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The Beauty of Ink: Silent Landscapes Speak Volumes

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As the curtain fell on the 2020 Chung-Shan Youth Art Awards, Taiwan’s most prestigious honour for emerging artists, the spotlight shone brightest on a fresh, new talent: Chen Shih-Hang. His ink-wash chef-d’oeuvre, Mountain of Immortals, stood out among a sea of entries and captured first place in its category.

Chen’s piece of Chinese ink painting Mountain of Immortals received the Zhongshan Award in the ink category as part of the 2020 Zhongshan Youth Art Awards, organized by the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taiwan.

Lauding Chen’s seamless integration of tradition and innovation, the judges found themselves moved by his piece. “Chen’s artistry struck a chord in a genre where respecting roots while fostering growth is a high-wire act. Ultimately, Mountain of Immortals pushed the boundaries of ink-wash painting—breathing life into a storied art form—yet honouring its legacy and ancestral spirit,” they said.

What makes Chen even more compelling is his unconventional persona. Born in the 1990s, he deviates sharply from his digitally engaged peers. Instead of immersing himself in video games or social media, Chen devotes his time to the canvas. This singular focus begs an intriguing question: What draws Chen so intensely to painting, enabling him to sidestep the distractions of our digital age?

Diving into the sublime

“Painting is not just my craft; it’s my calling,” says Chen, whose lifelong dance with ink painting began at a young age, and only intensified over the years. He finds pure joy in watching ink mix with water and seep into a sheet of white Xuan paper. This mesmerizing process evokes a magnetic fascination—each droplet of ink swirling in water becomes a celestial event, a small universe in the making.

A man of few spoken words, Chen found his voice in his art. The canvases became his sanctuary—a world where silence isn’t a shield but an eloquent storyteller, revealing layers of his hidden self.

Chen’s academic path was deliberate; he consistently chose to pursue his studies in art-focused schools, culminating in a master’s degree from the prestigious National Taiwan University of the Arts. While his peers navigated the rapid currents of the digital world, Chen anchored himself in his art, tirelessly exploring novel ways to depict the “mountains and rivers” that flow within him.

His artworks may be crafted solely in ink, but they are far from monochromatic; each piece offers a tapestry of intricate layers and a multitude of transformations. “When you blend all the colours, you get black, an all-encompassing hue,” he says.

In Chen’s hands, ink transforms into a vibrant, dynamic, ever-changing living entity. It mirrors the intricacies of the natural world, captured in hues of black, white, and gray. The result? A monochrome realm textured with mystery and ripe for endless exploration, if not a poetic invitation to wander into the transcendent.

Chen Shih-Hang’s painting Oil Pit Excursion uses layers of deep ink to create varying shades, ushering in a magnificent scene of vast mountains shrouded in mist and clouds. The intricate textures sometimes resemble rocky terrain and at other times dense foliage, conveying the mountain’s grand and powerful presence.

Reverie in silence

Engaging in a meditative dialogue with ink, Chen’s perceptions of silence and his self-identity evolved gradually over time.

“In the beginning, the silence that arose from my introverted nature seemed reserved, melancholic even, but upon introspection, it defied simple categorization. It can also signify self-assurance or inner strength,” Chen says. “What may initially seem negative often has a positive aspect, revealing the nuanced complexities of human nature.”

A quote from the ancient Chinese text Zhuangzi, “Heaven and Earth possess profound beauty yet remain silent,” has deeply resonated with Chen, leading him to embrace silence.

“Whenever I find myself in the presence of mountains and rivers, I experience a deep sense of contentment. This fulfillment primarily emanates from the divine artistry of nature, which invariably evokes wonder and a profound appreciation for its splendour.”

Chen says that this emotional reaction to the beauty of the natural world is a form of silence in itself. It’s a moment where words become inadequate, leaving one speechless and engulfed by nature’s enduring elegance.

In the depths of Chen’s consciousness, a harmonious link has formed between the realms of silence and landscapes. This profound connection reached the core of his artistic identity and inspired his signature collection, Silent Landscapes.

This revelation also gave rise to a new layer of understanding, captured in the ancient Chinese adage, “Silence is gold.” This wisdom manifested in his latest collection, which incorporates the use of Japanese gold foil paper.

In Chen’s painting, Gentleness in the Desolate Land, the audience can appreciate the delicate shimmer of the gold backdrop against the deep, inky mountains. The overall aesthetic and ambience of the piece sharply contrasts one of his earlier works, Daybreak, where a faint glimmer of light barely emerges from behind a foreboding mountain engulfed in darkness. Chen’s later work, meanwhile, exudes a tangible sense of self-confidence and a joyous spirit.

In Chen’s work Gentleness in the Desolate Land—Gateway to the Sky, each delicate texture undergoes dozens of layers of blending.

Grandiosity in detail

As Chen went on his artistic journey, he developed a distinctive style. In traditional Chinese painting, there’s a technique called dianran, which uses the tip of the brush to create minuscule dots. When layered intricately, these dots gradually merge to form expansive and majestic mountain landscapes.

Traditional ink-wash paintings, however, are typically created on Xuan paper, which doesn’t lend itself well to layering on canvas. This limitation makes it difficult to convey the deep, palpable sense of silence that Chen aims to capture.

To address this challenge, Chen pushed the boundaries of the dianran technique by reducing the size of the dots to an even finer scale, meticulously layering millions upon millions of them. This technique allows for a nuanced interplay of light and shadow—or chiaroscuro—in each area. The result is an inkwork that achieves a natural gradient effect, striking a balance between being light yet substantial, and dense without overpowering.

In Chen’s painting Observing the Mist, the varying shades of ink, layered and blended, create a majestic mountain scene amid the ethereal mist. The birds scattered in the sky bring a sense of tranquillity to the painting, as if conveying the essence of Chuang-tzu’s words, “Heaven and Earth possess great beauty, yet remain silent.”

Transcending time

Intricately crafted through a meticulous interplay of dots and shading, Chen’s paintings are a mosaic of unique patterns and textures. While this redundant and time-consuming technique often means that completing a painting takes considerable time, Chen finds the process fulfilling and meditative.

“Emotionally, time can seem to speed up considerably, even though in reality it follows its unchanging rhythm,” Chen says. During moments of joy, time may seem to fly by, while in periods of distress or anxiety, it appears to move at a snail’s pace.

Chen believes this relative perception of time can be compared to the fleeting nature of inspiration, which is but a brief spark. Once this inspiration is transformed into a tangible piece of art, it gains a lasting quality, forever immortalized in the painting.

“My vision for my Silent Landscapes series is to exist in a realm independent of a human dimension limited by clocks and calendars. In this way, the artwork can offer viewers a brief escape from the constant march of time that governs our daily lives.”

For Chen, transcending time through his art is a profound journey toward self-discovery. In solitude, he engages in a silent dialogue with the mountains, and even though these majestic peaks are themselves quiet, their overwhelming grandeur and beauty hold the power to dissipate any lingering doubts or fears.

“While it may appear that I’m painting landscapes, at a deeper level each brushstroke is also a fragment of a self-portrait, revealing aspects of my evolving self,” Chen says.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 122

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