Wu Song-ming (吳松明) started making woodblock prints in the late 1990s because his art school teachers told him that he was rubbish at oil painting, the discipline he was majoring in. Now he makes a living from his art, an enviable situation for a 46-year-old artist working in an unfashionable medium.
Wu’s new works, the majority of which are scenes of Taiwan in black ink, go on show in Living Under the Longan Tree (龍眼樹下), an exhibition at the German Cultural Center from next Monday. Wu’s aim for the series is simple: “To make people take a second look at the things around them.”
Hailing from a farming family on Taiwan’s northeast coast, Wu came late to art school, after making a number of attempts to get the required grades. “I was shattered that my oil paintings were taken apart by my teachers time and time again,” he said. To find consolation, he took up wood sculpture, then found a comfortable niche in woodblock printing, where he could combine his newfound medium with his desire to paint.
“Woodblock printing hardly needs to be taught because it’s so simple,” he said with a laugh, adding that it is the immediacy of the medium that appeals to him.
With woodblock printing, Wu said he experiences a palpable and delightful feeling of the theoretical baggage that burdened him during art school falling away.
“I want to express things that I see and experience in my own language,” he said. “With Western oil painting, I knew so much about it, the history and techniques, it just got in the way. I knew nothing about woodwork, but I found it really easy and fun to work in this medium.” It proved a recipe for success.
Wu’s earlier work, some of which was inspired by his experiences traveling in Europe during an art residency there, have an Expressionistic quality, and though he is interested the woodblock work of post-Impressionists such as Gauguin and also the German Expressionists, who worked with woodblock printing, he denies being directly influenced by them.
Although his new series Living Under the Longan Tree takes Taiwan as its theme, Wu shuns political baggage and aims to keep his distance from Chinese artistic traditions as well.
“At school, it was all about learning from books, you didn’t have to look at anything to be able to paint it,” he said.
“Technically, woodblock printing is fairly simple, and doesn’t require expensive equipment,” Wu said, which explains how he’s been able to alternate regularly between production and exhibiting with an ease denied to more academically respectable and technically demanding mediums such as etching.
In Living Under the Longan Tree, Wu takes a close look at the scenery of his home and finds a challenge in learning how to represent the things he sees. “I will probably return to doing abstract work. But working from nature is like returning to base; it forces me to really look at things closely and work out how to express them. Imagination is like a space shuttle; it can wander to incredibly distant places, but sometimes it’s got to come back to refuel.”
This process of refueling has produced some delightful images of Taiwan. They are stylistically androgynous, with tantalizing hints of both Western and Asian influences, and in their painstaking detail and evocative composition, manage to be recognizable without completely giving up an allegorical element.