Understanding Lim Choon Jin’s Contemporary Landscapes

My Space · 我的空间 is G Art Gallery’s retrospective exhibition of contemporary ink artist Lim Choon Jin whose artistic career has spanned more than 40 years. Lim’s signature contemporary ink landscape paintings have often been mistaken as traditional Chinese ink landscape paintings – a common misperception if one was only to view his artworks in a vacuum.

My Space · 我的空间 showcases a selection of Lim’s contemporary ink artworks that includes his early technical artworks. These rarely seen early artworks became the reconstructivist foundation of a visual phenomenon that conveys time, transition and light in an emotive and interpretative art style for engaging his audiences.

The retrospective exhibition encourages the audience to step into and understand that his contemporary ink landscape paintings are not just a part of his world – the paintings could also be reflective of theirs.

As such, this brief companion article introduces the artist, identifies creative concepts in his artworks (especially that of Reconstructivism and visual phenomena), explains selected artworks, and clarifies the aforementioned general misperception of Lim’s art.

A Highly Awarded Contemporary Ink Artist and Community Leader

Born 1945 in Singapore, Lim Choon Jin graduated from the LaSalle College of the Arts with a Diploma in Fine Arts (Painting) in 1994, a Bachelor of Arts (1st Class Honours, Visual Arts) in 2004 and a Masters of Arts (Fine Arts) in 2005. Since 1992, Lim has been involved in over 50 local and international group exhibitions and ten solo exhibitions.

Since Lim’s 1996 participation in the United Overseas Bank (UOB) Painting of the Year (POY) competitions, he has garnered a Certificate of Distinction (Traditional Chinese Medium) in the 15th UOB POY competition, a Category Winner (Traditional Chinese Medium) award in the 23rd UOB POY competition, and a Highly Commended (Abstract) award during the 24th UOB POY competition.

Lim has also received a Certificate of Recognition from Singapore ASEAN Awards (Philip Morris Asia Limited) in 2003; and was conferred the RMIT BA (Hons) Dean’s Excellent Award from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, Australia, during his academic studies in 2004.

As part of Singapore’s vibrant visual arts community, Lim has contributed significantly as the President of Modern Art Society Singapore (2009/2010, 2013/2014 and 2015/2016). He has also selflessly served as a committee member for the Modern Art Society Singapore, Singapore Art Society, Federation of Art Societies Singapore, and The Society of Chinese Artists Singapore since 1995.

With his vast experience as a former Ministry of Education teacher (from 1965 until his retirement in 1998), Lim continues to contribute to the arts education of Singapore’s art community as an artist-teacher at the LaSalle College of the Arts, private art schools and family service centres even till today.

Reconstructivism and Visual Phenomena

Before we begin an exploration of Lim’s artistic philosophy, a brief review of two significant concepts, Reconstructivism and visual phenomena, would help with our understanding of Lim’s artistic vision.

With its origins in the works of Paulo Freire and Christopher Sunami, Reconstructivism is a relatively new concept when applied to the visual arts as a method of contemporary assessment or creation.

Paulo Freire’s educational philosophy of banking is defined as the process of dialogue and humanisation that stems from creating awareness within structured educational approaches that favour traditional rote learning models.[1] A proto-concept was then realised with his statement, “neither objectivism nor subjectivism is propounded here, but rather subjectivity and objectivity in constant dialectical relationship”.

Freire’s philosophy is to create and encourage the self-realisation of abstract subjects and ideas taught to individuals within a structured environment. A structured method of instruction will see a teacher, using the syllabus of the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (芥子园画谱), to teach students to paint birds as an exercise during a Chinese ink painting class. However, Freire’s banking philosophy will see the teacher guiding students on how to paint the bird and then allow them to apply and compose what they have observed in their gardens or their walks in the park (a memory-related experience personal to themselves).

In 2004, Christopher Sunami structured and proposed his concept of Reconstructivist art as artefacts that build upon prior, deconstructionist artworks and techniques but adapt them to classic themes and structures to create works of genuine emotion and significance.[2]

Sunami’s concept of Reconstructivism is to create the awareness of reality through the recontextualisation of everything that an individual has learnt abstractly – a purpose that mirrors Freire’s proto-concept in his banking philosophy.

Sunami’s concept will then see the Chinese ink painting student (without the intervention of the teacher) pick apart the basic structure of the bird, re-assemble the essential components of the bird into something relevant to and allow the student to self-insert meaning and observations meant for sharing and reinterpretation to wider audiences. The result of the student’s artwork would be considered a Reconstructivist artwork.

In the case of Lim’s artistic philosophy, as documented in the exhibition catalogue for Illusions in Mist,[3] he re-examined traditional Chinese ink painting concepts and ideas, brushwork techniques and material handling;[4] and then began to have internal dialogues about the ideals and relevance of Chinese ink heritage to himself.

The outcome of these dialogues and brushwork experimentations[5] allowed him to deconstruct and create textured patterns through experimental brushwork techniques that invoke visual phenomena that solicit emotional and reflective interpretations from the audience as an engagement-based experience.[6]

While these textured patterns can be described as abstractions of objects, these same patterns inform the audience what it might be based on their personal perceptions and interpretations of the artwork. When an artwork can generate responses, without context or distinct symbolism, from the individual’s personal interpretation based on their personal experiences and emotions, this could be considered a visual phenomenon-based artwork.

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Fig. 1 Lim Choon Jin, Meaning and Being Series 3 #1, #2 and #3 意义与存在 系列 三 #1, #2 and #3, 2003, Chinese ink and colour pigment on rice paper, 178.0 x 48.0 cm. G Art Gallery, Singapore.

Presented as a part of the body of artworks made in preparation as research materials before the conferment of his BA degree in 2004, the Meaning and Being Series 3 #1, #2 and #3 were some of his earliest documented and exhibited textured pattern artworks.[7]

From a conversation with a viewer on the three-piece set of Meaning and Being Series 3, an interpretation was made of the changes in an individual’s consciousness and perspectives within a person’s life.[8]

Regarding #1, the viewer pointed out that the distinct and dispersed brushstrokes reflect simplicity and innocence, while the mottled and hazy patterns reflected uncertainty and curiosity; both of which spoke of a younger age period of an individual.

When studying the complex and denser patterns of #2, it was interpreted that things in life become more complex and multifaceted as a younger individual grows older.

As the viewer reflected upon #3, it was apparent that the density and distinction of patterns spoke of a matured individual who has greater clarity in their thoughts in life and has opted to see things simply.

After quietly reflecting on the observations made, the viewer became moved that the Meaning and Being Series 3 artworks could dredge up forgotten memories of her childhood, growing years and now as an adult with responsibilities.

These observations show how Lim’s textured patterns solicit emotional and reflective responses from an individual without any given context – a visual phenomenon for personal interpretations.

Utilising what Lim had learnt from his textured patterns during his academic studies, he began to incorporate visual phenomenon techniques in his unique reinterpretation of traditional concepts of the Three Distances (三远), pictorial depictions of flora and fauna, and spatial treatment within the paper medium.

Lim’s approach towards contemporising Chinese ink landscapes also saw him incorporating concepts of geography, meteorology, time and its transitions, ambient light, and even emotions and wishes; where he infuses every landscape painting with his thoughts of escapism, the search for tranquillity, the pleasures of colour and light, and sometimes even the expression of his personal emotions.

The artwork Morning Shine over the Wetland, acquired by Guangzhou University in Guangzhou, China, serves as a prime example of a reconstructed landscape with Lim’s signature metallic pigmentation and textured patterns. It should also be noted that this artwork fully utilises the classic concept of Three Distances (三远) as a painting methodology to compose and structure a Chinese ink landscape painting.

Fig. 2 Lim Choon Jin, Morning Shine over the Wetland 山边晨景, 2015, Chinese ink and colour pigment on rice paper, 90.0 x 120.0 cm. Guangzhou University, Guangzhou, China.

A visual reading of Morning Shine over the Wetland describes the transitionary moment of the sunlight casting its rays onto a foggy marshland as it revolves around the earth.

With the middle top-most peak of the landscape as the point of reference, the sun’s rays are only cast on the right side of the painting. Lim’s gold pigmentation emphasises the overall intensity of the sunlight and the clear illumination of the marshland in this landscape painting.

Since sunlight would be absorbed by vegetation, the monochromatic textured patterns could then be interpreted as abstracted representations of vegetation growing on the sides of the hill. The gold pigmentation on the highlighted hill ridges would then be logically construed as barren surfaces and thus void of vegetation.

Sweeping down on the right of the artwork, textured patterns appear sparingly to suggest light vegetation densities peeping through the fog carpeting the marshland. However, thick vegetation can be observed on the artwork on the lower right side and towards the lower middle. Here lies a potential quandary where the gold pigmentation in this swathe of terrain can mean at least two possible interpretations: barren terrain or water elements.

Considering that the hill ridges are barren with the sun’s reflections, the terrain in the lower section of the painting could be regarded as bare. However, it is also possible that the highly reflective visual phenomenon of the terrain’s vegetation could mean that water droplets heavily impregnate it.

A logical interpretation is inconclusive even with several careful readings of this particular painting section under different lighting conditions. This ambiguity is a unique visual phenomenon often found in Lim’s artworks.

As the focus shifts to the left side of the painting, the darkened and muted colours suggest the absence of the sun’s rays. These darkened and muted patterns replicate the illusion of dense fog across the marshland, as seen in real life. In the left mid-ground, the upward-lifting mottled textured patterns suggest the intensity of a wind that is about to push the fog off the marshland.

An additional observation can be made that even in the absence of its artwork title, Morning Shine over the Wetland visually informs the viewer of a select time of the day due to the considerations mentioned above of the position of the sun’s rays within the context of the painting. This unique visual style of indicating time is critical evidence of Lim’s contemporary ink landscape paintings being distinctly non-traditional.

With concepts of ambiguous interpretations, environmental considerations, light transitions, meteorological influences, time of day, and visual phenomena, Morning Shine over the Wetland is indeed a complex study of a contemporary ink landscape painting worthy of deep research value.

Beyond textured patterns via brushwork and pigmentation techniques, Lim has adapted non-traditional surface mediums to paint upon and even utilise the material characteristics of surface mediums to create the visual phenomena he wants to achieve for his artistic purposes.

Fig. 3 Lim Choon Jin, Snowing Hill 飘雪, 2016, Chinese ink and colour pigment on Resho paper, 74.0 x 49.0 cm. G Art Gallery, Singapore.

Snowing Hill is an example of Lim’s ability to utilise colour and surface mediums to create visual effects in line with his creative vision.

The surface medium in Snowing Hill is a handmade paper known as Bhutanese Resho paper. After several trials with this paper medium, Lim was able to produce brushwork and pigmentation effects that leave untouched spots for his intended visual effects.

In Snowing Hill, the overall effect of the stark and untouched spots creates an illusion of ice congealing on the surface of a glass panel. The formation of the untouched areas suggests a wetter environment where ice crystals are not distinctly crystallised compared to drier environments.

With the painting’s smaller dimensions as a frame, this visual interpretation can then be described as viewing out of a glass panel from the window of an aeroplane as it ascends from the sub-tropical climate to the higher altitudes.

When we know the pleasures of viewing natural landscapes with our eyes, we would feel frustrated and regretful that we may have just missed a beautiful scenic view when the experience has been visually marred. Considering the visual clarity of Lim’s prior contemporary ink landscapes, the obscured perspective of this iced glass panel does suggest a sense of regret from leaving this serene landscape.

Thus within Snowing Hill, the elements of time and its transitions, geography, climate, and personal attachments are evident – again, a significant departure from traditional Chinese ink landscape painting concepts.

Setting the Record

With several goals in mind, Lim Choon Jin’s early experiments in brushwork techniques and surface mediums allowed him to create the visual phenomena that he sought in his artistic interpretations: to re-negotiate Chinese ink heritage within its classic structures, to reconstruct contemporary ink after deconstruction and then make relevant to himself and audiences, and to create artworks that entice and solicit emotive and reflective responses from the audience.

While there are influences of Chinese ink heritage, Lim’s reinterpretation through his creativity, emotions and thoughts make them uniquely relevant to himself and his audiences in this day and this age.

Furthermore, with Lim’s artistic philosophy, concepts, brushwork techniques and material handling in an illustrious and long career of creating Reconstructivist contemporary Chinese ink-based landscapes, he has definitely created a distinct and unique visual style of his own that is instantly recognisable in any collection and exhibition.

Hence, simply dismissing Lim’s Chinese ink-based paintings as mere traditional Chinese ink landscapes is a grave misunderstanding.

About the Curator

Vincent Lin is a G Art Gallery curator and art historian based in Singapore and China. With almost two decades of curatorial experience in Singapore’s visual arts and museum fields, he specialises in traditional, modern and contemporary Chinese ink art forms and modern art history in Singapore.

References

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. 2018 ed. New York: Bloomsbury, 1970.
Lim, Choon Jin. “Production of Accidental Effects in Chinese-Ink Painting.” Dissertation, LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts, 2005.
Lin, Vincent. “Exploring Reconstructivism in Modern Chinese Ink Art.” In Illusions in Mist, 2015.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. New York: Routledge, 1962. 2004.
Sunami, Christopher. “Reconstructivist Art.” 2004. Accessed July 24, 2014. http://popculturephilosopher.com/reconstructivist-art/.
Wentworth, Nigel. The Phenomenology of Painting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Endnotes

[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, 2018 ed. (New York: Bloomsbury, 1970), 71-86.
[2] Christopher Sunami, “Reconstructivist Art,” 2004. Accessed July 24, 2014. http://popculturephilosopher.com/reconstructivist-art/.
[3] Vincent Lin, “Exploring Reconstructivism in Modern Chinese Ink Art,” in Illusions in Mist (2015).
[4] For a look into how Lim re-examined traditional Chinese ink painting concepts and ideas, brushwork techniques and material handling, see his dissertation, “Production of Accidental Effects in Chinese-Ink Painting” (Dissertation, LaSalle-SIA College of the Arts, 2005).
[5] While Lim produced experimental paintings for his academic studies as part of his studio work in 2004 and 2005, his draft technical paintings were produced earlier than 2004 – a valuable resource for future art research and study.
[6] For visual phenomenon in relation to visual art, see Nigel Wentworth, The Phenomenology of Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: Routledge, 1962; repr., 2004).
[7] These 2003 artworks were first publicly shown in his 2007 Distillation exhibition.
[8] A peer shared these observations with the author when viewing the artworks in person.

Vincent Lin
Curatorial Director
G Art Gallery

Originally posted on Weixin https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/4zzDYIbt1ieyCv0BtYM_Vg

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