SU Wong-shen: And Then

Artist SU Wong-shen’s solo exhibition And Then, set to open on November 20, 2021 at the ESLITE GALLERY, features a total of 19 paintings created from 2017 to 2021. In 2017, SU Wong-shen moved from Mingde New Village, a naval dependent’s housing area in Zuoying, Kaohsiung where he lived for nearly 20 years, to Anping, Tainan. His once accustomed village-scape was replaced by the ocean skyline and the coastal fish farms and salt fields.

  • Exhibition Period:20 November – 18 December 2021
  • Address:ESLITE GALLERY ∣ B1, No. 88, Yanchang Rd., Xinyi Dist., Taipei City 110055, Taiwan

Seeing the COVID pandemic ravaging the world and impacting everyone since 2020, SU, always concerned about social and environmental issues, has incorporated the world under COVID into his paintings, using “animals” to reenact this collective memory.

For more than 40 years, “four-legged animals” have graced his paintings as metaphors of people living in the society. From the clear forms of cats and dogs in the early days, they have gradually transformed into four-legged animal-like creatures. The animal habit of ganging up and fighting over territories alludes to the chaos of political polarization, the disgraceful election campaigns and the antics of politicians. SU is like an observer who has a bird’s-eye view of the worldly affairs and conveys his concern for the reality of the society through his “Animal Farm.”

Born in Puzi, Chiayi in 1956, SU graduated from the Fine Arts Department at the College of Chinese Culture (now Chinese Culture University), with painting as his usual form of creation. As his studio moved from Tamsui, to Zuoying, then to Anping, the sceneries in his paintings also changed. In the 1980s, he painted the then Tamsui before the MRT came into being and the development of the Danhai planned community. SU was captivated by the charming natural scenery and the cultural richness of the town, and the cats and dogs that roamed the alleyways made their way onto his canvas. SU moved back down south in 1998 and settled down in a military dependent’s village in Zuoying in 1999. This happened to coincide with another wave of change in Taiwan’s political scene. In the rather closed-off military village where politics is casual small talk, he used his “nondescript” animals as performers in a “political circus troupe”, mocking the political madness with a side of humor.

In 2015, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum staged Animal Farm: The Paintings of Su Wong-shen, a complete retrospective of his 40 years of creative career. Later in 2018, before the launch of Wandering Land: Solo Exhibition of Su Wongshen at Shanghai’s Long Museum, the Zuoying military village was made into a cultural park. He vented the sadness of leaving the village into The Relocation Trilogy, which heralded yet another stage for his creation. Now SU resides in a place looking out to Anping Harbor. The fenced off world of the village is substituted by the open ocean skyline. The two Harborside paintings are snippets of life captured by him overlooking the boats and his surroundings. Wandering Land is inspired by Yuguang Island where SU takes his walks and bikes along the sea dike. Wetland No More and Water Village are depictions of the sceneries along the coast of Jiayi and Tainan. For instance, the bamboo poles, erected in the fish farms and wetlands that often have water birds perched on them, are turned into symbols in the paintings.

Most of his post-2020 works are connected to the pandemic. Dear Diary sees him painting the acrylic partitions like revolving doors, while the big glowing screen hints at the life of people staring at the computer for work and for school during the pandemic, and the balloons emerging from the sluice gate suggest the helplessness faced by farmlands in southern Taiwan during the water shortage. Enclose, Distancing and Bubble Life relate to the social distancing for pandemic prevention—playgrounds are taped off, animals are social distancing or kept in bubbles for safety reasons. “In the last couple of years, everyone’s life has been tense. The weather is a mess, the pandemic is a mess, people are a mess. I just want everyone to relax a little bit,” said SU in his usual sense of humor.

“Art is closely tied to everyday life. I receive a lot of information and feelings in my life, and it takes time to extract and digest them before they can be turned into artworks.” The relocations of SU’s studio grant his paintings with different looks. What remains unchanged is that animals continue to be a representation of human society and an emotional medium through which SU shows his care for the world around him.

From Tamsui in New Taipei to Zuoying in Kaohsiung, the world of images of Taiwanese artist SU Wong-shen (b. 1956) is essentially centered on his home.  Beyond the trends of shock-value aesthetics and grand narratives, SU’s works illustrate that an understated humorous tone and quirky artistic expression evolved from regularity is a desirable approach for stirring local identity and establishing a set of local aesthetics.

His distinct bird’s-eye view technique gives an extraordinary visual imagery to his panoramic scenes or narratives. The settings of his work creates a trans-conceptual space, where the various visual variations experienced in flying or soaring impart movement within stillness, and where the center is in all places at all times and any single subject can be the subject of interest.

SU makes frequent use of iconographic symbols, such as animals and trees, while the center of his interest has always been playing with textures. These elements form a habitable and playable perceptual space balanced by a rational allegory and calm tones. Via the actions and composition of the animals, the artist brings the relationship between human beings and their environment to a metaphoric and poetic level.

His artistic accomplishments are ultimately not manifested in the application of trendy concepts or strategic manipulations, but are determined by the employment of alternative thinking and distinctly independent artistic language.