Schooled in the traditional Chinese Ink Painting whose artistic idioms and philosophic-theoretical discourses part of his second nature, Chen Ruo Bing moved to Düsseldorf, Germany in 1992, where he first studied European modern art and then stayed on to live and paint. A cursory survey of his bibliography reveals the typical reception of his painting in the international modern art community; it can be captured in one sentence – the possibility of fusion between two seemingly different artistic traditions of Chinese Ink Painting and Modern European Abstract Painting. In one of the many catalogue essays on Chen Ruo Bing, the artist’s unique style of painting is thus given articulation: “Chen Ruo Bing has been able to fuse his forceful brush strokes of clarity from the traditional Chinese Ink Painting with his expert “utilization of brilliant color, learned from the greatest colorist of his age in Düsseldorf, and thus create a unique personal style whose originality is unmatched in the world of modern abstract painting.” It is then not unusual to add some mention of “Taoist” influences on Chen Ruo Bing’s seemingly very modern abstract paintings of minimal kind in such terms of “Taoist of Minimalism”. Yet, none of the many writers on Chen Ruo Bing says where and how they detected the Taoist influences in the painter’s concrete art works. I cannot help but wonder if the vague references to Taoism and traditional Chinese philosophy as well as “Traditional East meets the modern West” variety of recent commentaries are not some cliché-ridden banalities.
Then, too, in the same breath, some of these writers innocently continue on to murmur something about “metaphysical inner light”, totally unaware that traditional Chinese Traditional Art rejects anything metaphysical (metaphysical as it is commonly understood in Western Philosophical parlance). It is as if they have not heard of François Jullien’s many writings on Chinese philosophy in the past decade in which he so skillfully delineates the stark differences in their philosophical dispositions and in the drawings of their respective world pictures. (Cf. François Jullien, PROPENSITY OF THINGS; THE IMPOSSIBLE NUDE; IN PRAISE OF BLANDNESS, among other books by the same author, are recommended.)
Yes, one can perceive something that can only be captured as “inner light” emanating from somewhere deep inside Chen Ruo Bing’s picture space, but it is not a “metaphysical inner light”. Nor does it make sense to talk about “Taoism of Minimalism” just because of some perceived minimalist orientation by both the Taoists and the Minimalist Artists, totally ignoring the historical context of Western Modern Art in which the so-called “minimal art” had its beginning. In the course of this short piece on Chen Ruo Bing, I propose at least to dispose of the above two misunderstandings about Chen Ruo Bing’s paintings.
As François Jullien points out with such forceful clarity in his brilliant essays on Chinese Art in such books as IN PRAISE OF BLANDNESS or THE IMPOSSIBLE NUDE, it is not TRANSCENDANCE but IMMANENCE which is the effect the traditional Chinese Artists strive for in their art works. The Chinese had no use for the metaphysical postulation of some Ideal types of abstract and formal kind, whether in the name of ideal beauty or absolute truth. There’s no place for such metaphysical beasts in their world view. What is surprising (and is a mark of genius) in Chen Ruo Bing paintings is that he is able to achieve what appears to be totally abstract modern painting while faithfully adhering to the spiritual core of the traditional Chinese Art of Ink Painting. (It is also wrong to talk about traditional Chinese Aesthetics, as the idea of “Aesthetics” as it is understood in Western philosophical discourses do not exist within the realm of traditional Chinese thinking about Art and life, again as Jullien’s brilliant expositions on the subject.)
About the so-called Metaphysical Inner Light:, Where does it come from and how does the artist achieve this mysterious painterly effect in his paintings? I propose to explain this effect in reference to a still very much unknown ancient East Asian philosophical thought. (In a surprising way, East Asia is an unexplored and unexploited reservoir of philosophical and scientific thoughts, many of which had been forcefully suppressed. What we know as East Asian History of Ideas today may be only the bare minimum, whereas the wisdom from the period before there was an entity called “Chinese Empire” made its historical appearance is still very much under the veil. As Western Renaissance was the discovery and revival of the Ancient Greek civilization, the discovery and revival of the Ancient Northeast Asian philosophical thoughts are still waiting to happen.) In an ancient text called “Budoji” (which predates the Taoist Cannon by many centuries), there’s a kind of “Oriental” theory of math and physics about the fundamental building blocks of the universe; in their theory, it is LIGHT, with it particle and wave duality, Before there was anything at all, it all began with the Light filling the vacuum, the state of nothingness. However, Oriental Cosmology rejects the dichotomy between Presence and Non-Presence, between Being and Nothingness. When they say it is empty, it is still filled with Chi-Energy. Thus, empty space is not a special context for the Presences (what there is) but is itself filled with Chi-energy, invisible but not a non-presence, meaning that the invisible something is still there as a presence.
Even in the Old Testament, in its part on Genesis, the process of the creation of the world of matter and living forms begins with the Light. Everything began with the Light, when the light with its dual aspects of wave and particle filled the universe. Light particles filling what was just dark, amorphous emptiness filled with invisible chi-energy field, (likewise in modern physics, we know that emptiness is not just vacuum, it is in fact filled with positrons and electrons, canceling out each other), interacting with the dark matter, create movement in oscillations. It is the variety of different wave movements (which began to create concrete rhythmic pulsations) and sound (not yet audible sound but invisible and inaudible waves with some characteristic frequencies and wave length). In Budoji, it is called the fusion of Light (“Vyt”) with “Dot” (the Chi-energy field). Before the Light began to impinge on it and begin some initial Interaction, the Chi-energy field which filled the vacuum was nothing other than the Potential Force filed of the Chi-energy. The light particles in wave motion created RESONANCES with the Chi-energy waves and created INAUDIBLE SOUND PATTERNS. From this inaudible sound patterns were created concrete material forms, or matter in formal differentiation. (Thus the Chinese 形 was created.) Is the wave movement of oscillation (or pulsation) which is responsible for further creation of all sorts of material forms (including life forms), each of which is unique in that each has its own characteristic wave length and frequency, uniquely branding it as this particular “being”. (Note: Park Jesang, BUDOJI, in Korean translation by Kim Eunsoo, Hanmunhua Publishing Co, Seoul, Korea, 1986)
Notice that Chen Ruo Bing begins with a uniformly stained color field of this or that particular color on the canvas. This or that particular color is a result of refraction of Light by this particular material coating for that specific purpose. On this field of this particular materiality, enabling only a specified range of Light spectrum to vibrate in continuous motion, the Artist inject several minimal number of brush strokes of calculated force and directionality, thus creating a resonance against the color field of potential force. There is a resonance as a result of actual force (in the form of brush strokes in a particularly calculated configuration and directionality) impinging on the potential force field in the stained color field of only certain wave length within the spectrum of Light. This resonance between the actual and the potential forces (the forces are nothing other than a certain chi-energy waves of certain frequency and wave length) creates a new wave movement, a new pulsation, a new silent music, if you will. It is this silent music or new pulsation which emanate, seemingly, from somewhere deep inside Chen’s picture space, which the artist calls “inner light”. Notice that it has nothing to do with transcendence; it is a result of Immanence from the natural sources. There’s nothing metaphysical about this inner light.
It is perhaps allowed to re-emphasize that it is not at all necessary to resort to the concepts of “形而上” or “形而下”(from which the Chinese critic’s usual interpretation of this term) to judiciously explain Chen’s ART. Rather, it is the concept of the “非形”(what is without shape) as “非可視”(invisible) and that which is shaped as visible “可視”). I believe that it is possible explain the “inner light” in Chen’s Painting without any recourse to such vague ideas as “形而上”(the metaphysical). The inner light in the painting is not some optical light which is visible to the eyes. Rather, it is INVISIBLE pulsation, a movement, engendered by brushstrokes (劃) onto the color field of certain stained pigmentation (hence a concrete materiality) and create a RESONANCE, a movement of pulsation, a RYTHMIC MOVEMENT. So, what Chen does is to create silent music, not audible to your ears, but yet it is ACTUALLY THERE as invisible WAVE MOTION OF THE CHI-ENERGY PATTERNS. Because it is really there, and is felt, one is prone to say that it is LIGHT EMATING FROM INSIDE, WHEN IN FACT IT IS SOMETHING MORE IMPORTANT, WHILE INVISIBLE.
That is why, to repeat, it is IMMANENCE, emanating from the NATURAL SOURCES (neither 形而上 nor 形而下).
It’s been noted “Rothko-esque glow in Chen’s color field paintings”. The comparison is yet another superficial nonsense. Whereas Rothko’s abstract expressionist painting is a historical accident within the historical dialectic of the Western history of art on its way to the “End of Art”, Chen Ruo Bing paintings have a much more solid reason for being, fully sustained by a viable Northeast Asian philosophical world view, his kind of art surely having a place within its architectonic. (Here, I call attention of a similar comparison François Jullien made between a seemingly similar poetic effects of “detachment, blandness”, in both Verlaine and Soh Dongpo (蘇東波). In Verlaine’s poetry, the quietism of senses in his apprehension of the world at a moment of absence/presence, thus rendering the world as less determined, Verlaine achieves the effects of detachment and/or blandness. Yet, “this penchant of sensibility cannot lead to any foundational realization” in the case of Verlaine. Bland taste in Verlaine becomes merely “bittersweet”, “artificial pleasure”, thus becoming merely an “irritating provocation”. For Verlaine’s blandness cannot anchor itself in any fundamental NEUTRALITY and experience (the center of Tao in Chinese terminologies). In contrast, in Chinese blandness, “it is the allure of plentitude that of totality not yet divided; hence, it acquires its depth and richness from what was and is no longer – and not from is in virtuality (as in Verlaine) before dissipating itself in actualization”. See, pp 140 – 142, François Jullien, IN PRIASE OF BLANDNESS. )
While using materials from Western Art-making such as the canvases, oil paints, etc, Chen Ruo Bing found a way to open up a new site in which to give artistic articulation of the Northeast Asian spiritual pursuit of Painting. He is doing traditional Northeast Asian Art using new material bases of the Western Art World. What he does is neither Minimal Art nor Abstract Expressionist Art. He is merely continuing the traditional Chinese Art, with its philosophy and spirit preserved intact, in a new garb and new material bases. It is something that no artist, operating from within the historical context of Western modern art, can possibly match. He does have predecessors in this regard, even though he may not have known them and their works. Several modern Korean painters, Yun Hyonggeun in particular, have done paintings which have the look of Western abstract modern art and yet the spiritual and philosophical (I am being carefully not to say “aesthetic” as well, as the Chinese reject the notion of “aesthetics” as the term is understood in the West) sources of their Art is totally Oriental and not Western at all. If my explanation is correct, Chen is doing something very remarkable, something no one has done, neither in Western Art History nor in Eastern Art History. I believe the recently deceased Korean artist, Yun Hyonggeun did something similar, but in a different style. Both, Mr. Yun and Chen Ruo Bing are trailblazing an absolutely NEW ARTISTIC HORIZON.