Spiritual Mountains debuts a recent gift to BAMPFA of eleven paintings by the Hong Kong artist Wesley Tongson (1957–2012). His work draws heavily on traditional Chinese painting techniques and processes, including painting with his fingers and hands, but takes these a step further to create a personal expression that is wholly his own. This exhibition combines Tongson’s works with historic paintings from BAMPFA’s extensive Chinese painting collection to demonstrate the relationship between his genius and that of past masters. Throughout Tongson’s practice, we perceive a strong admiration and acknowledgement of the past, even as he pursued a new direction in his own work. It is in his highly lyrical brushwork and exuberant style of painting—which included large-scale landscapes and intricately patterned, dense examinations of the natural world—that we comprehend his range and genius.
The exhibition’s title reflects the importance of spirituality in Tongson’s journey as an artist; he was a student of many forms of devotion, from the teachings of Buddhism, Daoism, and Christianity to references to the natural world. His later paintings are frequently inscribed “Mountain Daoist” (Shandao Daoren), while some of his painting series are given titles of Spiritual Mountains and Mountains of Heaven.
Tongson’s experimentation in painting with his hands and fingernails finds precedence in the works of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century masters like Gao Qipei (1672–1734), while his dramatic use of splash color treatment seems in harmony with Zhang Daqian’s (1889–1983) work of the mid-twentieth century. The exhibition includes works by these artists, other historical painters who may have provided inspiration, such as Shitao (1642–1718) and Li Fangying (1695–1754), and modern masters who were more directly involved in his development, including Liu Guosong (born 1932), with whom he briefly studied, and his teacher and mentor Huang Zhongfang (Harold Wong) (born 1943).