Lampo Leong's Primordial Encounters

By Kevin Allton, Ph.D.


The feature attractions in Lampo Leong's most recent exhibition are the site-specific installation pieces Primordial Encounters I & II. These works, dramatically illuminated and suspended from the ceiling like banners, play an integral role in a show, Suspended Marks, at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art. Impressive as the variety of expressive media may be in a show that includes works on paper, canvas and even an innovative foray into the realm of digital video technology, one is even more struck by the depth, the vitality and the remarkable consistency of Leong's vision. There is indeed a presence to be encountered here: the expression a drive toward synthesis that unifies elemental energies and gives form to a coherent spiritual aspiration.

Synthesis is arguably the most indispensable term in the lexicon of contemporary art. In a way similar to its frequently encountered synonyms hybrid and fusion, synthesis becomes especially useful within the context of the challenges embraced by today's new breed of international artists. Academically accomplished, intellectually brilliant, these artists tend to be extremely well-versed in traditional techniques, both Eastern and Western. At the same time they are in touch with the shifting currents of theoretical discourse and popular culture, poised to make use of the latest in technological innovations. Their readiness to experiment with new forms and materials is intensely focused and yet playful in spirit. Theirs is a robust determination to go beyond the current horizon of multicultural possibilities, yet their works display a fine appreciation for the artistic achievements of past eras.

This dizzying confluence of energies drives the new globally-conscious artists to search for an ever-new synthesis of expressive means—and nowhere are these energies more focused, the drive toward synthesis more integral to the whole, than in these works by Lampo Leong. Indeed, since his emergence on the international scene in the 1990's, Leong has devoted himself to this challenge singular intensity. In the case of this artist, however, the intensity is infused with aims that are no less spiritual than aesthetic.

Indeed, the spiritual aspiration is one of the more challenging aspects of these works energized by a pursuit of the profound, the far, the spiritual and the sublime. The quest to realize the sublime as an object of contemplation is an impulse Leong shares with the monumental style artists of the Song Dynasty, but the contemporary painter's work is animated by a powerful sense of cataclysmic drama, of clashing forces, eruptions of fiery magma. It is characteristic of his uniquely personal approach that at his hands the calligraphic stroke is often subject to violent metamorphoses. The secret, I suspect, lies in an astonishing intuition about the dramatic potential, the spiritually Faustian energy, latent in the calligraphic figure.

This is no less true of the paintings most rooted in traditional Chinese calligraphy than of works more contemporary and global in outlook. Works such as Spiritual Forge, Autumn Wind and The Golden Age, mounted on silk and hung as scrolls, evince the Chinese-born Leong's deep sensitivity to calligraphy's traditional association with the energic powers in nature. Likewise, traditional calligraphy has always stressed the ineffable radiance of the moment of decision in the enduring mark. But what seems altogether new here is the way Leong has heightened the inherently dramatic dimension of the calligraphic gesture. It's as if he'd found an artistic parallel to the way English uses the word character to refer both to a written sign and a dramatic role. He does this by treating the open surface areas surrounding the black brushstrokes with thinly applied layers of Chinese pigment. The surfaces thus treated—not so much painted as weather-stained in subtly nuanced tones of pale ochre and faint green—become richly atmospheric and suggestive. Enigmatic, elemental forms arise in the openness, dissolve in a shimmer, and pass away. Moving with and against the currents of this energized field, the calligraphic figures dance in shimmering space.

Surface treatment is also a key to Leong's large-scale paintings on canvas, where the complex interaction between calligraphic figures and shimmering space becomes even more dramatic and intensely volatile. These works provide especially eloquent testimony to the artist's daring as a strategist of synthesis. Predominantly executed in oil or acrylic, they are truly hybrid in their inspiration. Calligraphic figures are cut up, collaged, worked over with various glazes and stains. The seminal image that results from this initial phase is transferred via advanced ink jet printing directly onto a much larger canvas surface where it is subjected to renewed painterly assault. In Antiphony I the streaky, ribbon-trailing calligraphic strokes leap into bold relief against a glaze-saturated inferno. Shattered, tortured like martyrs in a baroque altarpiece, they seem caught in a whirlwind, about to burst into flame as they hurtle through the blaze of superheated space. Fugitive Energies I explores a different range of possibilities. In this painting the traces of calligraphy recede under streaks and spatters of paint into an enigmatic, surreally pregnant space. It may be that the artist sometimes looks at slides of microscopic specimens for inspiration—but the imagery here is like the magnification of specimens that could be found only in the imagination of a Bosch or a Breugel. Other times the calligraphic marks are engulfed in a seething darkness, as they are amid the nocturnal harmonies of The Light-Year Within. By contrast, Corona III pits figure-like vortices of black energy against surging flares of molten color. The sense of battling elements in this painting is so beautifully balanced that one might be reminded of the stylized acrobatic combats of gods and demons in Peking Opera.

Indeed, with its clashing dynamism, its heightened, surreally-orchestrated chromaticism, Leong's work evinces a genuine affinity for the stage, the dramatic spectacle. It is no surprise that he has collaborated with choreographers and musicians. Yet the dramatist in Leong has a keen sense for the compelling power of mystery. He knows how to energize a space as if it were the place for a slowly unfolding rite, the anticipation of rapture. He has a musician's understanding of the silence that is pregnant with yet unsounded chords. Paradoxically, it is just when the energy is least flamboyant, that it is more intensely focused. And this is certainly true of those site-specific hanging pieces that are at the literal and metaphorical heart of this exhibition.

The aptly titled Primordial Encounters I & II play a focal role, imparting aesthetic unity to the overall diversity while reaffirming the integrity of this artist's spiritual vision. Here again the impact of the work arises from a complex interplay between treated surface, calligraphic figure and an inner illumination. These works in fiber and translucent veils hang from the ceiling and feature calligraphic elements painted directly on treated silk in a way reminiscent of banners. The silk hangs sheer from an irregularly bent, open hoop of copper wire, and falls to form a column-like shape, fringed along the bottom edge, at once open and self-enclosed. As if illuminated from within, each piece is positioned under its own gel-tinted light source, and the light flows along a central nerve-like length of frayed and twisted rope suspended inside the open column.

As their titles imply, the two works are twins, though they are separated by a partition. Each seems the realization of simplicity itself, yet each makes a unique contribution to the effect of every other piece in the show. Primordial Encounters II is the most prominently displayed. Hanging from the center of the main gallery area, it presides over and subtly comments upon the wall-hung works on paper and canvas. Here the surface treatment becomes crucial. For these works the silk has been scalded with hot tea, stained over smoking fires. In this way the shimmering dynamism of the works on paper and canvas is underscored by reiteration in another visual register. The forcefully brushed strokes of abstract calligraphy that cover the silk seem like volatilized shadows amid the play of shooting highlights, the arabesques and splashes of prismatic colors.

Primordial Encounters I, a somewhat larger piece, hangs in a more intimate chamber separate from the rest of the exhibition. In this smaller space a television screen also shows Leong's digital video Spiritual Transformations. Set to music by Thomas McKenney, the video features a dissolving sequence of metamorphosing images from Leong's paintings. Interestingly, the installation piece and the video presentation do not vie with each other or even simply share the space. In probably the most astonishing instance of synergy in the entire show, the video screen with its electronic flicker and its eerie electronic score actually seems to serve the luminous column of silk as a pianist might accompany the recital of a diva. Over half a century ago artists took upon themselves as a sign of their election the to realize what Harold Rosenberg and Robert Motherwell defined as the "act that sets free in contemporary experience forms which that experience has made possible." Lampo Leong clearly shares this same creative aspiration, spiritually as well as aesthetically. At the heart of this exhibition one will indeed encounter a shimmering presence. In the meditative stillness of the space, it seems not merely to breathe but to sing an aria inaudible to all but the rapt spirit.