Untitled, from sky mountains series, 2000. Ink and color on cardboard; 73 x 97.5 centimeters.
BAMPFA, gift of Lilia and Kenneth Tongson. At bampfa.org

Works by the late Hong Kong artist Wesley Tongson (唐家偉; 1975-2012) will be on display at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) in Berkeley, California until June 12. The exhibition showcases the breadth of the late artist’s talent, blending traditional Chinese imagery with colorful abstraction. The exhibit, “Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson,” seeks to focus on the role of Tongson’s Zen Buddhist practice – as well as his other religious interests – in his art and includes 11 pieces that have never been publicly exposed before.

Two rooms at BAMPFA will be devoted to a range of works by Tongson, from small sketchbook drawings to floor-to-ceiling calligraphy.

Tongson was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 15 and battled the disease throughout her life. He once wrote, “Although most of my adult life has been plagued by such illness, I remain determined and look forward to a better future. In my paintings, the emergence of bright light from apparent darkness reflects the journey of my personal experience and struggle. (The California daily)

While the disease has helped shape Tongson’s art, Cathering Maudsley, who held an exhibition of her work and writings in 2018, said at the time, “It’s the truth of her life. . . but there is no need to point it out, to say “it’s such a drama” or “it’s so sensational”. . . This honesty is very refreshing. And the art will speak for itself. (The California daily)

Sky Mountains 天界 NO. 140, 2000. Ink and color on board. 72.1 x 97.5 centimeters.
At galeriedumonde.com

Katherine Shok, a Berkeley-based journalist, writes, “Tongson’s monochrome calligraphic pieces in particular are of a tentative tradition, drawing inspiration from Chinese and Taiwanese artists. These include great names from later centuries such as Shitao (1642-1718), Gao Qipei (1672-1734), Liu Guosong (b. 1932) and Harold Wong (b. 1943). Shok continues, “Enchanting, slippery, austere brushstrokes allow viewers to discern the intensity behind Tongson’s painting while stimulating their curiosity.” (The California daily)

While many of her pieces are traditionally inspired, there is clearly a force at work behind them that makes them unique. The black and white works, named after objects in nature such as Bamboo, Orchidand Pine, all show a darkness and an almost chaotic energy not found in most traditional works. Others, notably the sky mountains series, blend traditional perspectives of the mountain and sky with otherworldly colors, sometimes saturated and puffy, other times soft and pastel.

Lotus 1. 2002. Ink on board. 97 x 71 centimeters. At wesleytongson.org
Wesley Tongson. At bampfa.org
Countryside. 2001. Ink on board. 74 x 99 centimeters. At wesleytongson.org

Tongson was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. He also explored Christianity and Taoism, allowing religious themes to influence his works. His work was featured in exhibitions in Hong Kong, the UK and the US in the 1990s, but it was not widely recognized until after his death. Since then, his work – especially the later pieces in which he began to paint with his fingers and fingernails – has garnered increasing acclaim.

See more

Wesley Tongson’s “Spiritual Mountains” blends tradition and abstraction at BAMPFA (The California daily)
Waiting for the Brighter Future to Come: Remembering the Art and Life of Wesley Tongson at the Chinese Cultural Center (The California daily)
Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson (BAMPFA)
Wesley Tongson 1957–2012
Wesley Tongson 唐家偉 (World Gallery)

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