Tuesday, May 18, 2010

‘Outsider art’

 The phantasmagorical scrolls of illiterate and eccentric self-taught painter Hung Tung, though largely forgotten today, reveal an artist with an astonishingly fertile imagination

The life of artist Hung Tung (洪通) is rich in anecdotes. One story, perhaps apocryphal, tells of a young dancer who traveled to rural Taiwan to meet the eccentric painter. Hung, though he hated visitors, agreed to admit the dancer if he could explain a poem written on the door of his shack. Knowing that the artist was illiterate, the dancer explained a poem from memory and, delighted, Hung invited him in. When the dancer walked through the door, he found a naked Hung, his penis covered in black ink, working on a scroll.
A comprehensive exhibit of Hung’s work, appropriately titled The Wild Wonders of Hung Tung (洪通的異想幻境), is currently on view until Sunday at the Taoyuan County Government Cultural Affairs Bureau.

“These are the ones he painted with his special tool,” quipped Victoria Lu (陸蓉之), one of the shows two curators, pointing at two smallish-sized works.

Though Hung’s eccentricities could give rise to many a joke (Is that a paint brush in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?), the 116 paintings on display — along with interactive displays to attract younger viewers and a section recreating part of the artist’s studio — show that this self-taught artist possessed an astonishingly fertile imagination.

Born in Tainan County in 1920, Hung came to painting late in life. Orphaned at the age of 3, he received little education and worked as a fisherman and farmer while frequenting a local Taoist temple where he performed as a spirit medium. At the age of 50, he picked up the brush and began painting.

He hit Taiwan’s art scene in 1976 when He Cheng-kuang (何政廣), editor of Artist (藝術家) magazine, mounted an exhibition of his work at the American Cultural Center. The show was an immediate success because it did what all great exhibits should do: stir up controversy.

And it wasn’t Hung’s “special tool” that caused the uproar. At a time when Taiwan’s art scene tended towards the celebration of conservative Chinese landscape painting or formal experiments with styles of Western modernism such as Impressionism, Expressionism and Surrealism, Hung’s expressively rich, though noticeably flat, folk art pictures (which he didn’t name and rarely dated) of spirits and flora, figures and fauna, shocked the literati, who seemed to prefer academic degrees attached to the names of the artists they championed (and often taught).

Today his dreamlike scrolls are usually considered under the rubric “outsider art” — an all-encompassing moniker coined in the early 1970s to cover artists not trained at institutions.

It is a controversy that continues to rage and does much to explain why this exhibit is being shown in a backwater government building, rather than at Taipei’s higher profile art galleries or museums.

In any event, to emphasize that Hung only became an artist at the age of 50 is to miss the point that he had spent much of his life working at temples where he ingested the visual language and Taoist mysticism that would inform his later scrolls.

Central to his unique vision was his role as a spirit medium, or dangki as they are known in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese). Though Hung gave up the practice, he probably believed that a deity possessed him while painting — thereby turning his paintings into talismans.

“He believed that his art possessed a kind of supernatural power. It’s not just art but building a bridge between the mundane and the otherworld,” Lu said.

In one ink-on-paper work, which forms part of a series, vague imitations for the character “month” (月) and “day” (日) appear in vertical rows, each composed with a head at the top. Above this tableau, stick figures, as though scrawled on the wall of a cave, emerge from what appears to be the character for “east” (東). As Hung grew more famous and interacted with people from the West, Roman characters began to appear in his works.

The transformative nature of his pictorial language — Chinese characters becoming heads; bodies growing out of trees — merged into spiritual figures as well. One scroll, done on red paper and resembling in style auspicious poems hung on doors during holidays, depicts a pastiche of creatures — animal, human, divine — interacting in a cosmic dialogue where the border between the spiritual and temporal worlds are erased. Another shows the tree of life (from which many human faces and figures can be discerned), growing out of a fish that rests on the head of a five-headed figure with a tail, striped in colors of pink and neon green.

It’s fitting that a dancer would be attracted to Hung’s work because his scrolls offer the viewer a visceral experience drenched in mythology that is similar to dance at its best. Surveying the paintings on display, one hopes that a gallery or museum in Taipei (or Taichung or Kaohsiung) will put aside their ivory-tower prejudices and mount as thorough a show as the one seen here so that a larger audience can observe one of Taiwan’s most original artists.

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