Awaiting the brighter future to come: Remembering the art, life of Wesley Tongson at the Chinese Culture Center

Wesley Tongson/Courtesy

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On the opening night of “Wesley Tongson: The Journey,” the late artist’s sister, Cynthia Tongson, surveyed the gathered crowd and smiled. A certain satisfaction emanated from her smartly clad figure, a pride in her brother and all those who had come together to experience his craft.

Tongon had a right to this contentment. Ever since her brother’s passing in 2012, she has worked to preserve her sibling’s personal and artistic legacy. Tongson has penned blog posts, managed her brother’s website and, more recently, organized “The Journey” at San Francisco’s Chinese Culture Center.

Tongson sees her brother as more than deserving of such publicity. “Wesley,” as Tongson referred to him this past Friday, walked an artistic path marked by outstanding dedication and passion, as well as skill. Painting, Tongson writes in the gallery statement, “was his life and his one true love.”

A visit to “The Journey” pays testament to the painter’s deep dedication to the Hong Kong-based artist’s craft via a carefully selected 23-piece collection — only a drop in the bucket of his total creations, Tongson informed me. The exhibition showcases the artist’s aptitude in a range of techniques, from splash ink painting to Chinese landscape painting to finger and nail paintings.

As the curator, Catherine Maudsley explained that “The Journey” is meant to reflect manifestations of the artist’s relationship with his art and how that relationship developed. The word Maudsley and Cynthia Tongson repeatedly used was tension — “creative tension,” they said.

On their own, the exhibited pieces of Wesley Tongson (唐家偉) do not indicate such a strain. Though marked by a clear change in technique throughout the artist’s lifetime, his works are consistently breathtaking, an adroit balance of complexity and simplicity. Wesley’s splashed ink works especially draw in the eye with their seemingly mystical, otherworldly settings. This specific technique requires the artist to splatter ink from hand or brush onto the page, a process unforgiving of any mistakes. In Wesley’s careful hand, the ink seamlessly imitates intricate textures — the gentle whisper of mist, the unforgivingly rugged face of a mountain. Note, for instance, the intricacy of detail in “The Rugged Path,” one of Wesley’s featured works.

For all the serenity evident in Wesley’s art, his personal path through life was not a smooth one. In a blog post, reflecting on her brother’s struggle with illness, Tongson cites an excerpt from one of Wesley’s writings. “‘At the age of fifteen,” he writes, “I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, an illness which still affects me today. Although most of my adult life has been tormented with such illness, I remain determined and await the brighter future to come. In my paintings, the emergence of bright light from the apparent darkness reflects the journey of my personal experience and struggle.’”

The exhibition acknowledges the darkness that its subject and creator faced — primarily by displaying a series of Wesley’s personal letters in which the artist describes his “bad and unstable mood swings.” It’s an intimate touch, an almost startling glimpse into the painter’s psyche. But in the scheme of the exhibition as a whole, it does not override the viewer’s perception of Wesley as an artist or as a person.

When I noted this to Maudsley, she appeared pleased. “That’s the truth of his life … but there’s no need to highlight it, to say, ‘This is such a drama,’ or ‘It’s so sensational.’ … This honesty, it’s very refreshing. And the art will speak for itself,” she commented.

I asked Maudsley, who has so much experience with Wesley’s art, what her favorite piece in the exhibition was. She led me to the end of the gallery, to a 6-foot tall ink piece depicting a stretching, thick-barked tree —  “Pine 3.” “I find it very, very dynamic, almost like an action painting,” Maudsley told me. “There’s so much vitality.”

Wesley painted the piece in 2011, a year before his death and two years after his abandonment of the brush and adoption of using his fingers and fingernails as tools to make his marks. As his sister informed me, he strove toward “oneness with the Universe,” and by touching the paper or his canvas, he felt directly closer to this goal. Wesley, his sister said, felt that his paintings came from a sort of divine inspiration, what she recalled him describing as a “world beyond.”

As Maudsley explained why she considers “Pine 3” so outstanding, she showed me how to trace the hand motions Wesley used to create the painting. Leaning in and noting each line, dot, swirl and curve that compose the image, I felt as if I could see the artist in the process of creation, one which he considered akin to transcendence. It was a shockingly intimate sensation, even more so than reading his letters.