Wesley Tongson: The Journey, curated by renowned Asian art scholar and curator Catherine Maudsley, features approximately 23 works from the Tongson Family’s collection, some never before exhibited.
Trained in traditional ink painting, Tongson began to explore and teach himself splash ink painting, a technique that relies on the chance interplay of water and ink on rice paper. His artistic practice increasingly focused on non-brush techniques, including ink rubbing and marbling, and ultimately, in his later years, when he had retreated from the art world and was primarily working in solitude, he abandoned the brush altogether, working with just his hands, fingers, and fingernails.
“While not unprecedented, finger painting in ink is rare and involves considerable skill to do well, especially on the scale at which Tongson was working, some pieces as large as 8 feet,” says Maudsley. “Full of sweeping, energetic lines and dots, Tongson’s ability to maintain momentum and cohesiveness over a large-size surface is outstanding.”
Considered major achievements in the field, Tongson’s paintings have now been collected by the Hong Kong Museum of Art and are held in many private collections internationally. This will be the first U.S. showing of several of the mature finger-painted works.
Together with notable examples of his earlier paintings, the pieces on display reveal Tongson’s journey to master and then transcend not only the various techniques of ink painting, but the conventions of landscape painting as well. Throughout his career, Tongson considered landscape painting to be the most difficult and highest accomplishment of Chinese art, and devoted most of his energies to the form, in particular mountainscapes. Several of the works included in the exhibition highlight his uncanny ability to convey vast mountain ranges, floating clouds, and rising mist with the simple, luminous washes of color in his splashed ink paintings or in the spontaneous, rock-like textures of his marbled works. In the 1990s, he began to refer to his pieces as Mountains of Heaven Zen paintings and, in his later years, signed them with the sobriquet “Mountain Taoist.”
Tongson was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 15, a condition that, together with a fervent commitment to Zen philosophy, shaped his singular artistic vision and life. Transcending the bounds of landscape painting was akin to transcending oneself. He wrote, probably around 2004, “All these years, I have never stopped creating, working every day and dedicating myself to the arts and study of Zen so I can create landscapes from a pure, unified state of mind. ‘Flowing from a world beyond’ best describes the origin of my landscape and Zen paintings.”
The exhibition also includes several examples of Tongson’s paintings of plum blossoms, pines, and other botanical studies, as well as calligraphy, an art form in which he was also highly skilled.