A Kind of Nostalgia: Concerning Yeh Jen Kun’s Paintings
by Chuan Wei-Tzug
Amongst Taiwan’s new generation of painters, there is an abundance of those who employ Eastern gouache as their main medium. In terms of academic background, a large portion of these artists were educated at Tunghai University — a school that excels at the meticulous study of gouache techniques and mediums. Thus, when people speak of contemporary Eastern gouache painting, they chiefly focus on young artists who have graduated from this university. However, artist Yeh Jen-Kun has integrated ink and wash, gouache, along with various other mediums to create works that transcend what the masses perceive as Eastern gouache painting. In so doing, Yeh Jen-Kun has paved a path that belongs to no one else in the realm of contemporary painting.
Yeh Jen-Kun graduated from Chinese Culture University and later obtained his master’s degree from Taipei National University of the Arts. He initially studied ink and wash painting and did not start using Eastern gouache until he attended graduate school. In spite of the long history of Eastern gouache as a traditional medium, Yeh’s ways of creating are never bound by conventional techniques. Yeh’s pursuit of artistry, honesty towards his subject matter, and the expression of his own touch are all as important as the strong visual presence that governs his work. If we were to dissect Yeh’s paintings from this point of view, it would not be difficult to understand why, beyond the bleak and deserted city spaces in his paintings, Yeh Jen-Kun never fails to create textures that mesmerize his audience.
Yeh’s experimentation and innovation in technique call to mind a unique period of time in the historical background of Eastern gouache that occurred between the Japanese Ruling Era and the end of WWII. Since the beginning of the 20th century, it has been apparent that both Eastern gouache and ink and wash painting continue to collide with traditional art and innovative thinking. Therefore, in order to fully comprehend the contemporary qualities of Yeh’s work, we must start from the history of Eastern gouache in Taiwan.
The term ‘Eastern gouache’ was established by Taiwanese gouache artist Lin Zhi Zhu in 1977; prior to which, gouache painting was known as ‘Eastern painting’ or ‘Japanese painting.’ The developmental history of Eastern gouache as a medium can be traced back to the heavy colors of the gongbi (meticulous brush craftsmanship) technique in Chinese painting during the Tang Dynasty. In the same period, gouache was introduced to Japan and became the most commonly employed medium for Yamato-e (a genre of Japanese painting) and ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock printing). Due to the disparate evolution of art history in China and Japan, Eastern gouache matured and was developed more fully in Japan. Names worthy of mentioning are the Kano family, Ogata Kōrin, an artist from an earlier era famed for his natural style, and modern artist Yokoyama Taikan. Eastern gouache acquired a unique style under the influence of a few pivotal Japanese artists. Such developments, in turn, influenced Taiwan’s gouache painting. Eastern gouache was introduced to Taiwan during the Japanese Ruling Era and influenced Taiwan’s earliest gouache artists, namely Kuo Hsueh Hu, Chen Chin, and Lin Yu Shan. The trio, also known as the ‘Three Youths of the Art Exhibition in Taiwan,’ bequeathed the world with their wonderful works. Since gouache was introduced to Taiwan and reinterpreted by Taiwanese artists, it not only inherited the style and content of Japanese paintings, but also evolved into paintings that embodied local characteristics of Taiwan. Eventually, the subject matter, content, even chiaroscuro of Taiwan’s gouache painting strayed away from its Japanese model and formed its own unique branch of gouache painting. In fact, the early development of gouache in Taiwan spurned the tradition of copying classic models and turned its focus to realism. Another example is artist Lu Tie Zhou, who received profound training in ink and wash painting and attempted to incorporate the creation of white spaces — a special technique in traditional Chinese painting — into his gouache work. Such an amalgamation of Chinese and Japanese painting methods generated a new style. After WWII, Taiwanese gouache artists, such as Chen Shou Yi and Zhan Qian Yu, began to keenly absorb all kinds of elements through various methods — from gaining inspiration from daily objects to reinterpreting the classic aesthetics of heavily colored gongbi paintings and traditional emerald mountains and blue skies. After the war, even gold foils were incorporated into Japanese painting. These developments allow viewers to bear clear witness to the evolution and expedition Eastern gouache had undergone, both aesthetically and technically. From this point of view, we may gather that Taiwan’s Eastern gouache is, in fact, strongly experimental and always abreast of time’s developments.
In the historical scheme of things, Yeh’s started his journey from an intrinsic notion of painting and pushed his method of Eastern gouache further as his ideology for creating evolved. Yeh Jen-Kun has fused techniques of traditional ink and wash painting with gouache. Further, he has also introduced a contemporary line of thinking into his works that result in artworks that stand out from what is commonly perceived as gouache and ink and wash painting. In Yeh’s recent body of works, he mostly depicts empty cities. Strong sharp lines, heavy shades of blue, and omnipresent concrete buildings are the elements that dominate these works and make them readily recognizable. If we were to view Yeh’s works without any background information, it would be difficult to identify the media he uses, making it apparent that the artist does not consider his materials as the most important element of his creation. Be it ink and wash or gouache, or any other material that might appear on the canvas, all media serve simply to attain the final painting. Ultimately, the combined elements form the meaning that the artist truly wishes to express. In other words, defining Yeh’s paintings from a materialistic point of view or using the ‘correct label’ for his works is of no importance. What matters is for us to view the painting itself; to comprehend how the artist captures and merges traditional ink and wash into gouache; and, to project the emotions we experience in this contemporary society onto his works.
Since 2008, the majority of Yeh’s work has dealt with buildings we might observe in daily life. For example, the buildings we see in The Wonders I’d Like to Encounter with You are flying saucer-like houses in the Sanzhi township in Northern Taiwan; buildings depicted in Me, Only, At the Swimming Pool that Afternoon and Viaduct are also those we might see on a day to day basis. As for why he also depicts city buildings — especially in dilapidated condition — in his paintings? The artist explained that the texture of concrete buildings has always fascinated him. The buildings may be gigantic or artificial and unnatural. Yet, after some time, we grow accustomed to their presence. He stated, “Especially when traveling to Taipei from other parts of the country, apart from growing used to the buildings, I also noticed the many corners created by man-made spaces. The buildings simply stand erect, yet they bring about a feeling of remaining aloof from the rest of the world and a sense of isolation in me.” Perhaps it is because of this that, while the spaces featured in Yeh’s paintings seem familiar, they also emanate a certain coldness and alienation. After removing all human presence, it becomes clear that the buildings still exist in a specific time-space. Yeh Jen-Kun does not deliberately refer to any one time-space, yet his works retain a familiarity that is experienced by the viewers. This feeling of being so close but so far away exudes a subtly surrealistic and dream-like ambiance.
An interesting question we might propose is: Can the scenes in Yeh’s paintings, scenes from which humans have been removed, be referred to as ruins? Also, apart from being ‘uninhabited,’ what other implications could ruins possess? Throughout the history of painting, there has been no lack of depicting ruins. Masterful French classical artists Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain and 19th century painter Hubert Robert all drew inspiration from ancient Roman ruins or focused on depicting deteriorating buildings. Contemporary American photographer Ed Freeman used ostracised and abandoned buildings seen in California as his main subject matter. In the tradition of painting, when the theme of ruins occurs, it commonly serves a lyric purpose and lauds a certain ideal era (such as classical Roman times). It could also be an homage to the time elapsed and civilizations that were destroyed by humans. The existence of ruins reaffirms the gifts that were bequeathed to us throughout the changing of times; it is also a type of retrospection on cultures. Thus, one’s captivation by ruins can be seen as a unique kind of nostalgia. Greek philosopher Plato believed that paintings can only present an illusion; it is the viewer’s resulting cognition that is real. In Yeh’s paintings, the ruin-like existences respond to the desolate spaces that have been neglected in real life and pay homage to the beauties that no longer remain. The carefully applied layers of ink and the gouache, laid on brushstroke by brushstroke, are mediums that produce marks, all of which correspond with the time in which the buildings exist along with the spaces that harbor them. The effect of the paint, which almost evokes a sense of touch, is proof that time has borne witness to what has passed; one might also say that the paint is the vestige of time.
In recent years, Yeh Jen-Kun has been focused solely on depicting the feelings that metropolitan areas give him — coldness, distance, and a feeling of isolated beauty — all of which he expresses, without holding back, amidst the concrete-like grays and the deep and dark blues. With his brush, mediums are not constrained by tradition. Yeh Jen-Kun stated, “When I was first introduced to Eastern gouache, I thought that it could be a different medium that could transcend rigid rules and be used at one’s will. And perhaps different subject matters (in the painting) can be accentuated with different mediums and textures.” It is precisely for this reason that Yeh Jen-Kun incorporated silver foils, applied on forests and plants, in his new work from 2015, Somewhere In the Deepest Memory. The foils glitter in an understated yet brilliant fashion. The brilliance exists just like the light of planets billions of lightyears away. It shines brightly like memories that have long been buried, telling stories to those who are able to recognize the light. Yeh’s constant experiments and perpetual investigations of various mediums proves that he — beyond continuing ink and wash and gouache techniques — is also trying to amalgamate the two different textures onto one painting. In so doing, Yeh Jen-Kun, similar to the artists who have paved new roads for Eastern gouache, is both proposing questions through new lines of artistic thinking as well as seeking the answers.
“Perhaps many things are like concrete buildings. We may interfere easily but, at the same time, we would turn away and leave just as readily.” Regarding the imagery of his work, Yeh Jen-Kun mentioned the ambiguous and tangled nostalgia people experience in metropolitan areas following the modernist era. Yet, simultaneously and surprisingly, so called ‘new’ ideas are often inspired and nurtured by traditions, only then bearing the manifestation of the contemporary time.