An artist’s career is a vision quest, answering to a calling, making his mark by creating series of works that becomes a treasure map of discovering beauty, mystery, human connections, spiritual awakenings. Going through the different phases of Joseph Synn Kune Loh’s art is like seeing a documentary of his creative life through entering a private collection unveiling its hidden treasures.
He began his journey by doing graduate study in psychology at Queen’s University in the 1970s. After a trip to Paris, inspired by what he saw in the museums and galleries, propelled by an awakening experience, he made a leap into the unknown, leaving Queen’s to study at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. He called that period of his life as going from “searching in the dark” to “seeking the light,” which became the hallmark of his work.
Influenced by Morris Louis and Paul Jenkins, Loh’s first series had only five “monochromatic” paintings. The technique was pouring paint over unprimed canvas to capture a moment in time as a form or a shape.
Not satisfied by the accidental nature of the technique, becoming more skilled in controlling the medium, he began an exploration of a theme that was most common to young Chinese artists of his time – searching for a contemporary interpretation of classical Chinese landscape paintings.
He went to Cleveland, Ohio to see a touring exhibition of Chinese landscape art. There he saw the Northern Song Dynasty’s artist Fan Kuan’s Traveling through the Autumn Mountain. He was completely taken aback by its scope, vision and beauty. He told his friends, “I have seen the light.” What followed was the beginning of a life-long relationship of making contemporary landscape paintings through abstract expressionism. His signature was first creating texture on canvas, followed by pouring paint to reveal the shapes, finally using the brush to render images of mountains and rock formations; flowing elements became streams and water falls. This series of paintings is best captured by a poem he wrote.
where the mountain meets the sky.
and watch the sun rise.
Upon the clouds, angels keep watch,
crystalline thoughts of changing sights and sounds.
You enter my mountain temple,
invisible laughters catching fallen metals.
As I gaze upon your heart’s secret meadow,
the golden vision reappears.
Love is a rushing stream of life,
giving birth to the jade gardens in the rolling hills.
You can come to my house,
in the shadow of running water.
I’ll serve you tea in the cool shade.
We’ll share a tale of the distances we traveled.
Yonder lies a field of yellow flowers,
and a pond of the purest spring.
As we ponder our reflections,
crimson stars ascend on the far horizon.
Another day is drawing to a close,
the silence in our hearts know.
We are the beauty
that place the flowers on the hills.
Joseph Synn Kune Loh moved from Toronto to live in Vancouver in 1991. For the next
decade, he was on a vision quest to find out what spirituality is for him.
He travelled extensively in Mexico. He went to 22 pyramids and made seven
trips to a sacred site called The Luminarias. He spoke in international
conferences on recovering keys from Ancient China and along the way he was
invited to be a guest speaker for the Sivananda Yoga organization. His
paintings in this period were mostly about pyramids, galactic frequency and
Buddha forms. He also wrote what he called “poetic compositions,” combining
poetry with guitar music that he composed.
In 2010, he went back to painting a new series. He took up where he left off and made 40 abstract paintings using the seven criteria – space, color, shapes such as triangles, circles and shapes, lines and dots. Two more exhibitions followed. The theme was “molecular language,” decoding the Chinese written words into abstract art.
When asked about his future as an artist, he answered, “Make drawings on the theme of “interiors”. He has written a book of poetry, titled A journey to Camatkara. A second book, Ping Pong, Parkinson’s and the Art of Staying in the Game, will be published in the early part of 2018. He has two more writing projects on the go. He told his friends, “I am finally living my dream as an artist.”
– Joseph Synn Kune Loh 2017
Joseph Synn Kune Loh – Artist Statement 2017
I took up drawings in the early 1980s. “Why?” friends asked me. I answered, “I am out of money but not out of hope.” I had given up my Niagara Street warehouse studio and channeled my energy to make a series of drawings I called Still Alive. I was under the influence of Mrs. Gadatsy’s drawings at the Gadatsy Gallery in Toronto. I found a new expression. I told friends that my drawings were about elevating the mundane. Drawing is an inward journey, very different from paintings where every action is coming out from the inside and going out into the world. The Gadatsy Gallery closed in 1979. I had three drawing exhibitions in the 1980’s in Gallery Eighties. The three themes, Tennis Balls, Faceless Citizens, Still Alive, were all well received, especially the drawing titled Six Tennis Balls, where I copied the placement of a classical zen painting called Six Persimmons.
In the mid 1980s, I went back to make a series of paintings called Plato’s Caves based on the inquiry of “What is reality?” They were done in action painting fashion. The result was completely different from my abstract landscapes. Figures seemed to have risen from the subconscious seeking the light. Three paintings from this series were chosen to be in a show in Chicago. One was collected by the Leonard Bernstein Foundation from the American Conservatory of Music.
In the late 1980s, I went to teach art at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chong Qing, China. I paid a visit to a Buddhist Grotto called Da Ju (Dazu Rock Carvings) where I had a spiritual experience, a form of awakening to have a glimpse to what it meant – “All sentient beings have the potential to be awakened”. Over centuries, anonymous monk artists came to Da Ju (Dazu) to carve Buddha statues out of the rock formations. I began to see Buddha forms everywhere. After my return to Canada, I could not help myself from seeing Buddha forms in my landscapes. Coupled with another experience where I accidentally memorized the “Heart Sutra,” a Buddhist teaching, I began to make paintings with Buddha forms, and sometimes copying the Heart Sutra onto the paintings.
在這裏要提另一位美國的抽象表現主義藝術家路易斯（Morris Louis 1912-62）。路易斯的作品屬於抽象表現主義中的一個門類色塊抽象（color field painting）。路易斯喜歡將大量顏料撥在畫布上面，然後晃動畫布，讓顏料自由地流動，形成一種隨機的色塊效果。羅很喜歡路易斯的創作過程，不少作品受到路易斯的影響。如果說藝術創作有動機的話，那麽動機就是要突破你所喜歡的藝術。羅嘗試用手指在顏料上輔助一下顏料的流動，形成自己想要的抽象效果。於是，你可以見到他的畫中，在抽象中突然出現了具象，有了一條明顯的小溪。這是對藝術史的把玩。
羅談自己的作品時，總是強調無意識的抽象畫中，會得到一些必然的視覺效果。他說，有人在《洞穴》系列畫中看到人臉、看到怪獸等等。在另兩幅組畫《Falls the Shadow》(1984) ，看上去像是隨意塗抹的色彩抽象畫，但隱約可以看出中國山水畫的布景。這當然與豐富的筆劃有關、與觀眾試圖要在抽象畫中看出具體形象的心理慾望有關。羅的抽象暗含具象的做法，滿足了這些想像。這些想像因不同人而變化，於是他的畫似乎有種轉型的功能，石頭可以變成怪獸。比羅早幾十年的加拿大藝術家Jack Shadbolt，喜歡畫蝴蝶之類的畫，專注於那破螢而出的瞬間、生命的轉型、詩意的旋律。在畫的精神層面及形式上，羅的作品與Shadbolt有些許聯係。
羅在這條現代主義的思想脈絡裏越走越深，直到他創作了自己最滿意的一組畫《Linear Progression 》（2012）。這組畫共有11幅，畫面全部由不同顏色的幾何形體構成。畫面色彩及形態迥異卻又平衡合理結合在一起，似乎是某種代碼，暗藏玄機。仔細看時，就能看出規律來。每幅畫都有一條垂直的直線，將每幅畫劃分為左右兩個部分。羅在這裏玩了數字遊戲。從第一幅畫至第十一幅畫，你會發現左邊的部分在不斷擴大，從一寸擴大到十寸，而右邊的部分則在縮小。羅最滿意這組畫，他說這組畫「無中生有（making something out of nothing）。」不論東方還是西方的繪畫傳統裏，畫都要有一個參照物。比如有風景的存在，才有了風景畫。在Piet Mondrian的西方現代主義的極端探索中，畫被回原到最基本最原始的構成單位，參照物不是很直觀，但仍然是存在的。參照物就是籠統的造型藝術。在Piet 這些極端的現代主義藝術家那裏，事物被解構到了盡頭。分子和單細胞也是解構的盡頭，無法再繼續再做減法了。現代主義似乎到盡頭了。但羅還要繼續往前走。這些極小的基本的元素，他們來自哪裏？它們的存在的狀態會不會來自於一種「無」的狀態呢？就如《道德經》所講，無生有，有生成物。會不會像宇宙黑洞一樣，是沒有東西，但宇宙卻誕生於其間？這種宇宙的神秘密碼，是我們人類所無法知道的。在藝術上能做的，就是把密碼當作密碼表現出來。羅所創作的這組畫的含義，存在於每幅畫之間的數學關係。這層關係讓我們感受到「有」意義。但實際上，每幅畫本身並沒有任何參照物。由此，我們可以得到「無」中生「有」了。如果Piet Mondrian活在現在，他會拍拍羅的肩膀說，老兄，你真有一套！
羅在2015年創作的組畫標題很長，叫做《在想像與實際之間的可能性區域》（Realm of Possibilities Between Imagination and Actuality）。曾在大溫哥華中華文化中心展出。此次在力邦美術館展出了該組畫的第一張《重新書寫自然》（Rewriting Nature）。這幅丙烯顏料畫由三個平面構成，左右兩個平面是黃色，中間為黑色；每個平面裏都有一個小長方形；每個長方形體內都有些圖案、暗藏乾坤。這畫的創作思考方向及表現形式是上文提到的「回歸事物本初」這種現代主義探索的延續。羅在向我介紹這幅畫時，就提到《道德經》所講的「道生一，一生二，二生三，三生萬物」。畫的布局就是根據《道德經》。如果說羅已經把本初的探索進行到底，探索到了「無」的境地，那麽羅的現代主義就到了絕對的終點了，不應該再畫這些了，應該換條思路畫別的了。為什麼還要畫這組畫呢？