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About Paul Chiang - Is an Artist or a Practitioner?

Text by Jean Liao Courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

The article was first published in BEYOND GALLERY Arts Link, 2020 Spring

The large-scaale painting behind the artist is titled Pisilian 16-50. Artist Paul Chiang is deeply convinced that art can purify the world, cleanse our body and soul. At the age of 15, he chose to devote his whole life to artistic creation. By the time he was 40, he felt that he should be qualified to be an artist. Being almost 80 now, he holds a solo exhibition showing his paintings, and large three-dimensional installation works at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum... When I decided to write an article about Chiang, I know it would be hard for me to do so because Commonwealth Publishing Company had already published a splendid biography of him, titled From the Left Bank in Paris to Pisirian in Taitung. Apart from that, Lukas Wu, the author of his biography, proceeded to compile for him a deeply touching album titled Ultimate Spiritual Sanctuary-Paul Chiang: A Retrospective. Taking up a pen and writing here may completely expose my defects, but, as his old friend in the circle of art and literature, I think he would be tolerant of my imperfection. When I first met Chiang in Taipei in the late twentieth century (1996, if I recall correctly), a couple of questions arose in my mind: Is this the oriental version of "Alberto Giacometti" (1901- 1966)? Or, is he a statue created by the French artist? Chiang was tall and thin, and there was an aura of refinement about him. When he walked over to me, his moving body with the feet brought forward looked so much like a living sculpture which left a very profound impression upon my mind. Coincidentally, Chiang also liked Giacometti's sculpture, especially the desolation, gloom and desperation in his work. Was that a kind of projection or self-suggestion? I have known Chiang for more than twenty years, haven't I? Although we are not intimate friends, I go and see his new of works whenever he has an exhibition. Every time he moved to a new studio, including the one by the sea in faraway Jinzun, Taitung, I would also make an appointment with him to meet and catch up. When he just moved back to Taiwan in 2000, I visited his studio in an old apartment at the intersection of Minquan East Road and Songjiang Road. The space was not big but quite suitable for a temporary studio. He listened to Bach at the time as he mentioned that the German composer brought my musicality to his work. After returning home, the obscuration of Mahler (1860-1911) had gradually been put aside in his life. What impressed me most about this studio was that the wooden plank used as a front door was basically an abstract splash painting. Behind layer upon layer of different colors, various dots and numerous bands, it hid the murmurs for which Chiang did not care a fig and that came from his crazy talk when he was creating. The painting was a work the artist completed carelessly, yet it showed the indescribable beauty of healing. I wonder what happened to the door after Chiang moved out.

Bach (Well Temperament) / Oil on Canvas, 150 x 200 cm, 2011 Chiang is quiet and does not appear to be the kind of person with whom you can chat and chat more. He always talks just a bit about life and then stops without elaboration. I remember he once mentioned that he flew home by EVA Airways from New York after having left Taiwan for thirty years. Before the plane was about to land, the melody of The Torment of a Flower played softly over the intercom system. Tears immediately welled up in his eyes and spilled down while hearing the homeland music..., they were yearnings, memories and the sound of dreams! After returning home, his Hundred Year Temple series attracted much attention because it was created by love for this land. In the summer of 2006, Chiang, his wife Fan Xianglan and I got together for coffee as we were all in Paris. A-Sun Wu (Taiwanese painter) was there with us, too. Chiang and Wu were classmates while studying in the Department of Fine Arts at the National Taiwan Normal University. According to Wu, Chiang was always ready to help his friends in the art circle. Wu was one of them and esteemed Chiang very much, Chiang paid no attention to what Wu said though. I was deeply touched by two masters who treated each other with sincerity. Chiang invited us to have coffee and dinner somewhere near the Notre Dame. At age 40, he created his Notre Dame de Paris series (1982) at the attic of a theater in Paris. There is no doubt that he was full of affection for the cathedral. In the serial works, he found the divine light which strongly inspired him to move toward spiritual inquiry and finally set his heart at rest. "At this stage, I feel that I am qualified to be an artist while being able to produce this series," he said humbly. When we stepped out of the restaurant and looked toward the Notre Dame, the cathedral under restoration was glowing beneath the setting sun. The light faintly flowed in the darkening sky, and it was that light belonging to Chiang. Chiang told me a mysterious dream he once had, "I felt that I was wearing a dark blue robe and looked like a practitioner in an extensive space. There seemed to be no ceiling, streams of splendid light poured down from the heavens..., it was more like an unadorned church than a temple, or even more like a grayish stone house..."

Silver Lake 08-02 / Oil on Canvas 200 x 300 cm, 2008

In 2004, Chiang moved his studio from Shongjiang Road to Guandu. The new studio was very spacious with a kitchen, a dining room and a small area as the artist's abode in the back part of the space. Due to his great desire for artistic creation, he had produced quite a lot of works and all of them were very large. His Silver Lake series was created in this new studio; he said, "At that time, I had a strong impulse to express my desire for painting which had kept long in mind, and wanted to create works different from those in the past." Although Guandu studio was very big, the space used for dwelling was very small. Art critic Chia Chi Jason Wang wrote: "In a vast studio, Chiang just makes an undersized area for his living space. The tiny bedroom contrasts markedly with the spacious workroom. His world of art is apparently far bigger than his daily life. Such persistence shows the sincerity extremely resembling religious faith and even gives the impression of a Puritan." This studio was later destroyed in the fire. Fortunately, Chiang had already moved out and left Taipei. He found a place for which he yearned in Taitung. Even there, his dwelling was still humble but homey-a small swimming pool and a tiny open- air jacuzzi might be a kind of minimal enjoyment to reward himself. As usual, the concept of "small abode and big workroom" was carried out in his Taitung studio which was designed by himself. He said that if he could not be an artist, architecture would be his favorite job. WhenI occasionally pass by Guandu, I recall that I had coffee and dinner with Chiang and his wife in the building that no longer exists. It is such a wonderful memory.

Paul Chiang thinks that is especially important for him to have a place by the sea.

Courtesy of Chun-Chia Lo

In 2008, Chiang had a studio by the sea in Jinzun, Taitung. The studio aslo took up a big land because he was still challenging himself to discover more possibilities. He kept asking himself that if he could not produce good works, should he stop painting? Moreover, he believed that the places by the sea were particularly important for a painter because the light, unlike that in the city, reflected in the air from the sea made the seaside especially bright, and the colors on the sea were constantly changing. Pisilian series looking like flowers blossoming and very different from his previous works was created at Taitung's seaside. After having stood on the land of his studio and looked toward the Pacific Ocean for a good while, I finally got some understanding. He had been used to close the window while creating, but this time he opened it. The window was so huge that his heart must have been opened too. Afterward, Chiang would call me and ask if everything went well with us even though I had not seen him for many years. Certainly, he is still busy with his creation and traveling around between Taipei and Taitung. To stay nearby for taking care of his ill daughter, he has rented a place to live in Taipei and seldom gone back to Taitung in recent years. I once had a view of him from behind on Section Five of Zhongshan North Road. He was still tall and thin and walked slowly. His back sent out the light of glory. That was the strength of being an artist and a father, which deeply touched me. In 2020, Chiang has a retrospective exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. "This should be my last exhibition," said he. I asked him: why? He didn't respond my question but smiled. To the best of my understanding, his faith in art should go beyond his dependence on life. He may no longer hold an exhibition, but he will never stop making art for the rest of his life. Looking back on Chiang's life, his dearest mother died when he was twenty-one; afterward he went to Paris and New York in pursuit of art, and, after thirty years abroad, returned years. Taiwan to find the once forgotten home; while creation is a beautiful thing, the anxiety brought by his daughter's illness is intertwined with art and life. However, I believe that he is still searching for a remedy to inspire as well as purify his body and soul on his artistic journey. Not only is he an artist, but he is also a practitioner in his own personal life...


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