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Berkeley Art Museum Exhibits Artwork from Hong Kong Buddhist Wesley Tongson

Untitled, from the Mountains of Heaven series, 2000. Ink and color on board; 73 x 97.5 centimeters.
BAMPFA, gift of Lilia and Kenneth Tongson. From bampfa.org

Artwork from 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 12 June. The exhibition showcases the breadth of the late artist’s talent, blending traditional Chinese imagery with colorful abstraction. The show, “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 before been publicly exhibited.

Two rooms at BAMPFA will be dedicated to a range of Tongson’s work, from small sketch-book drawings to floor-to-ceiling calligraphy.

Tongson was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 15 and struggled with the illness throughout his life. He once wrote: “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 Daily Californian)

While illness helped shape Tongson’s art, Catherine Maudsley, who curated a 2018 exhibition of his work and writings, said at the time, “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.” (The Daily Californian)

Mountains of Heaven 天界 NO. 140, 2000. Ink and Color on Board. 72.1 x 97.5 centimeters.
From galeriedumonde.com

Berkeley-based journalist Katherine Shok writes: “Tongson’s monochromatic calligraphic pieces in particular are haltingly traditional, drawing upon Chinese and Taiwanese artists.” These include great names from across recent centuries such as Shitao (1642–1718), Gao Qipei (1672–1734), Liu Guosong (b. 1932), and Harold Wong (b. 1943). Shok continues: “Enchanting, gliding and stark brush strokes allow viewers to discern the intensity behind Tongson’s painting while fostering their curiosity.” (The Daily Californian)

While many of his 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, Orchid, and Pine, all evidence a darkness and almost chaotic energy not found in most traditional works. Others, particularly the Mountains of Heaven series, blend traditional perspectives on mountain and sky with other-worldly colors, sometimes saturated and blown out, other times gentle and pastel.  

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

Tongson was a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. He also explored Christianity and Daoism, allowing religious themes to influence his artwork. His work was shown in exhibitions in Hong Kong, the UK, and the US in the 1990s, but he did not achieve widespread recognition until after his death. Since then, his work—especially the later pieces in which he took up painting with his fingers and fingernails—has won increasing praise.

See more

Wesley Tongson’s ‘Spiritual Mountains’ melds tradition, abstraction at BAMPFA (The Daily Californian)
Awaiting the brighter future to come: Remembering the art, life of Wesley Tongson at the Chinese Culture Center (The Daily Californian)
Spiritual Mountains: The Art of Wesley Tongson (BAMPFA)
Wesley Tongson 1957–2012
Wesley Tongson 唐家偉 (Galarie du Monde)

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