By Michelle JN Lim
Centenarian Cultural Medallionist Lim Tze Peng is best known for his street scenes of old-world Singapore and abstracted calligraphic masterpieces, called muddled calligraphy or hutuzi. But the artist’s enduring admiration for trees also features in many of his works, and those exhibited in Tree Spirit are Lim’s homage to the enigmatic majesty of the Banyan Tree. They also embody the maestro’s experiments with contemporary cropping strategies, which he deploys to give primacy to the most prized elements of his work: his brushstrokes. In doing so, this exhibition draws some missing links between the artist’s bodies of works.
A dance of ink across the broad expanse of paper. Shifting, undulating like dragons awakening from slumber, each splash a dose of primal energy that crackles its surrounding atmosphere. There is a sense of the primeval at work here; wild, untameable, captivating.
Tree Spirit brings together a series of acclaimed Singaporean artist Lim Tze Peng’s abstract works inspired by the enigmatic majesty of the banyan tree. At first glance, the works in this series may not immediately compel recognition. After all, the Lim Tze Peng signature style seems forged from his vast oeuvre of figurative Singapore scenes, and his iconic calligraphic abstractions, also known as muddled calligraphy or hutuzi.
Yet, a closer look reveals some inherent consistencies. The energetic lyricism of his brushwork in the paintings in Tree Spirit bears the same hand as those of the hutuzi series, both possessing what patron Koh Seow Chuan refers to as “the same verve and abandon” in bringing the banyan tree to life as it does in animating the page with abstracted calligraphy.
Visual poems of chaos
“You could say that my trees are visual poems of chaos,” the artist muses to writer Woon Tai Ho in Soul of Ink: Lim Tze Peng at 100. The artist has long been enraptured by the banyan tree’s formidable life force, as is apparent in his paintings. In Lim’s hands, the banyan’s iconic sprawling canopy and sinuous network of roots and vines are wrought in a flurry of black ink, invoking a constant sense of movement in the picture plane. These broad sable strokes are accompanied by splashes of umber, chartreuse and sky blue that hint at the wilderness beyond; a primordial hinterland perhaps yet untouched by the hand of man.
The works vary in their extent of abstraction. While some pieces read more figuratively with tree trunks and branches in a standard figure-ground relationship, others possess strong abstract expressionistic qualities such that almost every inch of the picture plane is worked over with dynamic gestures of ink. In both cases, the primal power of the banyan emanates from every tangled brushstroke.
They both reflect the miasma of our tropic’s eternal summer in their intensity, but it is perhaps in the more densely wrought pieces that a sense of the unknowable jungle emerges. As one enters into a space of contemplation with the immense intensity of Lim’s primeval Eden, the trappings of modernity fall away behind; we are left at one with the spirit of the forest.
A journey inward and out
Those familiar with Lim’s earlier works depicting Singaporean street scenes might find the works in Tree Spirit almost a world away from that. This is not entirely inaccurate. Subject matter aside, the artist’s modes of working also underwent numerous evolutions.
This period marked a transition from Lim’s habit of working en plein air to a process of reflection and imagination in his mature years. As curator Bridget Tracy Tan remarked in her essay for Infinite Gestures, Lim’s 2006 exhibition at STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery (then known as Singapore Tyler Print Institute): “The foray into extremely large-scale paintings and the more abstract works reveal a recourse that extrapolates intellect from skillfulness, defining a studied rumination from expediency”.
In working from old sketches, memory and mindscapes, Lim created room in his practice for abstraction to take root as a means of apprehending the spirit of his subject matter, rather than merely its form.
Art historian Tan Yong Jun notes in Redefining the Archaic: The Art of Lim Tze Peng that the introduction of large-scale Korean paper and Japanese colours into the artist’s practice also led to changes in the way he worked. Mounting these large sheets vertically onto wooden planks opened Lim to new horizons in mark-making.
Where he had previously been confined to what he could bring with him outdoors, he now wielded much larger brushes which invariably demanded that the artist channel a more energetic, expressive means of working with an expanded picture plane. Like this, the intricate descriptions of old world Singapore gave way to the gestural impressions of the arboreal, which capture the essence of a subject more so than a representation of it.
Chance, crop, tilt – contemporary strategies for an age-old medium
At the same time, his application of sweeping strokes of wet ink onto the vertical picture plane was an opening for aleatoric elements to enter the playing field. Short flecks of black ink pepper the paintings, at times torrential. For an artist for whom the calligraphic stroke is the foundation of his practice, this embrace of the incidental is an acknowledgement of ink’s own life force; a nod to the fact that the artist is creating a symphony in which he is but one part.
As Lim puts it, “The stroke is strong because it has emotion. It changes and is dynamic, and it exists on a grand scale… Every stroke must be alive. There must be life in every stroke.” Read in concert with the works in Tree Spirit, one realises that the vitality embodied in the stroke exists not merely in those that the artist has applied onto the page, but also in those that emerge serendipitously – springing free in drips and splatters, unwilling to be restrained. As such the marks that Lim makes transcend Chinese painting traditions, to achieve a sense of universality afforded by the language of abstraction.
Associates of the artist share that this is by no means the limit to Lim’s adoption of contemporary strategies in his work. Given that the pieces originally began as large-scale papers measuring roughly 3.6 by 1.4 metres, the eventual iterations of Tree Spirit are a result of intentional crops of the original pieces. This strategy enables the best moments of the artist’s work to be retained, preserving the vigour and freshness of the brushstroke.
It also provides the audience a peek into the artist’s creative process, as some of the pieces incorporate the overlapping back imprints of the original large-format paintings into the crop. In most of these cases, the wide border that is formed becomes a moment of nothingness that contrasts with the solidity of forms, granting the eye some breathing room. A moment for us, the viewer, to pause and exist within that space of trees.
Lim is no stranger to strategies usually associated with Western traditions of abstraction rather than Chinese ink painting: where apt, he would rotate the picture plane to create a more captivating viewing experience. This strategy is one that he would continue to deploy in his later hutuzi series, as writers Ho Sou Ping, Ma Peiyi and Diana Lee noted in their essay for Lim’s 2014 exhibition, Songs from the Heart.
In this particular series, Lim’s rotation of picture planes subverts the original figure-ground relations and once again invokes chance as a collaborator. The usual rules upended, the branches and root intertwine in fresh permutations, now conjuring impressions of marshland and swamp that hearken once more to a sense of the primordial archaic.
Despite the firm traditions from which Lim came and his mature age, the way that he allows for serendipity to breathe life into his practice in these various ways is uncharacteristically modern, and marks him as an artist with an experimental and contemporary spirit.
A tree, an artist
A banyan is a formidable specimen of nature. It has the capacity to extend infinitely outwards and evolve, its branches descending into soil and taking root to become new trunks. Like the banyan, Lim’s career spans a rich and multifarious practice; a dense thicket in a class of its own.
The works presented in Tree Spirit are not only the artist’s ode to this force of nature for which he has immense regard; they also reflect the spirit of the artist himself in his unrelenting drive for growth and breakthrough in his practice. Embedded in this series is a snapshot of that brief moment in the artist’s extensive oeuvre as he evolved, sending down new branches; planting new roots in the soil.
Singapore Art Museum, INROADS: The Ink Journey of Lim Tze Peng. (Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, 2009), Exhibition catalogue.
Ho Sou Ping, Ma Peiyi, Diana Lee, Tze Peng: Songs from the Heart. (Singapore: Friends of Lim Tze Peng, 2014), Exhibition catalogue.