2018 Double Trace

Double Trace

 Text | Yu Wei


To see a tree


Friedrich’s Tree is Tsong Pu’s tribute to Caspar David Friedrich, a 19th century Romantic painter. At first glance, it appears to be a work of abstract painting consisting of interwoven grids and imprints that Tsong has always been skilled at. However, standing further away, we will notice that the darker regions with indeterminate forms in fact make up the shape of a tree.


The oak tree that Tsong portrays is the most common theme painted by Friedrich. Such a figurative representation is not very typical of Tsong’s work. Therefore, this tree is undoubtedly portrayed in a particular kind of way. First, it lacks a solid outline, and instead has a somewhat dispersed form. When we look at it at a distance, it resembles swaying shadows. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore that the tree-shadow is built upon the grid structure—an element that has almost never disappeared from Tsong’s paintings. Using a painting style that blends obscure and solid forms, Tsong was able to reproduce this oak tree.


In this solo exhibition, Tsong’s tribute and response to the history of Western modernism reveals not only his personal preferences in terms of his artistic cultivation, but also how his signature style broke through these subjects of homage, in turn creating new interpretive meanings.[1] In Friedrich’s Tree, the oak tree that vacillates between blurry and solid forms recalls not only the Romanticism’ love for nature, but also their fascination with clouds. In the eyes of Romantic painters, vagueness, shifting forms, elusive clouds, fog, and the atmosphere are motifs that hold special cultural significance. Such sublime ambiguity forms a deep contrast with traditional pursuits for stability and rational social norms.


The 19th century art critic John Ruskin once used the phrase “the service of clouds” to describe Romantic painters’ almost-religious obsession, adulation, and portrayal of clouds, seeing it as an important emblem of modern landscape paintings.[2] In light of this religiosity, these partly visible objects hidden by cloud and mist are closer to the truth than solidly-outlined forms. Tsong’s reinterpretation of “Friedrich’s oak tree” implies such a Romantic visuality, yet this phantasmic tree is also constructed upon a rigorous grid.


In the genealogy of Tsong’s oeuvre, Friedrich’s Tree is more or less an anomaly. Grabbing most of our attention, that oak tree vacillating between obscurity and concreteness becomes the main subject, tempting us to view its surroundings as the background. A composition dependent upon a ‘subject/background’ binary structure is actually very uncommon in Tsong’s works. Almost all of his paintings require a uniform viewing experience. His signature style of grid-pattern imprints showcases a kind of evenly-distributed labor. What appears to be a meticulously-controlled structure, when examined closely, is actually made up of small squares, characterized by a minute painterly quality by virtue of their texture, heterogeneity, and imprecision.


What happens after Minimalism?


However, the key point is not what resides inside each square in the painting, but rather that which connect them to one another externally. It demonstrates Tsong’s penchant for plurality. He explains as follows:


Looking back, whether two dimensional or three-dimensional works, I consider it important for them to have a sense of quantity. When I make work, it is hard for me to simply finish at one, that one is almost always followed by two, then three, then four…and so on. If you ask me to just make one work, it is hard for me to convince myself to do so. I need to make multiple ones, so that they quantify into a field.[3]


Tsong’s fascination with plurality was established from very early on. In the early 1980s, he returned to settle down in Taiwan from Spain, sharing with Richard Lin

their common interest in plurality.[4] This exhibition includes Nomadic Grey, an early work by Tsong that embodies this notion of plurality. Its yellow canvas is entirely composed of a grid texture. Vertical blocks running through the center dominate the composition and create a sense of rhythmic movement, caused by the changes created by pieces of mounted square canvases folding up diagonally.  This method continues in the majority of recent works in the exhibition. Constituting some form of shallow relief, each of these paintings are made up of large quantities of small blocks and the different textures created by their respective diagonals. These works demonstrate how Tsong cleverly employed his own artistic language to advance and transform the vast lineages of Western abstract art in the 20th century, including Piet Mondrian’s geometric structures, the visuality of Op Art, and the concept of Minimalism.


Tsong was seen as a major Taiwanese artist in the 1980s to be deeply influenced by

Western Post-war Minimalism. Yet his works seem to fall outside of the linear historical view held by the American critic Clement Greenberg on the subject of modern painting. Instead of a reductive approach that understands painting to be a pure surface that ultimately refers back to objecthood itself, Tsong’s approach is more like a miniscule accumulation responding to ‘what happens after Minimalism.’ His practice is in essence a production of hidden connotations, and continues to point to the outside of painting—relating to the reality of everyday life, commonly agreed-upon signs and meanings, or even specific references to art history.


On this, Tsong’s obsession with grid formations, at least in the formal aspect, is reminiscent of American abstract artist Agnes Martin’s grid paintings. Yet the essence of their works is very different. Martin’s grid paintings are a form of resistance against a type of consumerism that started to emerge in American society in the 1960s. Motivated by asceticism, it is reductive in terms of gesture, matter, and content. If what Martin wanted to ultimately realize was a complete silence in painting, Tsong wanted to capture white noise, incorporating, accumulating, and categorizing all kinds of static to form a sustained droning sound. For Tsong, grids are always about a process of addition. Brimming with gestural content, they are small units ‘waiting to be filled up’—whether by color blocks, imprints, brushstrokes, or folded lines. Ultimately, an infinite number of painting units, arranged in a grid formation, constitute a rhythmic, moving image. Tsong’s strategy of ‘miniscule addition’ resonates with the idea of seeing the void as existence proposed by Japanese Mono-ha painters in the 1960s and 70s.


Profound Geometry


The force that dominates Tsong’s grid structures is almost always consistent in his two-dimensional works. The composition of these works is a strict extension of proper grid structures. Viewed at a distance, all the color blocks, either abide by horizontal or vertical principles, or are laid out according to 45-degree diagonals. As our eyes get closer to the painting, block by block, all the imprints and short brushstrokes in each tiny unit also function according to geometric laws based on the regular square.


Compared to his paintings, Tsong’s three-dimensional works seem to be much more unrestrained. Its most impressive feature is his diverse presentations of lines. Grasses Grow Over the City and Resonating Note feature irregular folded lines that emerge out of cracks between converging planes; Silhouette Park is made up of straight lines posed at differing angles, a winding curve resembling a human form, as well as a brightly-colored curve that intersect the former. While these sculptures of diverse forms and irregular lines are solid structures composed of melded metal, they are imbued with a sense of freedom, improvisation, and lack of hesitation not found in his two-dimensional works. At times, it seems as though he simply extruded quick sketches into physical space. It is not hard to recognize in them a transition into abstraction that took place in 20th century Euro-American contemporary sculpture—an effort to get rid of heavy forms, embrace reductive forms, and herald an open and expansive field. These minimalist sculptures embodied the spirit of the expanded field: they eliminated the podium, and interacted with the surrounding environment.


Resonating Note is composed of two metal sheets assembled with a black and red steel bar. The work leans upon a wall painted with a pleasant-looking skin tone in the exhibition space. However, where the sculptural components came into contact with the wall, Tsong deliberately painted the point of intersection into a white block, making it seem as though the sculpture was peeled back from the wall. Of course, Tsong did not truly cut a piece out of the wall, nor did he fabricate anything to simulate a state of being stripped apart—the visual effect is simply an effect of suggestion, using geometry to imply. To a certain extent, this sculpture is like a graphic representation. The viewer needs to use his or her imagination, to ‘sense’ the intimations that the sculpture offers us—whether relating to the expanded spatial field, or the kinetic potential embedded in the act of peeling apart. It is not hard to understand why the wall was deliberately painted a delightful flesh color. As Tsong says, “imagine this wall like a flesh being peeled apart”.


This type of suggestive geometric form is one of the charismatic characteristics of Tsong’s oeuvre. It adds an indescribable quality to seemingly static compositions. In a series of relief sculptures including The World Opens Up to Itself and Awakened White, aluminum sticks of different lengths are primarily responsible for bringing rhythmic changes to the canvas. We can also notice that on the original white background filled with check patterns and minute textures, there are also a number of white squares with no particular texture. They are undoubtedly a part of the formal layout, yet they also imply a gestural suggestiveness—at times they look like marks that the aluminum sticks could have made when brushing over the surface.


How do we capture such miniscule suggestiveness in what appears to be minimal geometric forms? Often times this awareness becomes a part of our unconscious habit of viewing Tsong’s work. This reveals a bizarre yet hidden representational dimension to Tsong’s art, on top of its evident abstract quality.


But more importantly, this gestural suggestiveness does not spring from traces of the hand left by the artistic production process. In other words, Tsong did not truly use aluminum sticks to brush over the surface to reduce the surface texture, just like he did not peel the sculpture away from the wall. On the contrary, these effects were achieved by semantically ‘arranging’ pure visual symbols. They are ‘fake movements’ generated by a kind of ideographic language, paralleling the ‘real gestures’ meant to fill his grids.


Stretched-Out Time


As such, we see two types of gestural imprints in Tsong’s work: one is based on the painterly gesture, namely the imprints of painting created by units of real labor inside each small square. The other is the ‘suggestive shape’ implied by ideographic signs. Finding ways to blend these two types of gestural imprints becomes an important technique in Tsong’s work.


Backyard in June, an installation piece made in 1996 is a classic example of the above: our eyes are first drawn to a number of hammers resting on the floor, as though they had each smashed a flower pot into pieces. The flower pot fragments are spread out along an impossibly elegant physical curve on the ground, like flower petals or celestial bodies. Yet these appearances contain real traces of unitized labor—the artist did truly use the hammers to smash over a dozen of flower pots.


In this exhibition, Days Airing Under the Sun equally blends these two gestural traces. We see a piece of rope stringing together 365 stones, calling upon the most ancient method of timekeeping. Seemingly based on conceptualism, this assemblage first uses a suggestive shape to signify a routine year-long labor, with each day as its basic unit (putting a stone on the rope everyday). However, the artist’s real gestural imprints in fact stems from a different kind of work ethic, one that is looser, more leisurely, and random. All the stones were intermittently collected by Tsong at Xindian riverside near his home throughout the past 10 years. In Days Airing Under the Sun, each stone signifies a day, yet these days are not defined by strict units of time or labor. In a sense, Tsong has unitized the labor that he put into collecting stones for the past few years, further condensing and sorting it into what the work suggests as one year.


But I guess conversely, Tsong might prefer to say: the temporal axis of 365 days per year in Days Airing Under the Sun is in fact stretched out. Perhaps this explanation is closer to his mode of working—all the pre-defined planning and configurations appear at first glance to be precise like lines in a grid, yet ultimately, they can’t help but be defeated by the necessary rhythms of everyday life. Tsong’s artistic practice does not strive for a spiritual realm determined by absolute rules of abstraction. Amidst the double gestural imprints, he prefers to embrace a reality that has always been filled with difference, chance, and accidents.


It is at times frustrating to talk about absolutes and eternity in the grey drabness of reality. But Tsong has realized very early on that this feeling of frustration is actually the starting point for art. He smilingly reminded me of an unforeseen state that occurred in Days Airing Under the Sun: “Because I didn’t use the right rope, the string of rocks slowly started to droop. When the exhibition ended, the rocks were only a tiny distance away from the floor.”

[1] In addition to Friedrich’s Tree, a number of other works in the exhibition respectively respond to works by other artists. For example, according to Tsong, the three different-colored canvases in the triptych The Poetics of the Quotidian are respectively taken from works by three artists that he admires, including Francisco Goya’s black, pink from Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series, as well as Mark Rothko’s orange. Furthermore, there are also a few works that make tribute to artist Richard Lin, Tsong’s former good friend who had since passed away. During the early 1980s, both of them were pioneers of Taiwanese abstract art and minimalism.

[2] J. Ruskin and J. D. Rosenberg, ‘Of Modern Landscape’, in The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings (University Press of Virginia, 1964), 83–91.

[3] Cited from my interview with Tsong Pu on July 12, 2017

[4] When talking about Richard Lin’s work, Tsong also refers to multiples: “(drawing lines) is not about drawing one line, but multiple. This also applies to Lin’s sculptures, which are composed of numerous objects, like a building. It always comes in a group, never just one. My mode of working is similar to his. I cannot just make one skyscraper, I have to break it down into different groups, and make many of them”. See footnote 3