Tongson painted 2011’s “Plum 5” with his fingers. (Courtesy Chinese Culture Center)

Wesley Tongson’s evocative ‘finger’ paintings at Chinese Culture Center

Continually exploring the possibilities of ink, Wesley Tongson created exquisite pictures of mountains and flora, painting many of them largely with his fingers. “Wesley Tongson: The Journey,” an exhibition at the Chinese Culture Center in The City through March, provides a career-spanning look at the significant Hong Kong artist.

Curated by Asian-art scholar Catherine Maudsley, the show contains 23 ink works created by Tongson (1957-2012) over three decades, through his periods of splash-ink art and signature “finger” painting.

The Hong Kong-born Tongson took up painting at 17 and studied Eastern and Western art. Twentieth-century masters Zhang Daqian and Pablo Picasso, on opposite sides of the globe, were among his influences.

Religion — primarily Zen philosophy and also Christianity — shaped Tongson’s work, as did mental illness. Diagnosed with schizophrenia at 15, Tongson said his painting and faith helped him deal with personal struggles and enabled him to achieve a sense of being grounded and purpose.

His journey also included an ongoing effort to master the art of landscape painting — the highest form of Chinese art, he believed. Mountainscapes were his specialty in this arena.

The exhibit’s early works, painted in the 1980-90s, include landscapes reflecting the artist’s traditional training and paintings featuring the splash-ink method (in which ink and water interact on rice paper).

Already experimenting with non-brush techniques at this point in his career, he incorporated ink rubbing and marbling (creating effects suggesting rocklike textures) into his paintings.

“Landscape 10” (1988) and “Landscape 11” (1988) feature washes of bright color and an abstract look. More realistic and sometimes quietly majestic works such as “Approaching Rainstorm” (1988), “Misty Mountains” (1993) and “Mountain 1” (1995), which contains hints of cubism, exemplify his devotion to landscapes.

In “Red Plums Over the Earth” (1993), black lines and splattered red dots form a simple but arresting composition of branches and fruit.

About a decade before his death, Tongson put the brush aside and began painting with his fingers, fingernails and other parts of his hands. These innovative works, generally black and white and sometimes as large as 8 feet tall or wide, make up much of the exhibit’s extraordinary second half.

“Pine 2” (2010) and “Pine 3” (2011) are remarkably accomplished renderings of the familiar trees. Tongson painted the pine needles so dynamically that they resemble fireworks.

Tongson painted 2011’s “Plum 5” with his fingers. (Courtesy Chinese Culture Center)

Another highlight is “Plum 5” (2011), a 6-foot finger painting of blossoms, branches and plums. Characteristic of Tongson’s art, immense skill and driving feeling work terrifically in tandem in the work.

IF YOU GO
Wesley Tongson: The Journey
Where: Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny St., third floor (inside Hilton hotel), S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes March 9
Admission: Free
Contact: www.cccsf.us

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