Essays on Art by Hugh Moss

Levels of Abstraction

Edited by Sean Geer
9 February 2021


In the introduction to these essays (4 February 2021) I raised the issue of the confusion arising out of applying locally focused beliefs about art to other cultures, one of the root causes of the present confusion in the art world. This has led to a series of weasel words; those words that in one culture convey a well-understood concept without confusion, but become misleading at best when exported to another culture. Many words have different meanings when seen from alternative cultural perspectives, often to the point where the same word encodes contradictory concepts. A good example is the word 'enlightenment.' In eighteenth-century Europe, with its entrenched intellectual view of the world, it was understood to represent the final triumph of the rational, reasoning faculties of mind. In the Far East, enlightenment meant quite the opposite from the Buddhist and Daoist perspective; the transcending of the intellect to directly experience an undifferentiated way of knowing.

We'll explore modes of consciousness further in later essays. Suffice it here to state that the two ways of knowing may be incompatible, since it is not possible to be fully involved in them simultaneously; but they are nonetheless complementary. The theory I propose suggests that only by making full use of both, and integrating the bounty of intellect with the perspective of the trans-intellectual way of knowing, can we find a way forward in fulfilling the real promise of human consciousness. This seems to me to be our only hope of rising above a great deal of angst and delusion; particularly that of the harm caused by granting our intellects autonomy and, thereby, tyranny. Too great a reliance on our intellectual interpretations has led to our greatest existential threat – conflicting ideologies in both religion and political philosophy.

The intellect may indeed be our most valuable tool for interpreting meaning, but we can never experience the entire bandwidth of meaning with it. One way that we deal with this is by capitalising words to indicate their different meaning in the intellectual and transcendent realms. This is not a new idea, of course; we do it routinely in monotheistic cultures by capitalising the transcendent concept of 'God', while demoting all other ancient 'gods' to a lower-case designation.

So far, so self-evident. But weasel words are often far more insidious than this well-understood example suggests. In the art world, one of the main culprits is 'abstract.' In the Western understanding of visual art, it means something that has no figurative, mimetic content, relying instead upon the inner languages of line, form, colour and texture – and, underlying those, the powerful language of confidence – in order to communicate meaning. In the West, we have determined that something is either abstract or it is not; it is a straightforward binary choice, of the kind that is always preferred by the intellect. In the West, it is used primarily as a term based upon the immediate surface of the physical work of art. At least as importantly, it also signals (and perhaps even demands) the audience's appropriate response – it tells us that we should see it as a product of the modern revolution, and thus a doorway to a different mode of perception.

All serious art is abstract at some level but to understand that we rely upon words and words can be misleading. They are handy, civilization depends upon them, but also get in the way if you take them too seriously. Words are a tool of consciousness.

In Art, abstraction represents essence, inner, esoteric meaning capable of being expressed beyond words, which increasingly stumble and fail in the face of profundity.

Given the maturity of Chinese art, with its abstraction powerfully expressed within surface subject matter, combined with and the effectiveness of the handscroll format, an obvious trans-cultural experiment awaits: the abstract handscroll. The possibilities of abandoning surface subject matter to deal with abstraction, the modern western inclination, has intrigued me for some time. But each time, I find that however many purely abstract layers I add, and however effective they are as isolated, surface abstraction - as part of the process - they tend to end up looking like something. This helps to keep specific intention at bay during the purely abstract layers, but the inevitable end result suggests that the Chinese approach to inner abstraction has long since perfected the union of all the languages of art making it difficult to impose the western urge towards fragmentation in search of meaning.

In Chinese art, this binary, object-based definition is a barrier rather than a doorway, an impediment to understanding the art at any depth. That's because it is an inherently intellectual construct; part of the intellect's insistence on fragmenting reality, by separating and labelling every aspect of self and environment so that we can manage and process the vast amount of information our physical worlds contain. This is a crucial role for the intellect. Without it, we would lack any kind of context and perspective. But such fragmentary modes of understanding are extremely limited. Even in considering what lies beyond itself, the intellect can still only do so by separating and naming. It cannot incorporate or describe the entire bandwidth of consciousness with such restrictive tools; it is a means, not an end. The implications of this will become clearer when we explore these two ways of knowing in greater depth (see The Riven Reality of Consciousness).

The binary distinction between abstraction and figuration has a long cultural history. The western dominance of the intellect arose from the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean in the two millennia BCE, coalescing in Greece at the height of its regional power in the first millennium. Its spread westward over the following millennia created a distinctive perspective, a cultural bias which differed in a number of key respects from that of China (to all intents and purposes, the epitome of the Far Eastern perspective). That intellectual bias still governs in the West, while in China a trans-intellectual bias has prevailed since long before Aristotle and Socrates set us on the path to reason (it's worth noting here that I intend no pejorative implications by using the word 'bias'). Western cultures thus defined artistic abstraction as a surface and binary issue, in keeping with the intellect's demands; it was the natural, inevitable thing for intellectual minds to do.

In China, though, everything was seen as part of a higher order; surface distinctions meant less, just one aspect of an undifferentiated whole. That's not to say that abstraction had no place in Chinese art; it was simply not where a Western mind might expect it to be. In calligraphy and painting, for example, both elevated to high-art status, focus was traditionally on the inner languages. As these two art forms became fully mature, Chinese abstraction shifted to those inner languages and was expressed through form, line, colour and texture – without the need to abandon subject matter. That approach, in which abstraction and depiction co-exist happily, was equally natural and inevitable to the Chinese.

Calligraphy provides especially striking examples of this phenomenon. Its practitioners have long made a clear distinction between lexical and spiritual meaning; calligraphers could write out the same famous texts over and over again for millennia and each could be entirely fresh, because the focus was not on the meaning of the texts themselves but on the meaning of the way they were written. Equally, Chinese artists were perfectly comfortable evolving perception and expression without having to change subject matter or surface symbolism. When they did occasionally change it – for example, when invading Mongols ruled China as the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) – it was considered not an artistic achievement but a moral one. The introduction of subjects served as hidden criticism of the invaders and their rule, and of those native Chinese who served them. This is why landscape became one of the permanent, and permanently satisfying, primary vehicles to convey more esoteric, inner meaning. The range of possible forms for landscapes were widely flexible, allowing full rein of form, line, colour and texture. And it was in these inner languages that abstraction was expressed. For the syncretic Chinese mind to have abandoned subject matter in order to explore the inner languages of visual art, or to isolate them in order to do so, would have seemed as pointless as deciding which leg to walk on.

In the West, exploring the inner languages without isolating them to some extent wasn't even considered as an option. To have painted entirely abstract paintings within figurative subject matter did not, could not, occur to western artists until the revolution was nearing its goal and the broader implications of what was happening began to surface. When western viewers first encountered Chinese landscape, unaware of the power invested in these more esoteric, inner languages, they failed to see past it to the real art; they were too busy looking at subject matter. The paintings looked boringly similar, and the levels at which dynamic, individual innovation existed were seemingly invisible. Only once we understand art from the Chinese cultural perspective can we see them for what they really are, and step beyond the barrier of subject matter to revel in some of the most advanced, sophisticated and meaningful art the world has so far produced. Only then we can begin to recognise the excitement and the modernity in centuries-old paintings.

Once this is grasped, of course, it also frees us to see classical western painting in a different, more sophisticated light and discover new inner realms of meaning. We can even begin to see hints of a shift to abstraction within figuration in some of them, endorsing further the potential for the creative input of the audience in process-based aesthetics (see Introduction). One such hint can be found in three works by Thomas Gainsborough, where we can see mimetic depiction of folding cloth shifting to expressionistic depiction.

The Blue Boy Gainsborough
Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, 1770.
Huntington Library, Art Museum.

The Blue Boy is perhaps Gainsborough's most famous painting. Here, the way the wrinkled cloth of his outfit is painted is mimetic; an attempt to perfectly represent distressed textile. It was painted in about 1770 in the seventeenth century style, as a homage to Anthony Van Dyck. Two other paintings by the same artist, also of youths in similar blue outfits, exhibit more expressive brushstrokes to the same end.

The blue page, by Thomas Gainsborough
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). The Blue Page,
Formerly in the A Alfred Taubman collection.

For many years,art historians believed The Blue Page to be a preparatory sketch for The Blue Boy, but it is now believed to have been painted about a year later. Here, you can see clearly how Gainsborough treats the wrinkled clothing in a rather more abstract-expressive manner, as mimesis gives way to expressive brushwork.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Edward Richard Gardiner
Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788). Edward Richard Gardiner.
The Tate Gallery.

Finally, in his portrait of Edward Richard Gardiner (now in the Tate Gallery), we also see more expressive brushwork. All are figurative paintings, but the second two rely on greater abstraction in the means of depiction.

In Western art, such brushwork in traditional paintings may be the exception rather than the rule, but these examples give us an early glimpse of the emancipation of the inner languages that burst into western art more noticeably a century or so later. In Chinese painting, this emancipation of the inner languages to act as independent expression was fully realised centuries earlier, a fact of great significance to any consideration of abstraction in global art.

It's worth saying at this point that none of what I propose denigrates in any way the traditional or modern art of the West. It does, though, call into question both the socio-cultural bias that inevitably constrains artists (and therefore art with rules that governed it) and our still inadequate theory of art. Artists do what artists do; the best do it brilliantly, inspiringly and regardless of constraining rules, with dazzling, visionary capacity. An ancient western painting of a religious subject can still inspire a spiritual response in a modern audience – even an audience of atheists – despite the original focus on inspiring specific, monotheistic meaning. (If you doubt this, consider how you felt the last time you entered one of Europe's great cathedrals). Once we shift to process-based aesthetics, all art is capable of rising to more esoteric, ineffable, spiritual meaning; regardless of any original, specific, socio-cultural intent. It reveals the great advantages of fully including the audience in the process, and allowing that the process as art is evolving. Once we recognise this, we can understand that while the art object doesn't change (unless we add something to it, as in the Chinese tradition) our perception of it does, often radically. In process-based aesthetics, reliance upon the low-level issue of what specific propaganda the artist intended to convey to whichever target audience is replaced by a more subtle form of propaganda – one in favour of efficiently evolving consciousness.

What we saw as hints in the Gainsborough paintings, we can now explore as revealed wonder in a series of modern Chinese paintings from the Chinese ink-painting tradition. Among much else, they vividly demonstrate the idea that both artists and audiences can focus attention on multiple languages, without the need to reject any of them. It is simply a more syncretic approach; one that removes the distorting lens of intellectual constraints. This is not to demean either intellect or analytical process; instead, it is designed to put it into perspective. Now we have an approach that remains a valuable means of understanding art at an intellectual level, but removes all the constraints of intellectual tyranny in doing so.

Click on the images below, or the link below each one, to see higher resolution photographs that can be enlarged to isolate various sections. This can be revealing for two reasons. The first is it focuses attention on the inner languages; we can follow form, line, colour and texture in their quasi-independent existence within the subject matter. Secondly, it encourages audience participation and creativity in the process, by selecting sections of the painting and gaining greater insight into these inner languages. Quite apart from anything else, it encourages you to join the creative process by isolating your own compositions for consideration; you get to compose your own paintings without the need for any painterly skills.

Wang Jiqian
Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang 1907-2003). Landscape 888. 1985.
93.4 x 62.7 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.994)

In this painting from 1985, C. C. Wang is in total control of the integration of the various languages of visual art without the need to isolate or draw specific attention to any of them. The relatively random initial markings, printed from separate crumpled sheet of paper dipped in ink – a method he invented – are perfectly integrated with the landscape imagery. This does not represent any particular landscape, but allows the play of the inner languages of form, line, colour (shades of ink are considered colours in Chinese painting), and texture. It is a question of attention and focus, both for artist and audience. In creating this painting, C. C takes a lifetime of understanding mountainous scenery and uses it to express, initially, a formal concern. The various peaks – some light some dark, some small some large – represent an abstract, formal exercise. This is accentuated by the addition of some small, readable details such as trees and other foliage, and by random ink markings in various ink tones.

So perfectly is the brushwork integrated with random markings that they become almost invisible, other than in obvious details such as the tree and houses. But they are there nonetheless. Brushwork does not just include specific, easily recognised, calligraphic lines; it also includes washes painted with a larger brush, which are an important formal element here. The same confident, calligraphic dance of the brush is found no less in those than in the drawing of the trees, and the linear outlining of some elements of the landscape. The varied ink tones as colours are readily recognised, and the texture is built up by the initial random markings, in varying tones applied separately and further enhanced by equally well-integrated markings made by the brush.

When aesthetic depth in visual art is truly profound, the audience finds a response in deepening personal perception and self-realization. As you understand more, the painting has the depth to offer more. That is the inner language of sagacity in art. With shallower meaning conveyed by a painting, the creative viewer will reach a point where there are no further depths to plumb. That is when you lose interest in one work of art, and focus on another as part of the overall process of self-realisation. As a collector, that is when you dispose of one painting, and acquire something more meaningful; as a viewer, it is when you shift your attention from one work or one artist to another.


Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975). Shoushan ('Longevity Mountain')
Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975). Shoushan ('Longevity Mountain') 1972.
153 x 82.5 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.40)

Lui Shoukwan was one of the most influential of those artists in the ink-painting tradition who lived outside of mainland China. As a teacher in Hong Kong, he influenced a whole generation of local artists. His early training involved studying ancient masters and becoming proficient in their styles, but he ended up producing more and more abstract works, even in a western sense; some of his later works might almost have been produced in America in the mid-twentieth century. What is important to grasp, however, is that he didn't arrive at this point by following any western surface innovations. He arrived at it by refining the inner-abstraction potential of his own tradition. He never abandoned subject matter; instead, he simply essentialised it. The conformity with modern western abstraction is a result of two cultures arriving at a similar point from different directions. This is the aesthetic equivalent of what is known in the animal/plant kingdom as convergent evolution. There is no copying here, no outside influence of any significance in arriving at a similar point. His late works were utterly authentic at every level.

As a teacher, in order to get his ideas across to his numerous students, he would often paint teaching scrolls to demonstrate his theoretical ideas. Shoushan is one of them, and the didactic inscription describes how Chinese paintings are made up of lines and washes or dots. Here he exaggerates their use in order to make his point. Again, these are fully integrated with the landscape as subject matter. None of his teaching scrolls are simply sketchy demonstrations done in the classroom; each is a fully finished painting, done mostly in his studio, and they are among his masterpieces.


Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975). Fruiting Branches (also known as Loquats)
Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975). Fruiting Branches (also known as Loquats). 1965.
45 x 46.5 cm. Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection. (21.1.56)

Lui's more abstract style arose from a series of paintings of Hong Kong and environs in the 1960s, when he began to combine boldly calligraphic brushwork with details to suggest specific subject matter. They were mostly landscapes; many, reflecting the geography of Hong Kong, are waterside scenes. Many of them were quite small, and represented an experimental phase involving a combination of the real world, calligraphic markings, and abstraction. Among them was a small group of flora, one of them Fruiting Branches. Enlarging the black leaves reveals Lui's control of ink density to subtly vary and separate the leaves. To achieve this the brush is loaded with watered ink before dipping part of it into undiluted ink.


Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975). Lotus. 1971
Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975). Lotus. 1971. 152 x 83 cm
Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection. (21.1.1526)

Lui was a Buddhist with chan (zen) focus, and from the late 1960s until his untimely death from a heart-attack in 1975, his paintings reflect an inner search for the transformation of consciousness at the heart of Buddhism. He did a series of paintings of various themes associated with this, mostly based on the lotus with its Buddhist symbolism but also of other themes, including the famous conundrum of Zhuangzi and the butterfly – when the famous Daoist mystic after dreaming he was a butterfly, pondered whether, instead, the butterfly might now be dreaming of being him.

There were two main groups, which we can conveniently divide into dry and wet chan paintings. The latter offers far greater textural range. The absorbent xuan paper beloved of Chinese artists becomes sized with every layer of ink applied, and wet ink on the paper can leave a dark marking, surrounded by a somewhat unpredictable spreading haloof water offering further textural effects. Even plain water sizes the paper to some extent; so by splashing or otherwise marking the paper just with water and then adding washes of ink over them, a range of fascinating textures arise that vary with the extent to which the water is allowed to dry first. This painting from 1971 is an earlier example of his experiments with the wet variety. The subject matter is obvious here but becomes less so in some later works, including the next.


Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975) Chan Lotus
Lui Shoukwan (1919-1975) Chan Lotus. 1974.
248 x 124 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.1457)

Made close to the end of his life, this painting is one of the more essentialised versions of the lotus. It was created with a more sophisticated use of the wet technique, where the underlying texturing is augmented by a dynamic series of black splashes as an upper layer. Earlier versions of the essentialisation of lotus used flower, leaves and stems more obviously; here the whole idea is simplified to two geometric dark shapes to represent the leaves, and a single bud the flower. At some time in his last years, he acquired some very large single sheets of paper and produced a series of some of his finest later works on them. Several groups of these remained unmounted, rolled up in his studio until his death; he was unwilling to go to the expense of mounting large numbers of often large paintings at a time when these works were not widely appreciated or much valued. One group of 83 works of varying sizes were contained in an oil-skin paper wrapper, and designated by him with a felt-tip pen as his best works from 1969-1975. This work was one of 15 of this largest size amongst them.


Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006). Deep Autumn. 1974
Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006). Deep Autumn. 1974, with additions in 1977.

93 x 91.5 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.674)

Fang Zhaoling was one of the artists I spent most time with, in her studios in Hong Kong and London. As her global agent for many years I frequently visited both, often watching her paint for long periods of time and occasionally doing joint works with her. I listened intently as she explained to me her ideas on art, and her perception of what she was involved in.

In addition to her mastery of painting she was also one of the great calligraphers of the modern era, and her focus on calligraphic brushwork is obvious in all her mature works. The expressionistic markings in Deep Autumn speak for themselves and closely resemble works by abstract expressionists in the west – although again, arrived at by a different route. She once explained to me that while she was impressed by the creativity of Picasso and other modern western artists, she didn't see anything radically new in what they were doing as similar ideas had been explored in the Chinese tradition for centuries. She found the sophistication of her native tradition more satisfying. It was this idea which she explained to me in the early 1970s; an idea which helped pique my interest in understanding the true nature of the Chinese ink painting tradition, and which ultimately set me on the road to reconsidering established art theory.


Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006). Returning Athletes,1984
Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006). Returning Athletes,1984.
179.5 x 96.5 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.1033)

Fang Zhaoling was brought up in Wuxi in eastern China, marrying and raising a family there on the shores of Lake Tai before uprooting to Hong Kong during the Second World War. She remained fiercely patriotic; when the Chinese won their impressive share of gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, she painted several works in celebration, of which this remains my favourite. It shows Chinese athletes disembarking, all proudly wearing their gold medals as they return to their mountain home.

Fang was once referred to by one uncomprehending western art critic in Hong Kong as 'the Grandma Moses of Chinese painting.' Nothing could be further from the truth, and this remark again reveals how inadequate and irrelevant such aesthetic comparisons are when applied across cultures. Grandma Moses painted like a child because she had child-like perception and no formal training in drawing. In Fang Zhaoling's case, a brief exposure to her earlier works – particularly those created while under the influence of the Lingnan master Zhao Shaoang – will reveal her impressive accomplishments in technical drawing. Those accomplishments are very apparent in Lingnan Monkey.


Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006), Lingnan Monkey
Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006), Lingnan Monkey. 1959,
with inscription added in 1976 when she gave me the painting.

82.5 x 58.2. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.41)

As a great calligrapher, Fang understood the lifelong training involved in refining the art. She didn't surprise me at all when, in her eighties, she announced that she was going to take lessons in one type of ancient script from a local master, the literatus, poet, painter and calligrapher Rao Zongyi (1917-2019). She understood from years of devoted practice that first one must master all the basic skills and only then gradually begin to refine them; to pare away the surface skills and reveal the structure, the bones of calligraphic expression. She did exactly the same with pictorial subject matter, reducing subject matter to its essence. Hers was not just unconsidered naivety; it was painstakingly re-acquired naivety, which is far more profound. This is another example of convergent ideas arising completely independently in different cultures; it is also evident in many of Matisse's later works, for instance.


Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006). Road in Switzerland
Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006). Road in Switzerland. 1981
95 x 102 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.1034)

This and the next painting were begun as a single horizontal image for the initial layers. I watched as she prepared the background with its pale wash, fully utilizing the characteristics of the xuan paper. By the time I returned the next day, she had cut the paper into two pieces vertically and was continuing to develop them as quite separate images. The first is a response to a visit to Switzerland she had undertaken some time previously; the second became an homage to one of her artistic heroes, the monk Shitao (1642-1707), whose eccentricity and creativity in expanding the (by then) rather orthodox tradition of painting she greatly admired.


Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006). Homage to Shitao. 1981
Fang Zhaoling (1914-2006). Homage to Shitao. 1981
96 x 78 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.1032)


Chen Chi-kwan (1921-2007) Wandering in a Dream (Also called Vision)
Chen Chi-kwan (1921-2007) Wandering in a Dream (Also called Vision). 1967
183.5 x 22.3 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.760)


Chen Chi-kwan (1921-2007). 1965
Chen Chi-kwan (1921-2007). 1965. 120.5 x 22 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.847)

Once we are accustomed to seeing beyond the surface subject matter to reveal the inner languages, they become very obvious when enjoying Chinese paintings. Chen Chi-kwan was one of the pioneers among the expatriate community of artists, spending his time between Taiwan (where he worked as an architect) and Honolulu, where his wife and daughter lived. His signature technique for one group of paintings was as innovative as those of C. C. Wang and Liu Kuo-sung, and developed during the same period. He perfected the use of alum-resist as a more emphatic way of achieving what Lui Shoukwan achieved with his water-resist techniques. This is a method somewhat similar to tie-dying, in which alum and water, with the possible addition of glue, were first painted, or splashed onto the paper. He would then layer ink or colour onto a smooth surface and 'print' layers of colour from it onto a sheet of paper to build up a surface of semi-random texturing. Only then would he add brushwork detail to the surface to complete the paintings, although surviving sketches demonstrate that in most cases, the idea was already formed in his mind. Chen was the most secretive of the artists I represented in my years as agent for living artists. I never saw his studio and he would never tell me how he achieved various results, however much I tried to press him. When I figured it out for myself and attempted it, he'd just smile enigmatically when I showed him the results. His popular alternative mode is found in his charming ink-based calligraphic line drawings, with their distinctive Daoist flavour. Untouchable is his amusing take on the geopolitical situation between mainland China and Taiwan.


Chen Chi-kwan (1921-2007). Untouchable. 1967
Chen Chi-kwan (1921-2007). Untouchable. 1967.
22.4 x 29 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.341)


Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932) 1982
Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932) 1982

39.2 x 44.5 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.735)

The main focus in this small and oft-published work by Liu Kuo-sung is obviously on form and texture. Chen Chi-kwan had also toyed in passing with the possibilities of floating ink and colours on water, manipulating the surface then dropping a sheet of xuan or other paper onto it to instantly pick up a print of the surface of swirling or splattered markings. It is a tricky process, since wet xuan paper becomes very fragile and difficult to handle. Once dry, these markings can then be worked up into impressive, natural looking subjects. It was Liu, however, who perfected the method and made it his own. His other perfected invention was with custom-made cotton paper with thick, random threads at the surface that could be painted over, then ripped off and discarded at various stages to build up a fascinating and dynamic textured surface. The Four Seasons handscroll is one of several that reveals his mastery of the paper he developed (see The Handscroll Experience.).


Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932). Song of Rainfed Waterfalls. 1966
Liu Kuo-sung (b. 1932). Song of Rainfed Waterfalls. 1966.

75 x 142 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.763)


Zhou Luyun (Irene Chou 1924-2011). External and Internal (also called Remembering Mr. Lui)
Zhou Luyun (Irene Chou 1924-2011). External and Internal (also called Remembering Mr. Lui). circa 1975. 135 x 66 cm.
The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.773)

Zhou Luyun, better known as Irene Chou, was one of Lui Shoukwan's most successful students, along with Wucius Wong (Wong Wuxie, b. 1936). Inspired by his later more abstract works, she soon emerged from his shadow to create her own distinctive and authentic style. Here the inner languages of form and line are the main intention, but as so often with her works, a dreamlike, organic vision is apparent as a full partner in any abstraction. This lends a powerful emotion to the picture alongside the distinctive symbolism of her feminine response to nature.

Part of her mastery from her finest years rests in her astonishing control of large areas of even and silkily flat black ink. I can attest to the absurd difficulties of achieving such large areas of unified matt black without any indication of individual brushstrokes or variation in ink tones or surface irregularities. When too much ink or colour is absorbed into the paper, subsequent markings can sit on the surface, just as on a western canvas, and become shiny – a phenomenon called 'dead ink.' Her control of this skill, exemplified here, is nothing short of miraculous. More to the point, it allows her a perfect contrast between undifferentiated black areas and the obvious complexities of her organic subject matter, which is where she preferred to focus initial attention.


Shen Yao-ch'u (1907-1990). Returning Geese, 1985
Shen Yao-ch'u (1907-1990). Returning Geese, 1985.
198 x 180 cm. The Water, Pine and Stone Retreat Collection. (21.1.983)

One last example will suffice to make the point about the inner languages. It is by a Taiwanese artist who continued the brushwork tradition of such artists as Wu Changshuo (1844-1907) and Qi Baishi (1864-1957). One of his larger-scale works, there is little doubt that we are looking at flying geese, but neither is there any as to the calligraphic, abstract expressive intent of the brushwork.

The bandwidth of consciousness ranges from the banal to the transcendent, as does meaning in art. There is an axiom about both that while we work our way along the path between the obvious and the esoteric in search of ever deeper meaning, precision of definition gradually dissipates. We eventually leave it behind entirely as we enter the ineffable transcendent state, beyond the fragmenting intellect. That is, of course, not a problem – instead, it is an indication and an invitation. In art as in consciousness, the deeper our understanding, the less our descriptions of what it means actually mean anything at all.

That is why it is essential to understand the difference between what can be explained and what can't we need to recognise the difference between the proper domain of each of our ways of knowing, and the wisdom to distinguish between them. Otherwise in art, as in life, only confusion awaits (see The Riven Reality of Consciousness).

Hugh Moss
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat


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