in the works Imitating Clustered Peaks After Snowfall After Kuo Hsi, Song Dynasty (2016) and Imitating Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks by Li Cheng, Song Dynasty (2016), the artist does not merely transpose images rigidly from a rectangular canvas into a conceptually divergent shape, but through a laborious process of liberating personal powers of imagination, creates a contrast of light and shadows in the rhythmic placement of nails in order to gain insight into the interiority of artists like Wu Bin that automatically transforms everything perceived by the eyes into surprising, distinctive scenes; to create works of powerful individual self-consciousness while challenging established rules of aesthetics. The viewer, poised between the known and unknown, can also challenge the self to reflect on the validity of our own long-held beliefs about life and the universe.

Additionally, Chen Chun-Hao continues to expand his theme to the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, a theme rarely seen in traditional Chinese painting until renowned artists in the 20th century such as Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, and Yang Shanshen. However, Chen Chun-Hao does not directly invoke the catalogue of any individual artist, but rather goes to great lengths to seek out, according to personal aesthetic experiences and preference, a single animal that appears among a multitude of ancient paintings, which he reassembles into a magnified, large-scale body of work before the viewer's eyes. For instance, the work Rabbit (2015) has been adapted from Magpies and Hare by Northern Song artist Tsui Po, while Goat (2015) comes from the work Sheep and Goat by Yuan dynasty artist Zhao Mengfu. A suspended narrative lies in the appropriation, simulation, and recreation of the original work, leading to the subversion and rebirth of narrative significance, perhaps unintentionally catalyzing another possibility for reading in the eyes of viewers familiar with art history.

Though Wu Bing once claimed, “with all of the works by master painters of the Jin, Tang, Song, and Yuan dynasties, one cannot hope to emulate even a grain of the allure of the ancients,” he did not actually retain much of existing shanshui styles. One can say there was intent to subvert and escape the conventions of tradition in an effort to declare his concerted pursuit of a decisively innovative painting style. Similarly, for Chen Chun-Hao, his innovation in media, form, and texture through substitution and amalgamation is informed by “unlikeness in likeness; likeness in unlikeness,” so that the visually unexpected sculptural qualities and the optical illusion they render, together achieve a reasoned liberation in his work. After all, all artistic endeavors involve a certain degree of transformation in a sense. What Chen Chun-Hao hopes to reflect through his mosquito nail shanshui is not only the otherworldly realm in the contemporary cultural context, but perhaps the private corner of a Shangri-La that is not easily encroached upon.


   [1] Wandering to the Tian-tai Mountains. Poem by Sun Chuo. Translation by Stephen Owen, in An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, pp. 185-188.

 [2] Wu Bin, style name Wenzhong; sobriquets Zhiyin Toutuo and Zhiyin Sheng, was a native of Putian in Fujian. Although his birth and death dates are unknown, he was active around the time of the Wanli reign (1573-1620). His landscapes often reveal spindly and monumental peaks stretching the bounds of conventional structures. His Buddhist figure paintings feature exaggerated forms. Wu Bin focused on the unusual to stretch the boundaries of appearance. Consequently, later people used such terms as "fantastic" and "extraordinary" to praise the fascinating new manner that he developed.

Tina Keng Gallery