Painting, and Da Wu Tang


I was feeling quite depressed Saturday night. I decided to paint a picture. I am used to such endeavours making me more depressed, at the time at least, yet I find also that a painting can reflect a state of mind superbly, and later a picture I didn't initially like can grow on me. I am often drawn to paint when in strange dark states of mind, in many ways I paint to exorcise demons in my head as much as trying to create something aesthetically beautiful on its own terms. As soon as I painted it the depression lifted, seemingly sucked into the painting like pus into a poultice, save it was a cleaner feeling than that, more like matter into a black hole. I looked at the painting on my kitchen table Sunday morning, almost dry, and thought it was certainly among the best I have ever painted. Sunday night I was staring at the painting in my living room, still taped on its board and unsigned, and was suddenly startled to notice the face of a demon staring out of it, quite clearly formed, yet I just hadn't noticed it before, too taken by the abstract qualities of the painting. So I plan to title the painting 'Demonic'. If a title comes to me while looking at a painting I usually pencil it on the back when I untape it, along with the date.

I'm not particularly interested in figurative work, I find I can represent my mind better in paint abstractly, but nonetheless figurative elements do emerge, and all the better for being consciously unintended. I can't honestly say I put such metamorphosing figures in my work, and yet the manner in which the paintings are done means I can't entirely rule out that such figures are emergent automatisms. If I notice figurative ideas emerging while painting I tend to scour them out with a knife, pushing them back into the painting, perhaps inviting them to emerge more subtly (those interested in sigil magick will see an obvious parallel), but if I notice them hours after the painting has dried then I take some interest in them.

I sometimes think a perfect painting would be one I sold to someone who had it on his wall for 30 years and then one day he is looking at it and he notices something genuinely terrifying or incredible and realises that in all that time he had simply not seen what the painting was and is honour-bound to seek out all my work before others see these things in it and the prices shoot through the roof. Of course, I'll be ready for my grave by then and will hardly care, I will have already pronounced the 'art' of my generation as mostly mediocre and be confident that in 200 years time someone may 'get it' beyond just kinda liking it without knowing why.

On September 15 transiting Jupiter forms a conjunction with my natal Pluto. I think I'm already feeling the effect of this, in that I am planning to engage with some new creative work from that date, possibly a work of writing. I'm already behind in answering email and possibly my posts here will be fewer, although I can't really say, maybe I'll just carry on as normal. But I do need to absorb myself in some major creative work now, and that will necessitate some measure of withdrawal. But it's true also that spur-of-the moment has been responsible for many of my journal posts here, so the channel will remain open.

I'd also like to paint more, and have an exhibition and sell a few. But I can't even afford frames, I can only just afford paper and paint so long as I ration my painting. And the whole process of seeking buyers just bores me, even though I would certainly sell some and it would help me. What I need is an agent to organise that kind of thing. In the past year of not selling my paintings I have increased the price on the large ones, because I am starting to value them more despite not selling any, or perhaps precisely because of it.

Art collectors would be advised to get in early before an artist wakes up to the worth of his own work, in my case they will soon be too late, and part of that makes me feel okay. Nothing worse that having one's work exploited by those who turn it into a commodity (some work I gave away in the 90s I have now heard is part of someone's 'valuable collection'). But of course the commodification of art also serves the artist, so long as the artist does not create for the pricetag he will place on a work but rather because of some deep inner urge to create.

Years ago I had the opportunity to buy some superb calligraphic abstracts by my teacher Da Wu Tang. One I wish I had bought consisted of just a single large red brush stroke that had the energy of a Samurai sword stroke, with a little black cursive script in the corner. Had I been able to afford even the modest price he was asking, I could have picked up masterpieces for a couple of hundred pounds that now fetch a couple of grand and more. In the 80s he was a Chinese artist in London, doing his masters and exhibiting in local libraries. He taught evening classes in Chinese calligraphy, but now he is recognised as one of Singapore's greatest artists and his work commands a much higher price than it did when it was sold from the basement of a shop in Soho selling Chinese art materials and paper lanterns. That's the way it goes. I know my own paintings will climb steeply in value too, so I offer this advance warning to those who may wish to profit by it and in the process help out an artist who could, frankly, do with the money now. People with a serious interest in acquiring art are always welcome to visit me to look at some stuff.

In retrospect, I realise how lucky I was to have the opportunity to learn an approach to painting from Tang as some people learn to perform a martial art. Given that I never went to art college, but pursued chemistry instead, it is good to find oneself in the dao of a major artist. I don't know how he managed to influence me exactly, but that he did, like a Daoist master, is without doubt to me. Maybe he showed me how to take what is inside and put it on paper in a huge dynamic movement that cannot be explained. But then there was something quite magical about Tang right from the very first class. He arrived looking more like a kung fu teacher than an artist. We all watched as he placed his small duffel bag on the desk and proceeded to take items from it. Out came brushes, rolls of calligraphy paper, ink, followed by all manner of things, until the desk was piled high with stuff, all from this tiny bag. This went on for about ten minutes, we just watched mesmerised, he hadn't said a word to us or even looked at us. Then he lifted his head and saw us watching and said:

'Ah! You like my magic bag.'

And that was the start of Tang's wonderful classes. He didn't say much, just enough, such that what he said remains. Once we were brushing the character long, 'dragon'. He had encouraged us to get very abstract with this. He came round to me and stood behind me and laughed:

'Ah! You paint hairy dragon!'

He had ink bowls made for us to grind Chinese stick ink. He showed us how to grind the ink, we followed his motions. He did everything standing, nothing was ever done sitting down, he taught you to put your whole body into the movement of the brush. He stood and started to grind the ink in the bowl, making circular motions with the stick ink in the water in the bowl. His posture was that of a martial artist, his concentration on the simple task intense and inspiring. After we had been grinding ink for what seemed like an age, we were getting impatient, we were looking at each other wondering how long this was going to go on for. Someone eventually asked:

'How do you know when it's ready?'

Tang simply said:

'When it is black.'

Thing was, it had been black for quite a while now. No-one asked 'how black?' and we carried on for a good stretch more. Eventually we learnt just how black ink should be, and the ritual for creating it became for me akin to invocation. I began to realise we were learning a purity of approach I simply hadn't expected at a mere evening class, that Tang was an extraordinary man, putting across something indefinable that even now informs the way my brush and nib and knife touches the paper, the way I feel about the ink and the pigments and the wetness of the paper and the way one mark relates to another mark, how they dance with each other.

That was something he was constantly emphasising, how separate elements relate to each other, and what that is like when it is perfect, and how what makes it perfect comes from within like exhaling the breath (he didn't say this, he showed this). Once he brushed a plant emerging from a seed breaking through the soil and spreading its leaves to the sun. He did this in five seconds hardly lifting his brush from the paper, it was simply a natural progression you could follow intuitively. He did it time and time again, then for each of us in turn, and each time the same miraculous thing unfolded. I almost shook my head in disbelief watching it, he was making something happen with the brush and the ink that was magical and delightful, and impossible to understand without attempting it yourself. In the process I completely understood hexagram 3 in the Yijing, which is about that journey through difficulty that a seed makes in hard soil to eventually flourish, and how it had to flourish if it just carried on, that every stage implied and gave rise to the next, and this was how separate things related to one another in a flow that could be captured in art, where it became a whole from the parts. It is still a mystery to me how exactly he taught this, save that Tang is a Master, and a Master doesn't teach a Master imparts.