Bach’s Murmur: Regarding the Work of Shi-ling Chen Hsiang


There are many ways to define art, as well as many levels upon which it can be appreciated. Of course, these tastes are closely connected to one’s understanding of art; it follows that awareness of beauty, the aesthetic, goes hand in hand with appreciation of art. Imagine an artist’s scroll painted full with black ink, pierced by chance rays of white light and horizontal lines. In the distance a butterfly, perhaps, rises up. One could describe this scene in a hundred different ways; however, the description may not fit the artist’s true vision. The best way to do this is if one has a certain accord with the artist or a deep sense of the work, for in this way one will come to realize its inner essence.
Although Chinese and Western painting are quite different, in fact they are simply alternative ways of arriving at a harmony of space, time and the individual spirit. When a meeting of these ideas can be achieved, a unique state can be manifested in an artist’s work. I have recently made the acquaintance of Shi-ling Chen Hsiang, a painter residing in America. She is the kind of person who provokes a great deal of thought, and she made a deep impression in me even before I had written about her art. Her (Shi-ling Hsiang’s) character and her artwork consistently interact with each other. It is as though “As long as there is no turbulence in one’s heart, any place will be as tranquil as green mountains and water; as long as there is enlightenment in one’s character, every chance of encounter will see the leaping of fish and flight of birds.” Perhaps the revelation of Tao, the way, upon her tableau has already risen to a level of philosophical thought.
In regarding her work, one must also look at her talent and perception.
Though an anthropology major in Taiwan, Hsiang’s conceptions in art are clear. She has determinedly built up her abilities from the most basic foundations. This basic is not purely about her technical skills and style but delves deeper into the intrinsic qualities of art. These aspects that Hsiang has pursued are historical, philosophical, societal, and aesthetic. Her mind is uninhibited and allows her to have a unique grasp of the concepts of space and time. Unfettered and pure, the sources of her artistic creativity are able to merge and achieve a greater cooperation, are able to embody and express her emotion. The production of art is a result of this feeling and also of intellect, which is a manifestation of the artist’s presentation, the emanation of her aura. Hsiang’s work reveals this sort of intense spirit.
The language of her paintings seems to go beyond pure expression. The principles of Eastern philosophies far exceed the artistic symbolism she has learned in the West. Though her style may appear to be influenced by Western art — the way she blends colors, her arrangement of strokes, even the instabilities and tension of light and dark— in it liveliness, the elegant, refined Eastern temperament in her presentation of picturesque scenes is quite apparent. In the realm of her imagination, her thoughts are able to move smoothly between the past and the future, and the seeming ease of her painting to convey this sense of expansiveness achieves her goal of illustrating the expanse of time that houses her soul. More specifically, Hsiang’s concern is not merely with attaining equilibrium in her style but with the space that is inherent in the idea of time, from whence emerges the fundamental nature of art. So while she may not have adopted the attitude that emerged from Chuang-Tze’s vivid “butterfly dream”, in which he turns into a butterfly and awakes wondering if he is butterfly or man, she understands the interdependence of the individual and her world in the broader scope of the universe. Hence, in regarding the meaning and value of life, Hsiang hopes to use the image of the brightly-colored butterfly to present the selflessness and profundity of Nature. The phenomenon of joie de vivre has the ability not only to enter and leave but to transcend this movement. Some may think this is an indication of her disposition; however, even in using the most mundane, the most common objects as themes in painting, she exhibits her personal perspective.
Hsiang interprets a more symphonic vision of the butterfly, much like the serene murmuring of Bach and the melodiousness of Beethoven. She has also depicted the butterfly as a symbol of freedom and beauty. With these ideas lingering about her mind, her butterfly embodies an orchestral movement in life as well as its design. The individual and her sur-roundings are one, tranquil and luminous.
This writer has no way of proving whether one hypothesis is true or not. While Hsiang believes in art as a form of symbolism, does she perhaps further possess an unconscious “totem ideology”? Perhaps she is confessing her attitudes towards life and the extinguishing of life. In contracting and unfurling she arrives at and gains the joy of liberation, and not simply, in her words, “Each life generous and beautiful, aspirations bright and dazzling, which are solemn songs composed of the good earth: splendid odes to joy. At dusk, let the weary souls never lose faith.” Indeed, her artwork emanates from her very soul and is the release for her heart’s motivations.
Therefore, when watching her paint, one recognizes that is not merely methodical, nor does one see only the colors. There is a brilliance in her frame of mind, a freedom of shape, a sparkling liveliness and uplifting of spirit. In some of her art weighs the august steadiness of a mountain range; in others the incredible momentum of galloping horse move itself into the viewer. In the blank spaces is a vastness that draws one in to create a psychological existence. There are two elements in plastic arts: the paradox of the incompatibility and inter-twining of action and inaction, in addition to the combination of color and appearance, the fluctuations in feeling that follow a natural, innate rhythm. There is a lyricism in the art that Hsiang creates that balances the stabilities of a picturesque scene and the overwhelming emotion it invokes.
Artists are naturally pure in their creative motives, for they pursue neither fame nor profit, but an outlet for their emotions, and thus through their work they exhibit a sense of expectation. There is an old saying: “The song of bei ye tree is unhindered, the heart of the lotus is unstained.” Keeping this thought in mind as one regards Hsiang’s work, one gains a renew sensitivity. One could also say that her work possesses a lyricism which articulates the tranquility of her soul. In the clamor and hubbub of reality, unshakable confidence becomes the theme that the artist masters.
When one sees a large painting of Hsiang’s, one sees limitless hope. In distance, the past and the future, a connection is made by the gradual influence of the aesthetic. Focusing on the music of life, be it staccato or lente, will always unveil the underlying melody. Hsiang reveals the true face of life, wielding her brush across her painting with not only color but feeling. Although the philosophies she exhibit are intangible, she uses modern techniques to ground her meaning and make it clear. She possesses a confidence in the phenomenon of twentieth-century art and a grasp of the time and space of this generation.
When the painted butterfly takes its wings, it carries with it the delicate balance of life. Shi--ling Chen Hsiang’s contemporary paintings complement one’s mood, immersed as they are in the endless value of life.
Kuang-Nan Huang
National Museum of Art and History in Taiwan  Translation by Barbara Chuang

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