Wesley Tongson’s ‘Spiritual Mountains’ melds tradition, abstraction at BAMPFA

Photo of art by Wesley Tongson

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Traditional Chinese techniques meld with colorful abstractions that delight the eye in the works of the late artist Wesley Tongson. The new “Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson” exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, highlights eleven never-before-exhibited pieces by the Hong Kong painter and calligrapher.

Throughout the two-room gallery lie paintings of all sizes and scales by Tongson, from the sketchbook inked drawings of his “Toronto” series to the floor-to-ceiling sweeping calligraphy-influenced piece titled “Orchid I.” No matter the medium — ink, color, paints or fingerpaints — Tongson’s striking emotionality slams the viewer.

Tongson’s monochromatic, calligraphic pieces in particular are haltingly traditional, drawing upon Chinese and Taiwanese artists such as Liu Guosong, Harold Wong, Madame Gu Qingyao and Qing-era artist Shitao. Enchanting, gliding and stark brush strokes allow viewers to discern the intensity behind Tongson’s painting while fostering their curiosity. 

Many of Tongson’s works experiment with abstractions. Given his heavy focus on natural landscapes and flora, Tongson’s use of color, and on occasion lack of color, leaves the pretty impression of a petal or the splashy feel of a waterfall — all recognizably natural, but urging the viewer to fashion their own connection to the piece’s subject.

This sense of connection is furthered by the brilliance of the exhibit’s layout. Interspersed throughout Tongson’s works are pieces by other artists of and before his era. Several of these featured artists were Tongson’s teachers, including Liu Guosong and Harold Wong, as well as other creators who heavily impacted his style, such as paintings by Zhang Daqian and a single treasured sketch by Pablo Picasso. 

Sandwiching these artists between Tongson’s works displays the thoughtful layout of “Spiritual Mountains.” Observing Tongson’s influences before digesting his own works explicates specifically how these artists influenced him both stylistically and thematically.

Many of Tongson’s pieces elicit a musing spirituality, signifying his connection to Buddhism. His “Mountain of Heaven” series evocatively draws on his own Zen Buddhist practices, mindfully layering bright and effervescent colors atop the panes and planes of his mesmerizing mountains. The punchiness of Tongson’s color choice appears inspired by Liu Guosong’s “Space Series,” which similarly superimposes bold color above dark, alluring landscapes.

Toward the end of the exhibit, large-scale abstract calligraphy underscores Tongson’s poetic ability as he integrates Buddhist and Daoist values into his artistry. Tongson’s commitment to “purity, passion and integrity” within his practice is epitomized through this rhythmic and conceptual calligraphic series. 

Tongson’s place at the forefront of contemporary Hong Kong art has been cemented through his blend of abstract painting and calligraphy. Monochromatic moments like those in his 1997 “Untitled” piece fluidly combine Chinese influences such as Shitao with impressions of Surrealism borrowed from Picasso. The smooth textures of the painting summon images of rivers and smooth rock; the many inked tones create hyper-realistic depth.

Stunning depth is also invoked by Tongson’s “Boundless Compassion.” Powerful, marbled colors swirl below the faintly multi-tonal calligraphic caresses of his brushes. The painting is reminiscent of creation or the early aughts of the universe, as primary colors melt out of the granite-like texture of the piece’s background to reemerge in more solid, spectacular forms. 

The alluring layering of brush strokes and colors illuminates natural textures in an eccentrically singular way, especially in Tongson’s 2001 “Untitled” work of ink and color on board. Through the sheer density of material application, Tongson forges a purple and green landscape, reminiscent of a coral reef or perhaps a mountainside. Either way, his impressive attention to detail entrances the eye in a “Where’s Waldo?”-esque search for hypnotizing meaning. 

“Spiritual Mountains” closes with a set of Tongson’s humble brushes and tools in a glass case. The exhibit spotlights Tongson’s dynamic and abstract artistic style, which was under-appreciated during his life due to his relative reclusion and struggles with schizophrenia. Finally, Tongson’s mystical yet grounded work can receive the attention it deserves.

Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson will be exhibited at BAMPFA Jan. 12 – June 12.

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected].