The Truth of Painting – A Discussion on Chi Chien’s Prima Facie Exhibit: Park

Written by Chen Kuang-Yi

Chairperson, Director and Associate Professor of Department of Fine Arts at National Taiwan Normal University

CHI Chien was trained as a painter.  However, he not only shows great performance in his painting skills, but also inherits the unavoidable anxiety from modern painters – the obsessive quest for “the truth of painting.”  Since the time of Gustave Courbet, generations of artists have tried to extend their painting experiences into the extreme. Some of them even chose a secular life to devoting themselves to the ontological quest.  These artists include Gustave Courbet in Ornan, Claude Monet in Giverny, Van Gogh in Arles, Paul Cézanne in Aix, and Paul Gauguin who went as far as Tahiti to search for his personal truth of painting.

CHI Chien’s obsession with painting is no less than the predecessors. He had a surgery to solve his palm sweat problem which used to affect his painting.   In 2004 when he was still studying in the Graduate Institute of Plastic Arts at National Taiwan University of Arts, he worked hard to study the artworks of Mario Merz, the Italian artist who is an important figure in the Arte Povera (Poor Art) movement, believing that Merz’s installations “igloos” are closely related to painting. Since then, CHI Chien’s has shown a complicated thinking about the essence of painting in every work he creates, which is far beyond people’s existing knowledge of painting.  


According to the artist, the new works exhibited at Crane Gallery were inspired by his experience in his studio:

One night in 2011, I saw my shadow on the white wall in my studio. I made some casual poses, and the moving shadow on the wall greatly aroused my interest.  The interest was not only about the discovery of a subject.  I rushed to the canvas, making one pose after another…  Right at this moment, an unknown form was given birth.

Because of the unexpected encounter, CHI Chien “rediscovers” shadow – an element whose importance has usually been underestimated in the history of painting.

In Greek, paintings which evoke people’s illusion are called “skiagraphia” (dessin ombré), but we are not sure whether it is referred to the depiction of shadow or adopting the shadow of the objects to create a sense of volume.  However, the Eighteenth-Century Scottish painter David Allen attempts to connect the tragic romance in Pliny’s works with the origin of painting in his painting The Origin of Painting: The daughter of the potter Butadès de Sicyone projects the shadow of her lover onto the wall through the candlelight and truthfully depicts it to comfort her lovesickness after her lover leaves.  A painting style like this does not only exist in mythology.  In the Eighteenth Century, “les portraits à la silhouttes, a method using machines to project people’s silhouettes on tracing paper, became very popular so that painters could capture the exact image with the help of projection.  It is thus unavoidable for CHI Chien to touch upon the origin of painting when he discusses shadow in his paintings.  On the one hand, shadow signifies the existence of light – the basic condition of viewing – as well as the possibility of painting.  On the other hand, shadow shows painters’ extraordinary sensitivity to the presence and absence of light.  The ancient philosopher Marco Tulio Cicerón has once mentioned that “painters see something we cannot see in both light and darkness.

Nevertheless, it has never been the case for most of the painters to be interested in shadow throughout a long history of painting. It was not until the Fifteenth Century in Flanders and Italy that painters started a systematic research on shadow.  The Italian historian Filippo Baldinucci has pointed out three kinds of shadow in painting in his Vocabolario toscano dell’arte del disegno published in 1681: “Ombre,” which is referred to the shadow created by opaque objects on itself such as the dark side of an illuminated ball; “pénombre,” which signifies the darkest place where light is transitioned into darkness; and “l’ombre portée” – the shadow of an object projected on the ground or on the wall after the object blocking the light.

According to Gombrich, if we say that it is common to see “ombre” which represents light and shadow in Western paintings, then “l’ombre portée” is rarely seen throughout the history of painting – especially in Chinese painting.  “L’ombre portée” is not like “ombre.”  It is not connected to the substantial objects, but it cannot exist without the substantial object.  It varies with the sources of light as well as the physical movement of characters.  It is thus transient and hard to be captured.  It is no wonder that these painters throughout the history of painting who have attempted to capture the substantial world on the canvas are trying so hard to avoid it.  However, CHI Chien’s paintings show a complete opposite strategy.   The shadow in his paintings seems to serve as a contrast to “l’ombre portée” – the real focus of the paintings – to suggest the possible existence of the substantial objects.  When we cannot verify the substantial object, “l’ombre portée” evokes a speculation full of imagination, creating a triple confusion among speculation, substance, and l’ombre portée.

It is a common example in the art history. In 1888, Paul Gauguin decided to remove the shadow in his painting for that “it creates nothing but the illusion of things” after he carefully studied ukiyo-e, the Japanese woodblock prints of the “floating world.” Meanwhile, he believed that “it will be creative if you do not paint the characters but the projection of the characters, because you make it ‘l’étrangeté’.”  It is thus believed that Paul Gauguin, who thought of himself as a symbolist, should highly agree the academic painter Jean-Léon Gérome’s practice. In Jean-Léon Gérome’s Le Golgotha, the artist visualizes the peaceful landscape and the crowd walking away until they vanish in sight, while he only puts a projection at the lower right corner to symbolize Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  William Holman Hunt, a Pre-Raphaelite painter, takes a step further in the painting The Shadow of Death as he paints the young Jesus who is facing the Sun and the prophetic projection which seems to enbody the image of the passion of Christ in the background.  The more classic one is how painters manipulate shadow so that those do not exist in surface will emerge.  In Otto van Veens’s print, he transforms Cupid’s shadow into a gloomy spirit, symbolizing that love and jealousy are two sides of the same thing.

If we compare CHI Chien’s paintings with these examples above, should we say that he also brings viewers to another world beyond the substantial one by his use of “l’ombre portée?”  In the beginning, he invites us into the mythology by presenting the story of Butadès de Sicyone’s daughter.  Later, he lets us into the world of theatre for that shadow theatre came into existence as early as the Fourth Century B.C. in Greece and was a popular theatrical form in China, India, Turkey, and many other Asian and European countries.  In the end, he brings us into the world of games.  His paintings feature a strong and direct reference to the childhood game of hand shadow.  Such a strategy in painting clearly traces his artistic practice back to the origin of art instead of merely the origin of painting: if the most original function of art is to imitate the real world, then the imitation is far beyond a truthful narration of the appearance.  The real and the virtual are intertwined in représentation.  Which one is real? Which one is closer to the truth?  Which one can be seen as the “Prima Facie?  CHI Chien explains:

What our perception feels is the shadow on the white wall. My works reveal the “hyperreal” fraud of imagination, creating a swing between the interior and the exterior, light and darkness, substantial and non-substantial, form (the substantial object) and seeing – to make the fake as the real.

Similar to the dialogue between “ombre” and “l’ombre portée,” the intentional blank space and the layers of painted area seem random, but they both point out that although the essence of painting is the two-dimensional canvas, the reality is a three-dimensional illusion constructed by layers of paint. Another similar part is the dialogue between hand-drawing and mechanical printing: CHI Chien adopts silk-screen printing to show the projected images.  Meanwhile, he draws the substantial objects with their pénombre and ombre as well as the imagination of the substantial object.  Which one is the real one?   Indeed, for those paintings which return to the myth, theatre, game playing, and other origin of art, what should not be missed is the narrative – how does a painting tell a story?  What is the story being told in the painting?  The pre-existing images such as lighters, red lanterns, chandeliers, mushroom clouds, swimming pools, airplanes, naked women, photojournalists, or figures which we feel that we have once known before are removed from their background, scattering around the image without a sense of direction or connection.  The fracture in a logical space-time creates some difficulty in reading, as if the author leaves them for the purpose of “seeing” only.  The separation between the signified and the signifier thus offers unlimited possibility in terms of the construction and the deconstruction of meaning.


Ontology is a philosophical thinking exploring the most universal quality of “l’être,” including existence, possibility, duration, variation, and etc. Strictly speaking, metaphysics is a kind of ontology for that it studies the universal quality of things and the absolute essence: what is the deepest inner essence of a thing?  To answer it, we cannot study merely the surface, appearance, or the individual property.  The ontology of painting is to study the essence of painting as l’être. It is how CHI Chien starts a series of questions about painting: “What are we painting?” “How are we painting?” “What is painting?” “What is not painting?” “Where does the image come from?” “Where are painters?” “What happens to the viewers?” “What can painting be?” And the final questions – is it about “What do we paint for?” or “Whom do we paint for?”

So, can we say that CHI Chien’s Prima Facie Exhibit: Park is a painting exhibition? Are the exhibits paintings?

Before answering it, we should return to the ontological thinking of painting: what is the universal property of painting?  Maurice Denis, the Nineteenth-Century artist who was a member of  Les Nabis movement have once given us a definition of painting: “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Painting is thus simplified in two parts: the “surface” and its “support” (also known as the carrier). The canvas (support) being covered with colors (surface), which is showcased on the third floor of the exhibition space of CHI Chien’s Prima Facie Exhibit: Park, should undoubtedly be defined as paintings.

However, before viewers walk into the glass entrance of the gallery, the first artwork they see, Li Bai, is a real mound surrounded by excavator models posed as they are still digging.  Several tiny machines are put inside the mound, showing scrolling text extracted from Li Bai’s poetry: grass, frost, flowing cloud, blue sky, sea, dust, snow, cave, sand, snowflakes, shooting stars, pines, stream, moon, and etc.  These words are referring to the ever changing Nature that the poet could not stop from worshipping.  Meanwhile, the mound becomes the metaphor as a miniature garden under construction. The work is indeed full of poetic expression, but can we still say that it is a painting ?

The exhibit Occasional Breeze displayed at the second floor stairway features two military blankets with a burn mark made by being pressed with a heated iron for 40 minutes. The blankets are stretched into two painting frames of difference sizes (10 cm and 5 cm) with lighted bulbs fixed inside.  Fire-like light penetrates the thin surface burned by the iron.  The big one is placed on a metal pedestal in a plastic showcase, while the small one is placed on the ground beside the pedestal. Should we still describe this object, which can hardly be categorized and defined, as painting?

After we enter the exhibition space, the work Carpet is a thick canvas spread on the floor.  The end of it is screen-printed with tile-like image in red-white check which, in the memory of most of the Taiwanese, decorates the houses of so many families.  At one end of the long table is tied with a small bulb, while the bulb is hanging from the ceiling and almost touching the floor.  The faint light illuminates the tiles which one cannot verify whether it is a fake one or a real carpet.  However, CHI Chien, who becomes the print artist in this work, intentionally leaves the traces of silk-screen printing.  We can vaguely notice that there is some part of the canvas not being covered with paint.  Although it seems that Carpet cannot be defined as a painting, it ironically conforms to the definition of painting.

As we take several steps forward, Bamboo House stands at the end of the exhibition room on the second floor.  At the first look, it is a like a painting with only one single color, which is yellow.  It is spread on the floor, but the weird part is the four wheels fixed to it.  It becomes the best example to show easel painting’s universal characteristic – the “mobilité.”  However, the mobilité is also limited as the painting is covered by a square structure built with bamboo sticks, symbolizing both the architectural support and the painting support while its function of support has been removed. To take a closer look, it is printed with “Do not cross the yellow line” in small font on the flat painted image, destructing the essence of painting.  The two-line text shows a step from images to a linguistic system, evoking viewers’ suspicion of meaning.

Although these artworks can hardly be categorized as paintings, they all reveal certain logical dialogue existing in painting. It is not only because that CHI Chien has once explained the similarity between his artworks and the art-making process that “the burn mark reveals the ideas of canvas, paint, tool, color, and drawing.”  In fact, he also offers a semantic suggestion in his paintings: is it representative or non-representative? Is it figurative or abstract?  Is it the surface or the support?  Is it two-dimensional or three-dimensional? Is it painting, sculpture, architecture, or field?  Is it printing or drawing?  Is it machine-made or handmade?  Eventually, the discussion reaches the syntactic concept: the paintings “in disguise” are defined by what painting is “not.”  First, the elements of painting are misplaced in a daily situation.  Everything is painting, while everything is not painting, like how Yves Klein jumped down from his studio on the second floor in the October of 1960, claiming himself as a painter.  Second, painting goes beyond the appearance, passing down the mission of “signifying” to the linguistic system as it enters the field of “non-painting.”  The idea of painting is thus extended to the extreme as an “object at will.”  The artworks we have discussed above and the extended works belong to this category.   

The Truth of Painting 

However, what is the purpose for such a repetitive discussion on ontology of painting? If we put so much emphasis on the metaphysical concept of the existence of painting, will we make art-making more minimum, abstract, and boring?

How did Claude Monet paint more than two hundred paintings in the garden of Giverny? Why did Paul Cézanne paint about eighty paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire Aix-en-Provence?  Why did Monet and Cézanne repetitively depict one particular subject (a garden or a mountain)? It is for sure that they never attempted to make a representative depiction of the scenery; otherwise they would have not even tolerated painting the same subjects again and again. Interestingly, half a century later, like how his predecessors were interested in natural landscape, Pablo Picasso found his interest in painting itself.  For the last twenty years of his life, he had “revisited” Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas hundreds of times. Like a scientist, he repetitively explored and experimented as if he had been witnessing how these great masters had desired to establish the truth of painting.  Gustave Courbet has once announced that “I will paint the Nature as what it is for you.” In the last year of Cézanne’s life, he even wrote a letter to his friend Emile Bernard, who was also a painter, telling him that: “Je vous dois la vérité en peinture, et je vous la dirai (I owe you the truth of painting and I will tell you).”

What is “the truth of painting?”
Is it the truth of painting itself, or the truth that painting is revealing to us?

The question reminds us of the most famous argument about “the truth of painting” in history: in a speech “The Origin of the Work of Art” by the philosopher Martin Heidegger in 1935, he claimed that “art is the realization of truth (mise en oeuvre).” He also used Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Old Shoes as an example to explain that “we have nothing to do except for putting ourselves in front of paintings.  The painting is talking.  The approaching of paintings take us to somewhere beyond the places we are familiar with.  Artworks make us know the truth of a pair of shoes.” The “truth” Heidegger is referring to comes from the Greek work “alètheia,” which means “to reveal (dévoilement).”  He believes that Van Gogh’s painting, as the “étant (being),” reveal the “truth/being” of a pair of peasant shoes. Heidegger thus believes that he has offered viewers with the truth of “the truth of painting.”

However, the art historian Meyer Schapiro argued against Heidegger’s idea. Schapiro believed that Van Gogh did not paint a pair of peasant shoes, but the shows worn by someone who lived in a city – the shoes of the artist himself.  Schapiro further argued that Heidegger’s idea of “the truth of painting” was not convincing at all because the philosopher used painting to verify thinking instead of carefully looking at it with both eyes. Indeed, we can also ask ourselves that if Schapiro’s argument makes us closer to the truth of painting. After all, the pair of shoes are not the signes but the formes.  As what Georges Braque has once said that “Écrire n’est pas décrire, peindre n’est pas dépeindre (writing is not describing, while painting is not drawing),” the truth of painting may not be totally equal to the philosophical or historical truth.

It is why Jacques Derrida questions in his The Truth in Painting that how Cézanne could “tell” Bernard? If there is any truth in painting, how should it be “told?”  Did Cézanne, who still missed the chance at the last second of his life, leave the world with a regret that he would never tell the truth of painting?  Therefore, Derrida believes that Cézanne has shown Bernard the truth through painting instead of words. The truth of painting is thus understood as the truth which is special, non-verbal, purely painting, non-prophetic, indescribable, and varying with different people.

Coincidently, the ontology revised by the contemporary trend offers a more multi-dimensional perspective: existence/being is considered to be universal, abstract, essential, individual, concrete, and existential. While CHI Chien explores the truth of painting, he knows how to avoid the boredom of a philosophical argument.  Instead, he returns to his daily experiences, where he provides a thinking about the form:

Commuting between work and home is a repetitive part of my life. One day when I was waiting for the MRT train, I stared at the yellow warning sign on the floor without a reason.  I stared and stared, until the yellow sign reminded me of the lines on the canvas.  Therefore, I started to paint flat layers of yellow paint, one after another, on an 190 centimeter square sackcloth.  I wrote “Do not cross the yellow line” in small font and put it in two lines at the center of the sackcloth, and then I fixed four wheels to the sackcloth.  A mobile tool which could move freely was framed inside a structure built with bamboo.

Finally, I will end with CHI Chien’s The Object in the Mirror: Apples – the exhibit on the third floor.  Several apples are painted on the large canvas, while the painting is extended forward to a table.  On the table is the plaster casts of apples placed exactly the same with the apples in the painting.  Although the two are the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional imitations of apples, the composition creates an illusion that the painting is the mirror image.  In my own opinion, The Object in the Mirror: Apples plays the homonyms between its Chinese title and “still life.” It is also the homage to Edouard Manet and Paul Cézanne. Perhaps it echoes Manet’s last painting Un bar aux Folies Bergère, in which he showed how he had inherited the artistic exploration of Van Eyck and Velasquez to adopt the mirror image to represent a mythical space. The painting encouraged Michel Foucault to start a heated discussion on painter/viewers, subject/object, and the ways of viewing.  However, CHI Chien’s mirror image does not involve the presence of the painter and the position of viewers.  Therefore, it is more likely that he is referring to the repetitive theme, which is apples, in Cézanne’s still life painting, symbolizing the painter’s obsessive quest for “the truth of painting” as mentioned previously.

Even sometimes I feel that my language fails to fully express my idea about the truth of painting which CHI Chien is pursuing, but it should be “special, non-verbal, purely painting, non-prophetic, and indescribable,” as it slowly opens up itself to every individual viewer and varies with people.