The youthful minds of the Mannerist painters, trained by the great masters of the High Renaissance, may have asked, “Where do we go with our art?” Feeling the achievements of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, 1475-1564) and Titian (Tiziano Vecellio, c. 1490-1576) among others could not be matched, they may have concluded that the pinnacle had been reached. The High Renaissance Masters’ art adorned Heaven on Earth.
We, of course, know this not to be true. Art did not reach a crescendo with Leonardo and Michelangelo only to decline thereafter. Art is as much a compound and cyclical process as it is inspired. As the evolution of art winds by, we have seen art beautifully serve as an expression of awareness, a form of communication and a path to seeking transcendence. All along, artists have approached ideas through art. Art is a language of ideas. The idea of Christianity inspired some of our most treasured paintings and cast all eyes to the heavens to understand mankind’s place in our universe. In time, we realized we were more than mere beings dwarfed by the immensity of a divine universe and soon came to recognize and celebrate human achievement which again, we immortalized in timeless art. Fuelled by personal inspiration, artists were then drawn inward to uncover a new world - a hidden world of secret and private thoughts which took art in an entirely new direction. This led to understanding the source of all ideas – the human mind and its gift of imagination. Today, art is not as much a means to approaching an idea as it is the idea becoming a means to approaching art.
Jeffrey Chong Wang is a painter of our time. His portraiture and figurative works explore ideas. They present to us ideas of truth, reality, nature, singular and group complexities. His art is rich in symbolism, yet fresh to the eye. It takes us to bygone centuries and by comparison, shows us that as much as things change, things don’t really change all that much. We stand in an almost parallel time as those of the 15th and 16th centuries when artistic content and achievement underwent a refinement, and globalization influenced how we defined ourselves. It was an era marked with the psyche divided by the familiarity and safety of mankind as a collective, and the newfound fears of man distinguishing himself from a group. Mankind’s fears appear to be timeless.
Today, we seem to be facing a similar refinement, celebrating, yet further questioning the meaning of art and our place in this world. We face many of the same challenges as we continue questioning through religion and science all the while, refining our cultures. Jeffrey’s work, be it a portrait or a figurative composition, challenges the viewer to question. He presents to us the relation of one to another and the invisible that binds them together. We search to find the relation as we examine the tension Jeffrey creates between each figure. We look for truth as we try to understand the reality. What we see before us does not always match what lies under the surface. The subject matter, although classic at first appearance, has cracks in its porcelain surface. There is an off-balance that draws us in. We are cleverly offered a visual shovel to dig at the psyche and reveal what the silence distracts us from seeing. The shovel will score to find the weakness. It will break through at the fissures and rise to surface the truth that lies grounded below.
As the pendulum swung through the Renaissance period, it passed through a number of highs, among them a redefined role for the artist. With higher education, no longer was an artisan employed by the Church only to illustrate the word of God. The fine arts came to be viewed just as important a discipline as math and science, and found its place among the formally educated. Renaissance artists, for the first time, began to experience recognition for their individuality and creative expression. Once math and science entered the realm of art and the rules of scientific perspective had been formulated, most famously by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), the composition and subject matter of painting evolved at a tremendous rate. Working through these new rules of perspective, coupled with the growing understanding of how to render the human body at a deeper muscular and skeletal level, the artist learned to convey a heightened sense of realism. Mannerist painters continued to honour the human body, rendering with perfection all the grace, passion, and emotion generated through posture, facial expression, and gesture. This humanization in art is forever immortalized in Michelangelo’s fleeting moment before the touch of God’s finger to man. The Renaissance and Mannerist periods exemplified this transference of power from the Heavens above to mankind on Earth.
Prevalent as the centre of a town’s geography and its people’s activities, the Church began losing its foothold in communities at about the same time as global exploration began. An institution under scrutiny now found itself in competition with the growing trend towards commerce and the resulting creation of an art market with wealthy merchants as the new patrons. Cathedral builders had long since turned their attention to ship building as the 15th century witnessed Colonial expansion on a grand scale. With continents newly discovered, developing international markets opened up to the trading of exotic commodities and souvenirs with an increasing exchange of new thoughts and ideas. Global trading and the divergence of money and power away from the Church facilitated in a shift of perception and with it, a difference in the treatment of subject matter in painting. Leading up to this period, painters portrayed biblical stories with the use of gargoyles and other-worldly creatures instilling fear so shelter would be sought within the Church. Illustrated to dominate humans, judgement of a higher order prevailed as human activity was slated to the background of a composition. With time, the over-crowded battleground of religious conflict and struggle hovering above the landscape turned earthbound and the human form came to dominate the foreground portraying those conflicts in what was to develop as an internal struggle. At first, divine figures mingled with man, but as the shift in awareness grew and the miraculous aspects of religion began to be questioned, divinity was rendered ever smaller eventually taking its place in the background. What developed was a graceful portrayal of a spiritual celebration. And, with the market in place to buy and sell paintings and sculpture, the value of art took on an entirely new meaning. A renaissance was well under way.
Mannerism may have been the final swing of the pendulum of the Renaissance with its leading edge rooted in Italian soil. The mannerist movement pumped its blood through the veins of its young artists hungry for fresh ideas. They had their stories of old; the biblical stories they studied and learned their craft by. Once fully accepted and now in part questioned, these biblical narratives were diminishing and allegory was settling into its new mythology. A sense of spirituality was finding its place in the psyche of man. Inspiration shifted as artists internalized the narratives, changing art much in the same way the humanization of it did. The Mannerist El Greco (Domenikos Theotocopoulos, 1541-1614), trained in Venice and eventually settling in Toledo, Spain, helped shape and define Mannerism with his graceful style of elongated figures and classical subject matter rendered with certain spirituality and empathy. Mannerism differed throughout Europe. Further north, the Flemish painters of the 15th century also developed their ideas and spread their innovations to Spanish, German, and French painters. There was a variety of regional styles lending their signature to and aft the Renaissance period. Classical subject matter was being superseded by the imagination of individual artists. Each learned their craft from their masters and honed their skills. The human form came to dominate compositions as the ideas of Christianity were acted out. And, it was this acting out as opposed to being acted upon that empowered the human spirit and gave it centre stage in our art.
Once culture outgrew the confines of religion and was free to be molded by the hands of wealthy families, the Church still had its voice. With a growing confidence and independence, society felt less physically threatened, but residual fear internalized plaguing the mind. The institution of church had kept people safe from nature for so long. How, now, would mankind protect itself? This became the subject matter for one artist Hieronymus Bosch (d. 1516). With his prophetic Salvador Dali-like monsters and orgy scenes of hopelessness, Bosch’s work very well could have marked the beginning of painting becoming less about the physical world and more about what goes on in the mind. He explored coming to terms with a slow and growing disconnect with the Church. As individuals began to control their own destiny, Bosch seems to have been experimenting with the idea of how mankind would survive without divine guidance. It seems, it was not a pretty sight. Hell on Earth could be the conclusion drawn from his other-worldly imagination. He may also have been suggesting that it was not one Hell that existed. With his dreamy scenarios and disconnected themes, he may have come to realize the potential for many Hells to exist within each one of us.
As Bosch set to explore the landscape of the mind, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) turned his attentions to the political and domestic rhythms of peasant life with humour and joy replacing fear and doom. Bruegel the Elder found his patrons amongst the independently rich and did not need to take church commissions. In his world, Bosch’s fears were overcome, or suppressed and life had settled into comfortable activity and satisfying distractions. Surrounded by nature, people went about their day to days feeling safe in their environment. This trend continued in the work of Jan Bruegel the Elder (1568-1625), son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Beautiful gardens and natural settings staged the celebration of human activity much like his father’s. Any hint of Christianity became symbolic as religion turned spiritual and philosophy constructed its mythology.
Jeffrey’s work embodies all of this 400 year old learning curve. With forceful and radiant figures foremost in the composition, his landscapes have a theatrical tone; almost dream-like and although derived from reality, could in fact be no actual place. In his work, we see the reminiscences of Jean Fouquet (c. 1420-1481), a great manuscript illustrator whose sculptural figurative work resembled a staged play. His compositions appear propped and set-ready waiting for the actors to be called to their place under the lights. There exists this same stillness to Jeffrey’s work. On the surface, all appears to be quiet and unchanging. But, like an actor on cue to speak, boiling just below the surface is a cauldron of activity and emotion. Jeffrey’s groupings are visually a connected mass. But, as each elegant figure is revealed, one senses something amiss and the viewer is drawn to the silent and invisible spaces between the figures to find the disconnect and sense why these characters have been brought together in the first place. As one searches, some of the distances appear to be insurmountable.
|Early Reproduction of El Greco's Laocoon|
In Jeffrey’s work, we can neither accept at face value, nor take anything for granted. He paints figuratively exploring the revelation of reality as it is balanced between the singular secret truth of an individual and the perceived open truth inspired by togetherness. His backgrounds are intuitive frontiers. His figures are as fleeting as a moment. We see them, but only for an instant; as though caught and existing in spaces between one moment and the next, yet they are enduring in their classical poses. The costuming is veiled. Unable to see below the surface, clues to an individual’s history are rendered in exquisite fabrics and intricate design. As you peer at the faces and into the eyes especially, the smooth veneer of reality shows hairline fractures. The strange monsters that once roamed Bosch’s landscapes now exist in the eyes of a few of these faces. On the surface, appears order and grace, but just below - just behind the eyes - wages a battle against the unknown and chaotic. There exists a delicate balancing act pinning conformity against derangement. This undercurrent, this energy waits for form; it waits to be realized. Twisted glances and contoured expressions expose impulses fighting to rise triumphant. If there is a Hell, perhaps as Bosch intimated, it does not exist on Earth, but instead dwells in the mind of each of us. It dwells in the silence it thrives on and lurks in the space of time it takes for inspiration to create a moment and for that moment to create truth. It is this silence we experience in the surface tension of Jeffrey’s work. The tension as truth struggles to find clarity, or gives in to distortion and corruption; even whimsy. It is a mirrored look at our own time in its entire veiled, complex, detached, humorous and over-loaded matrix. There seems to be something always just out of reach …
From the Byzantine to the Baroque period, artists’ perceptions and their tools underwent an evolution that transformed subject matter. The mediums went from egg tempera on plaster to oil on wood and fabric. This transition offered a translucency to paint furthering the effects of perspective and light allowing a vast portrayal of emotion through a greater range of light and shadow. With the Mannerists’ influence, the Baroque artists excelled in their apprenticeships and applied their skills of observation onto the human condition. By internalizing their subject matter, it became less about the glory of the human form and more about the exploration of the interior world (symbolic of the mind) where indoor activity, lit mostly by a window, veiled the people conducting their day to day business with a sense of protection and yearning. Many went about their business; others looked towards the light perhaps in quest of something better, or in memory of another time. With the depiction of everyday life, human virtue and morality was judged by peers instead of a higher order signalling the recognition that our thoughts are as much a part of our reality as our senses. Earth was no longer seen as the centre of the universe, yet an individual had become the centre of his own world and thus, accountable for his actions with the power to veto those of others. All worlds were the parts that made up the sum of one world.
Within Jeffrey Chong Wang, we feel the pioneer spirit of those young and daring minds of the 16th century and it is of no coincidence that in these times, Jeffrey would find solidarity with the Mannerists. We find ourselves in a place of simultaneous varying styles in art. We may come to know this period as a new variation on an old Conceptual theme: the idea of art. Where art was once the tool, we have turned our attentions to the tool itself to explore its qualities, limitations and potential. As science continues to verge on tremendous breakthroughs challenging long-standing beliefs, our world is in flux over the physical realities we thought we understood so well. Jeffrey challenges us not to accept reality at face value. We are compelled to look deeper, all the while looking out to new frontiers. There may not be one collective reality, but instead, a reality for each of us. Where and how do they converge?
It is our challenge to harmonize and co-exist. Harmonization of truth and reality may well take place in the moments and silent spaces existing between us; always adapting, always in motion. We once believed that reality was divine intervention and something feared. Now, we own our potential and know of what we control. We fear corruption. We fear the loss of control, the loss of wealth, of love, trust and our grasp on what we are. We are still asking the same questions from 400 years ago. Do not see it as a full circle in search of an end, but as a graceful means to continue to question. Neither religion, nor science has all the answers. One certainty remains – inspiration, imagination and ideas will keep us searching and keep artists painting.