In Younger Days
Beauty at its prime is ephemeral. Hence, people constantly bear it in mind in hoping it would be eternal. In this exhibition, beauty at its prime is embodied in the impression of the flowers. Various types of flowers are often projected on objects, for it to assume conventional meanings. For example, originated in France and popularized in the 19th century Victorian period of England, France, and America, floriography offered an enigmatic medium of communication in a complex and repressed social environment. In the iconic Ophelia (1852) by John Everett Millais’s (1829-1896), the female protagonist floats in the stream singing an elegy, is surrounded by pansy, signifying futile love, violet signifying loyalty, nettle signifying suffering, poppy representing death, the red daffodil of sadness. In the same period, painter Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904), influenced by Courbet, made a large number of still-life having inherited previous traditions of this genre of painting. Since the 17th century in the Netherlands, this subject matter often had cautionary implications. Flowers, fruits, food, and flamboyant ornaments symbolic of luxury have often been painted together with prey, skulls, candles, and hourglasses to suggest the impermanence of ostentatiousness. Latour’s simple and straightforward flowers were steeped in impressionism, where his slightly uneasy brushwork assigned a dangerous yet appealing sense to the cluster of flowers.
Throughout the history of art, the symbolism of flowers and the ambivalence that perpetuates between beauty and sorrow have been adopted as the thread stringing together this small group exhibition, “In Younger Days”, with the presentation of works by three outstanding artists, Liu Ye, Hao Liang and Kwan Sheung Chi, initiated and supported by the New Century Foundation. Hao Liang’s work Dissection Series, created in 2009-2010, divides people’s metaphysical and concrete aspects into two parts. At the beginning of the top part, a masked skull dressed in Persian costume, its eye sockets “look” onto the leaves in his hands, what looks like a newly sprouted seed; then, the portrait of the skull dressed in a long Chinese robes is revealed to the viewer from the front, side and back, and through a veil as thin as the cicada’s wings, the skeleton structure is made visible. A close-up of the heart, lungs, kidneys, and a set of scalpels are on display, where the gestures of dissecting the anatomical structure are meticulously portrayed. The bones and flesh of the human body are parsed clean, straightforward, without suspenseful. Whereas at the beginning of the bottom part, the skull from the top part has been filled with flesh and bone and appears. However, the strokes of the lines were used to outline its light posture, and the spiritless eye sockets were given sight, and the expression of deliberating on the “seed” seems imminent. The meridian points on the human body and the space between the heart and the mind – a dimension that is more abstract than the flesh – followed, that provokes the suspicion that the top and bottom parts project the slices of the viewer’s psyche who holds the seed in his hands. At the end of the series, the parts and organs of the human body appear within the same frame as the natural landscapes such as celestial bodies, towering trees, bamboo branches, and flowers, in a ratio that connects the human body with the laws of the universe, which naturally restores life to its root.
Lilies (2012) challenges the sense of fate and silence Hao Liang has created. The 12 artificial lilies collected by artist Kwan Sheung Chi embody a landscape of social subconscious forged by the repetition of many labors. Like consumer goods, they also have to meet the consumer’s consensus on what constitutes “good-looking lilies” and their auspicious implication for “Centennial Harmony” and “Purity” in their subconscious. In the 1960s, flowers made of papier-maché were an important business for local entrepreneurs in Hong Kong. The artificial flower factories were once the source of local workers’ struggles for labor equality and salary. Beneath the elegance and delicateness that these artificial lilies represent, a flashback to the pain and suffering the history is revealed.
It may seem Liu Ye has replicated the dark covers, back cover and first page of Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita on the canvas, but that’s far from it. The image of a passionate and gentle girl - “The light of my life, the fire of desire, my sin, my soul” (the first phrase in Lolita) – has been inscribed as a text, confounded, distinguishing light and darkness, like the monuments found in early Renaissance paintings, without losing its modernist touch. Under a steady, restrained, and concise composition, the artist opens up another microscopic dimension to enliven it. On an imperceptible scale, every letter’s shade, density, and tonal variations and the strokes are interesting and done with ease. Since the subject matter of the painting is a book, as the viewer comes to address the painterliness of the work, they would not be able to circumvent the superficial meaning of the text. Liu Ye “appropriates” the confessional tone from text to past love affairs, a dull pain hidden and blended with the technical language of painting, makes others wonder: Is this text or painting in front of my eyes? This inseparable relationship subtly rocks the painting. The artist has developed a field where painting techniques, art history, the system of literary expression, and photographic media contend intimately, where the viewer can reflect on the alternatives to various mediums of viewing, the relationship between language and reality, and even the form of Chinese calligraphy and the communication of issues. It is commendable that the artist did not persuade the viewer to philosophize his/her perception. Instead, he is telling a story and confides his true emotions to the viewers. As much as he paused before speaking, his words are nevertheless earnest.
Looking back at the still life paintings from the West that lament on the every day “helplessness for impermanence” at the beginning of this article, I want to say that time is also a prelude to “In Younger days”. These three groups of works have provided referential frameworks on feelings, emotions, and even social context at a distance, reminding us that the moment we are in has never been a faculty without reasons.
October 13, 2019