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Homeland Nostalgia: Gaze at Tzu-chi Yeh

 


Portraitist Realism

To many collectors, contemporary Taiwan painter Tzu-chi Yeh is a familiar figure at art fairs, gallery exhibitions, and auction previews. Virtually wherever and whenever his work is on display, he will make an appearance in his customary outfit: casual yet chic, and usually all black. There he stands, quietly gazing at one of his works with an absorbed – almost narcissistic – expression on his face, unable to tear his eyes away from the product of his hard and painstaking work. Occasionally, he may make suggestions for the vernissage pamphlet, or comment on the colors of the auction catalog. Or he proposes improvements to the lighting of the exhibition venue, and shows concern about how collectors store his  work. Needless to say, all the frames are handpicked by the artist, and sometimes Yeh can even be seen waxing large on the creative process and his pursuit of perfection.

 

Most of his works are monological in nature, exploring the landscapes of his inner being without, however, showing an absolute aloofness from society at large – rather, Yeh excels at amalgamating a worldly, in-the-moment approach with a constant quest for artistic excellence. Every painting is an extremely personal record, documenting real moments and acute impressions, which explains the artist’s powerful attachment to each and every one of them.

 

The artist’s Chinese name seems to be hinting at the subject matter and style of his oil painting, redolent as it is of nature themes like flowers, trees, and leaves. Through the magic of his brush, these ordinary objects come alive on the canvas in a fashion only achieved in the very best of still lifes. Firmly anchored at the center of the composition, his subjects, be they animals, plants, buildings, or entire landscapes, have all the dignity, purity, and classical elegance of a traditional portrait. With his uncanny ability to capture the essential, Yeh ingeniously enhances a visual realism sometimes bordering on the photographic to create unique images that reveal both the generic and the specific qualities of his subject.


 


 

Dong Hwa University Professor Effi Chang, who is Yeh’s life and traveling companion, as well as the most intimate connoisseur of his art, once said, “Tzuchi Yeh used a single image and subjects, employing the essence of canonic classicism to address the mysterious ambiguities of closeness and alienation, existence and void, quiet and loneliness, beauty and frigidity, reality and illusion.”

 

The artist’s keen powers of observation, particularly at the microcosmic level, help him to create paintings that are brimming with realism and reveling in details, while at the same time emanating a sense of delicate softness and warmth. “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower” comes to mind, the Zen adage on the eternal oneness of all existence. As Yeh once wrote, “Even the smallest blossom and leaf comprises and mirrors the entire season.”

 

Tzu-chi Yeh describes the difference between landscapes and still lifes, his two main motifs, as follows: “To me, still lifes are indoor landscapes, while landscapes are outdoor still lifes.” His paintings are like diaries, giving detailed accounts of consecutive phases of his life: student years, falling in love, traveling, grieving for the departed, joy at his children’s birth, manifold memories and reminiscences. Some critics say that whether it’s Yeh’s still lifes or his landscapes, their shared and defining characteristics are those of classical portrait painting.

 

Unlike his contemporaries, Yeh discards abstractionism, as well postmodern expressionist styles, in favor of the Venice School’s retro-classicism, superimposing tempera colors on top of oil paint to give a soft and mellow, almost morbidezza, touch to his paintings, and generate a strong impression of natural light without adding extra white to his palette. This kind of sublimated classical mood adds a layer of  mystery to the composed tranquility of the artist’s realism, making his style truly one of a kind in the contemporary art world.


 


Homeland Nostalgia: Portraying Landscapes of Taiwan

Tzu-chi Yeh was born in 1957 in the town of Yuli, located in Hualien County on Taiwan’s east coast. His father originally came from Mei County in Guangdong Province, and born during the late Qing Dynasty, he had received an extensive education in Chinese literary and historical classics, and was very adept at poetry and calligraphy. When the Nationalist troops retreated to Taiwan in the mid-twentieth century, Yeh’s father and his family settled down in Yuli, which, like Mei County, was a predominantly Hakka area. Quiet and introspective, he devoted much of his time to landscape painting, capturing the idyllic natural scenery of his new home. Yeh’s mother came from an aristocratic family of the Bai Yi people, marrying Yeh’s father – 18 years older than her – at the age of 17. Although illiterate and torn away from her home and culture, she was an independent and strong woman, lively, active, and articulate. But with eight children to feed, there wasn’t much to go around, and life was simple. Tzu-chi Yeh showed a talent for calligraphy early on, and he also inherited his father’s compassionate character, love of literature, and aesthetic sensitivity. His mother bestowed on him her idealism and fearless self-reliance, as well as a strong will and perseverance that sometimes bordered on stubbornness.

 

Yuli is surrounded by mountains on all sides, wedged between the Central and Coastal Range. This kind of majestic and green environment left an indelible mark on the young painter as he grew up, and when he went to high school in Hualien City, his longing for the peaks and ranges of his childhood could only find comfort in contemplation of the sea with its timeless, undulating appeal. Practically all the artist’s inspiration, then, comes from his natural surroundings, be it mountains, the Pacific Ocean, clouds and trees, or, at a smaller level, the watermelons which Yuli produces in such abundance, or the various flowers that grow there, and all other everyday things and goings-on. All these would later become emblematic symbols of the artist’s nostalgia for his homeland, to which would be added the Yangming Mountains of Taipei, the bathroom and window views of his New York apartment, and other milestones of Yeh’s artistic journey.

 

After studying at the National Taiwan Academy of Arts, and graduating from the Fine Arts Department of the Chinese Culture University, Yeh joined the R.O.C. Modern Art Society and co-founded the 101 Modern Art Group, other members of which included several Chinese Culture University alumni, such as Yang Maolin, Lu I-chung, and Wu Tien-chang. They  held a joint exhibition to which Yeh contributed a series of realistic pictures with military themes. After his military service, Yeh set up his own studio, and for a while he taught painting for a living. The year 1987 saw his first solo exhibition, held at the American Cultural Center in Taiwan. Most of the work featured focused on family life, images of growing up in Taiwan, and the exploration of historic themes.

 


 


 

At age 30, in the prime of his life, Yeh went to the United States for further studies. After gaining a master’s degree from the Institute of Fine Arts at the City University of New York in Brooklyn, he remained abroad for a total of 19 years, a period during which he weathered many storms and trials, coming out at the other end as a man who had lost his parents but seen the birth of his own children, and was now seeing his work published and shown in various venues. During the 1990s, he painted numerous “monological” still lifes surveying the seasonal changes of nature, and expressing profound melancholy at the ephemeral quality of all life. In a solo exhibition catalog, the artist once wrote about emotional ties in the face of the transience of all existence: ”Nostalgia not only has the effect of extending distance but also grows heavier when time is prolonged. It is not only an emotional thought toward a physical hometown but also a regret of how time just flows by invisibly. It is remote desire, chase, melancholy, and memory between owning and losing something in life. These are all words that I wanted to express in my paintings.”

 

Yeh’s realistic paintings are full of metaphors and symbolism, though this may not always be immediately evident because of his assertive nonpareil style and the fact that his motifs are frequently taken from everyday life. Taiwan art critic Shih Juijen expounds: “Tzu-chi Yeh’s technique involves ‘purifying, isolating, and perfecting’ his subjects. He takes the totems of his native soil and sublimates them, consecrates them even. His motifs, qua emblems of homeland nostalgia, are imbued with a solemn sense of sanctity.” Even and especially when far away from his native country, a feeling of deep longing for everything “home” pervades the artist and his work.

 

One day, after having spent almost two decades on foreign shores, Yeh, the nostalgic perfectionist, suddenly returned to Hualien. When people asked him why he made the unexpected decision to come back, the artist spoke of “God’s will,” but also mentioned the Hollywood movie Forrest Gump: “There is this scene where Forrest has been running and running for some three years, with more and more people running in his trail. At one point, he simply stops in his track, turns around, and tells the people behind him, ‘I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.’ That pretty much describes my feelings at the time.”

 

Upon his return to Taiwan in 2006, he chose to make his home at the Hualien seaside, allowing him to engage in a daily dialogue with the ocean, while at the same time having the benefit of the mountainous scenery facing the water. His life is now relaxed and free from serious constraints: from his top-floor studio overlooking the blue waters of the vast Pacific, he can enjoy the unimpeded view of an everchanging horizon and wide skies, which probably explains why clouds and the sea have become two of his favorite motifs in recent years. As he progresses on his journey through life, Yeh continues to add new color and interest to his art.

 


 


A Rising Star in the Auction Market

Tzu-chi Yeh once said, “Realistic painting is like wielding a sword: when you’re young, you focus on skill and technique. As you grow older, the spiritual side of swordsmanship becomes more and more important.” When opting for realism as his fundamental approach to painting, Yeh was aware he would be rather alone in a postmodern environment. Yet he has managed to render realism attractive again by using it as a medium for communicating the clarity and authenticity of reality as he, from his solitary and unfettered vantage point, is able to perceive it. To quote him once more, “The most genuine dialogue tends to happen between two lonely people, because they can share their views of the world from the depth of their introverted souls. And works of art can serve as the ideal medium for this kind of meditative communication.”

 

Over almost 40 years, Yeh’s style has matured to the point where many collectors 
are now interested in acquiring his work. In recent times, showings of his work, be it at galleries or art fairs, have proved so popular that all the items on display found a buyer before the exhibition officially started. At auctions, the situation has been very similar, with demand regularly exceeding supply. As a result, his important paintings continue to set new price records. The autumn of 2013 saw the first time one of his works changed hands for more than NT$10 million, establishing Yeh as one of the heavyweights in the Greater Chinese art arena. The oil painting “Mist, Lao River, Hualien,” depicting his home county’s mountain scenery, sold at a Ravenel auction in Taipei in June, 2014, for NT$14.4 million (US$466,775), becoming the artist’s most expensive work, until “Big Banyan Tree,” showing an old banyan tree in Tainan that the artist had seen on a visit to a friend there, matched the record.

 

During his early years, it was not easy for Yeh to make a living just from his creative work, regardless of the fact that he had accumulated considerable experience participating in exhibitions ever since he started showing his work at the Chinese Culture University, and later at venues abroad, mainly New York. It was not until the artist was about 35 years old (i.e. in 1992) that he began to earn an actual income from his art – of course, many young artists share a similar experience. It was around that time that he started to hold exhibitions in Taiwan, such as the solo exhibition titled “Monologue” at the Gate Gallery in Taipei. After that, he came back to Taiwan at intervals of 2-3 years for further solo showings of his work at various venues, including the New Trends Gallery, the Eslite Gallery, the Home Gallery (now Jia Art Gallery), the New Phase Art Space, the Dimensions Art Center, and the Moon Gallery. Many of these galleries have a long history, but 
some are no longer relevant in today’s environment, for all the contributions they have made in the past. Today, the Eslite Gallery in the north, the Moon Gallery in central Taiwan, InArt Space (formerly New Phase Art Space) in the south, and iP Art gallery on the east coast are among the venues where Tzu-chi Yeh’s works are displayed on a fairly regular basis.

 


 


 

Yeh’s work frequently appears in the annual spring and fall auctions, particularly the Ravenel sessions in Taipei and Hong Kong, which usually feature more (and more important) works by the artist than other venues, as well as often setting new price/transaction records. Some of Yeh’s early works occasionally appear at other auctions, such as Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Poly Auction Hong Kong, Taiwan’s Zhong Cheng Auction, JSL Auction, and Kingsley Art Auction, Beijing’s China Guardian Auctions, and Shanghai’s Duo Yun Xuan and Hosane Auction.

 

Ravenel Autumn Auction in Hong Kong and Taipei will feature seven very 
interesting lots from various periods by Tzu-chi Yeh, including the painting “Rear Windows, Summer Afternoon” (19891990), which depicts the view from the artist’s studio in Brooklyn: a warm work showing several ailanthus trees, vibrant in the sunshine playing on the brick walls. This painting is one of the few works from the artist’s earliest years to surface in recent times, and is scheduled to be auctioned on Nov 29. Yeh has reportedly described this as one of his best paintings.

 

After that, a number of paintings will go on auction at Ravenel Taipei on Dec 6, including the very popular “Yang-ming Mountains” (2007-2008), showing a forest of Acacia confusa, “Clouds in New York” (2007-2008) showing a single cloud in a blue sky, “Monologue” (2002-2013), a rare depiction of a swimming fish, as well as three flower still lifes: “Camellia” (20092010), “Early Spring” (1997-1998), and “Ginger Lily” (2014-2015). All of these are meticulously executed masterpieces, highly representative of Yeh’s style during various periods of his creative career.

 

With their focus on detail and realism, all of Yeh’s paintings require a long germination period, and it is fair to say that he is not a particularly prolific artist. But rarity can make value, and between 2014 and 2015, we have seen his works hit new peaks on the art market. Against this backdrop of growing popularity, it is not surprising that a considerable number of his paintings are set to appear in the upcoming auctions. For some collectors, it is a chance to get a return on previous investments, for others, an opportunity to buy some of Yeh’s best work. There can be no doubt, then, that Tzu-chi Yeh will be one of the stars of the end-of-year auctions. 

 



 
 

 


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