You cannot separate Ping-cheng Liang from his art. His art embodies the artist, and he himself personifies his art. Liang's artistic career can be divided into three stages. The first stage is comprised of painting, the second the world of all trades, and the third sculpture.
Stage One: The Artistic Enlightenment
To quote renowned art critic and chief editor of CANS Magazine, Mr. Cheng Nai Ming, when talking about Liang Ping Cheng's art, one cannot do so without talking about the artist himself.
Like every other student from the countryside who was able to study in the city, Liang had always been the child that won the first prize in art competitions of the township or county since he was young. His excellent artistic talent was spotted by his parents and teachers, giving him a chance to "study art under learned masters." When he was thirteen years old, he became a pupil of the renowned painter in Southern Taiwan, Mr. He Wen Qi, and started to study sketch and watercolor in Pintung. He acquired basic skills helpful for his later academic training. However, comparing to his artistic life that had yet to come, this stage could only be taken as a kind of "pre-school education."Like many children in Taiwan, learning "talents" in after-school art classes sent Liang on his way to become an artist; but, this was just the very beginning of his artistic career.
Just like normal teenagers, Liang had idled through his youthful days. In high school, he studied advertisement design; but what he was really doing in school was cutting classes and having fun rather than pursuing art. It was until he finished his military service and passed the entrance exam of the Department of Fine Arts, Chinese Culture University, did he become a young man who studied diligently and pursued advancement in knowledge. His "artistic pre-school learning" had ended by then. However, "the footprints in the sand show where you have been." The teenage years would become a nourishing source for Liang in his art-making in the future. Everyone is young once; it is the experience that really makes the difference. After he became a college student, his began the journey of artistic enlightenment. During this period, Liang was deeply influenced by two guest professors at the Chinese Culture University's Department of Fine Arts, Ms. Jun T. Lai and Mr.Kuo Ta Wei, both of whom had just finished their studies in the United States and came back to Taiwan. This formative period was enlightening for Liang, and the training he received during this period became a profound influence in his art, especially in terms of his understanding, handling, and sensitivity to materials. The result of the training from this period could also be seen on other members of Ban Niao Art Group, and even,to an extent, onevery student of the 19thClass of the Department of Fine Arts, Chinese Culture University.
In 1983, when Liang was a junior in college, he won the Lion Art Best New Artist Award. Winning the award qualified Liang for playing in the "professional team," like putting him in the spot of the first pick in the draft. It also hinted that Liang would be an artist throughout his lifeand taste art's bittersweetness. Before he won the award, Liang was like a member of an amateur league. Although he had the skills of a professional player, his state of mind and vision were still those of an amateur player.
In 1981, a group of young male and femalestudents who were classmates of different ages, lived together in a traditional three-section compound in Shanzihou on the Yangming Mountain. Liang named the place "Ban Niao Villa" (villa of the silly birds) after the birds that were flying against the wind he saw in Penghu, where he served his military service. Since then, the Villa had become an elite community, an art group, a contemporary painting group. The members of the group included Liang Ping Cheng, Chi-Fu Yang, Akibo Lee, Lee Ming-chung, Yang Ming Kuo, Chen Yan Chu, Sun Li-chuan, Cheng Pa Tso, and Jui-chang Liao. Separately, they absorbed the latest overseas artistic trends, conducted their own artistic creation, and gradually moved toward the direction of the avant-garde movement, "Bad Painting." They had their individual sources of materials in art and treated their works like diaries, turning the Ban Niao Art Group into a strong force in the department of the university, in Shanzihou, and consequently in Taiwanese contemporary art.
The young artist in Ban Niao actively introduced "transavangurdia " (which was internationally known as "neo expressionism") from Europe and the US, and followed the examples of Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Nicolà DeMaria, and Mimmo Paladino, and absorbed the nutrients provided by "bad painting" from the US and "new imaging painting" from West Germany. Basically speaking, it was rebellion against traditional arts in Taiwan. These young people that "had not seemed to hit puberty" succeeded the path of their predecessors in the department in challenging the "national authoritative figures" in arts, just like the trans-avantgarde artists who rebelled against conceptual art and minimalism. These hot-blooded young artists saw the so-called art masters, professors, great painters and masters of certain schools as old-fashioned, traditional, and outdated symbols, and employed the strategy of "bad painting" to deliberately question, satirize and deconstruct such a tradition. They used coarse brushstrokes, patterns, twisted forms, spontaneous and unfettered composition to satirize realism and Taiwanese impressionism. Their works emphasized on expressing powerful individual emotions and statements without paying attention to the existing creeds, traditional norms, and the legacies of the masters. Like trans-avantgarde artists, they disliked all current modes. At that time, this group of bold and talented young artists conducted an art exhibition relay with the older and younger artists from the university department. In 1982, Taipei New Art Union fired the first shot of this artistic battle and held their exhibition at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). In 1985, 101 Modern Art Group, Taipei Progressionists Modern Art Group, Ban Niao Art Group, and New Particle Modern Art Group separately presented four exhibitions at Nan Gallery. Each of the exhibition was one and a halfmonth long and constituted a six-month "rebellion" in total. The five consecutive exhibitions were reported by the three major newspapers and three well-known culture and art journalists in Taiwan, and formed a contemporary art trend that completely changed Taiwanese art. Since then, artists before the 90s became "grandpas," and the avantgarde art found its place to coexist with the traditional arts, opening up a new page of Taiwanese contemporary art.
In the four years of college, Ban Niao held four group exhibitions, and each one was a record-making experience that resembled "climbing the hundred peaks." In 1983, Liang was a junior in college, and his first group exhibition was to take place at the Department's student gallery. One day before the opening, other members had to reduce the number of artworks they had originally promised. Within one day, Liang created seven paintings of theTransformation Series, which met the minimum number for holding an exhibition. This series also won him the Lion Art Best New Artist Award next year. From this instance, one could clearly see the "Liang style" that was tough and persevering. It signaled that there was nothing he could not accomplish once he set his mind to it, and this had also made him the big brother in the group. Judging from his works of this period, Liang's painting at that time was mostly realistic and surrealistic. He had not developed and displayed a trans-avantgarde style. The second group exhibition was at Hwa Kang Museum in 1984; the third one was called Dramatic Reformation at Nan Gallery in 1985. In the same year, the forth exhibition, Please, Please, Defrost!, took place at Taipei Cultural Center. It was also the last group exhibition of Ban Niao Art Group. After that, members of Ban Niao would fly in different direction and endeavor in their own way.
The solo exhibition of spontaneous painting at Jia-ren Gallery was not a traditional art exhibition, in which paintings were hung and displayed. Instead, the whole gallery space was turned into one painting. According to Liang himself, he took a couple of Kaoliang and a few boxes of paint, and locked himself in the gallery. When doing spontaneous artistic creation, one had to be freewheeling first. A bunch of reporters came to the site, hoping to know more about this artistic precedence. They stood behind the artist to watch the "performance." There were no references or preliminary sketches for the spontaneous painting. His only idea was to fill the entire exhibition space with painting, from the first inch to the last. The floor, walls, and ceiling would be covered in painting; one could not tell the beginning from the end, the left from the right, the ceiling from the floor. The entire space was one giant work. Liang's "spontaneous sculpture," which he was to fully develop later, could already be detected here. He used twenty-seven days to complete this massive work. It took nearly one month to create, and was on view for one month. On the opening day, the same group of reporters came back to report on the exhibition and its repercussion. It was a special case that the exhibition was covered twice by media.
The last " solo exhibition " in Taiwan at the American CulturalCenter. The showcased works included seven No. 240 paintings, one No. 480 painting, and dozens of paintings in various sizes. These works were painted when he was teaching at Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School, and could be taken as a conclusive result of Liang's painting as well as an end to his teaching career. From the winning of the New Artist Award to this moment, what was left for Liang was to face himself. The hundred peaks he had conquered over the years were left behind now. There were higher mountains that awaited him in the world, quietly calling his name on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Ended his teaching career at Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School and accompanied by his wife, Liang took whatever possession he had and entered New York University to start another challenge in the US. All the best and most talented people have always been going to New York.
Liang did not only study at NYU; the entire New York City was his classroom. Like in high school, he skipped classes to study the richer, more diverse streets of the city. he saw the best and worse people from all over the world. As many said, New York was not America but a world in itself. One could not really feel that impact without being in New York personally. Every person here got incredible talents and was the best in his or her country. New York was also the fashion capital of the world; however, for Liang, there was no fashion here. Everyone wore whatever he wanted and in his own way. Everyone wore the clothes of his country and according to his own culture and customs without paying attention to others. Everyone had his own theory and respected others while being respected, which showed true equality. Every day, Liang spent the whole day on the street instead of in school. He learned more on the street than in the classroom. Traditional classes bored him, so did museums. He rarely visited any museums, which were surprisingly less attractive than what he saw on the street. This had something to do with the rebellious attitude he upheld during the period in Ban Niao. He had been impatient to existing framework and tradition, and this impatience had become part of him.
One day, he happened to pass a building and discovered that itwas filled with different types of galleries. The neighboring buildings, from the ground floors to the top floors, were also taken up by art supply stores. Suddenly, he realized that the Big Apple was filled with artists, galleries, and museums. Honestly speaking, "it would not make a difference with or without me." He had an epiphany and discovered that his art and life still belonged to Taiwan, and his native home was the source of his artistic creation. After all, the "mountains" he wished to conquer were still back home. With this thought in mind, he and his wife left New York where they had lived for nearly two years and came back to Taiwan. Here, another series of challenges awaited him. At this point, there seemed to be something missing in Liang's life, making it incomplete. His artistic life still had a gray area that needed to be illuminated.
Stage 2: Bravely Venturing into the World
Ancient Chinese people have a term, called "Jiang Hu" (literally meaning rivers and lakes) or the "world," which refers to the ideology and status that one does not work for the government and the greater good but lives freely in the civic society working in any of the possible trades and owns up to the responsibilities for the life he chooses. However, in this "world," some people still need to validate their lives and get some answers. It has nothing to do with whether or not he or she has any "skills" to wander in the world. However, venturing into the world requires great courage, and sometimes, making a quick retreat is the braver thing to do.
After returning to Taiwan, Liang spent about ten years trying to achieve something in the world. Perhaps it was his time in New York and the idea that "there were so many artists that it made no difference if I remained one or not," perhaps it was a morphological transition of his creative energy, Liang started working in interior design and decoration, which completely transformed the course of his life. The number of his income grew from a countable number to an uncountable one. Eventually, it became a game of numbers only. His work grew from two-dimensional on paper to spatial structure that took up thousands of pings, and the number of people related to his work grew from a couple to a couple of hundreds. However, what mattered was not arithmetic but the change of mind; what mattered was not the hundreds of millions that passed through his hands but the change of aspiration. Only by undergoing this phase did Liang finally understand what "humility" was, and realized that there was a higher meaning in life.
Stage 3: The Period of Sculpture
Liang moved to and away from Sanyi three times. From the glamorous world to the simple, mountainous town immersed in the scent of wood, he not only hoped to retrieve the truth, goodness, and beauty of art, but also contemplated upon the meaning of being an artist and the purpose of artistic creation. This was a transformation and transition for him. Apart from the pure sense of beauty and the exploration of aesthetics, what meaning did artistic creation convey?
In mid-1997, Liang had an opportunity to visit Sanyi. He looked just like what everybody would imagine an artist look like, sloppy and careless about his appearance. He would wander on the streets of Sanyi with a bottle of wine in hand, breathing alcohol. The lowest point of his life coincided with the depression of Sanyi, whose wood sculpture industry had fallen to the bottom from its peak for quite some time. Local artisans gathered together all day, drinking tea and chatting, trying to find a new possibility for Sanyi through "discussing about it." Liang's arrival simply offered them a new perspective: what could an academically trained artist who had studied abroad do in Sanyi? Aside from his decadent lifestyle, what else could this group of wood sculpture artisans, who started their career as pupils after graduating junior high schools or vocational schools, see in Liang? Through this opportunity, instead of diving directly into sharpening his woodcarving skills, Liang took his time to reflect more and see the bigger picture. After all, he had survived living in the Big Apple. Not only had he diagnosed the symptoms of Sanyi's woodcarvingindustry, he also "lectured" theseartisans about Sanyi's potentiality, which he had foresaw.
Introducing academic thinking into Sanyi, Liang thought that the outdated teacher-pupil system should change and the "shapes and patterns" that past artisanshad passed down should no longer be used. Instead, one should learn from nature and create a brand new type of wooden sculpture, in which every piece would have a distinctive look so that the artisans from China could not copy anymore. Once the value of original woodcarving was maximized, the market of China could not win the battle with mass production and lower pricing. Originality would put the winning hand back to Sanyi in this competition. Naturally, this kind of thinking was not accepted. On the one hand, the artisans' minds could not follow up yet; on the other hand, their aesthetic cultivation was insufficient. After hearing out what Liang had in mind, they all waited to see what this artist could produce in the end; and for Liang, he had to make something for these people to understand what academic artistic creation was about.
Liang's debut in Sanyi was the Yulon Woodcarving Innovation Award (figure 1). His work was the first contemporary wooden sculpture that entered the Award. The work, Flying, aroused quite a debate between all jurors, and although it did not win the gold prize that year, it had interested the media more than other traditional wooden sculptures in the competition. The media chose to cover Flying because this type of artistic concept had never been seen in Sanyi. The work symbolized the initial step of Liang's career as a sculptor. It was the first sculpture he showed to the artisans and residents in Sanyi, beckoning at the coming of a contemporary sculptor.
During this period, Liang's sculpture featured elongated shape, hollowed center, and thin structure. The elongated shape was due to the materials from beams torn down from old houses; the hollowing center was to "release the weight"; the thin structure was to achieve a sense of "flying." The work Liang entered in the Yulon Woodcarving Innovation Award was a prototype of the later series that featured flying thin structure, and some of his vocabularies were still immature, revealing a sense of "original" quality. His works from this period were also very valuable and rare. According to Wang Fu Dung, art critic and associate professor at Tainan National University of the Arts, "since Huang Tu Shui, such woodcarving approach has never been seen in Taiwanese art history. In terms of the essence of woodcarving, seriously speaking, it is really 'unprecedented.'"
2001 The second time Liang came back to Sanyi was hoping to "remove mundane thoughts." For the first six months, he kept himself in solitude to make art in a lone mountain. Throughout the day, he was accompanied by fog, wind, and rain as well as birds, animals, and insects. According to the artist, he used to find snakes on his bed, and he had to sleep in his car, where it was "less occupied." He faced the great nature with respect and humility, which was utterly different from the first half of his life. When he was young, he was arrogant and indulged in self-admiration. He only saw his own sky and universe without really considering other people's needs and thinking about doing things for other people. When his career was at its peak, he saw nothing but himself. After starting following and practicing with his spiritual master, his life started calibrating, his mind started to adjust, and he perceived the world again and began to care for other people and other living beings. He saw things from an altruistic perspective rather than an egoistic point of view. The lonely mountain was a good place for deep self-contemplation. An artist should be able to discipline himself and restrain his behavior so that the society was not impressed by his debauchery but his being a positive role model for his family, relatives, friends and society in addition to his success and greatness in art and artistic skills. Only by achieving this could the artist be worthy of the respect of the society. In artistic creation, the artist could enjoy absolute freedom and the wildest imagination, but in life, he must have discipline and lead a simple life.
At this point, his behavior and demeanor had become completely different. Perhaps it was not clear to himself, but the people in Sanyi were aware of the change. In the eyes of the old artisans, a real artist had been born; his work was original, artistically conceptual, and he was humble and diligent. His hard work won him the nickname, "woodworm," praising that he had been working so hard like a woodworm that ate away a bunch of wood in no time. Meanwhile, Liang also cared about the future of other woodcarvers, and often talked to them about artistic creation and originality, hoping to expand their horizon. Although most of the them still continued the traditional work, somehow the seed of change had been planted in their minds. It was a positive change for Sanyi. Combining with the woodcarving workshops and annual international wooden sculpture exhibitions hosted by Sanyi WoodSculpture Museum, the local residents in Sanyi no longer deemed the academic and the original as eccentric and kept on creating works that had no marketability. They also started to send children to colleges and technical universities to receive academic training; and this change had fundamentally altered the "nature" of Sanyi.
Liang had always been relatively quick in making his work, now he was producing sculptures even faster since he was not distracted. In no time, he held his first solo exhibition in Sanyi at Original Art World at the end of 2001, which also marked the official beginning of the Gravity ReleaseSeries.
Gravity Release was the first series that Liang set out to develop. The title did not merely refer to release physical weight but psychological burden as well. People living on this island have not only been burdened by living and financial pressure, they also pressured by the task of making the country stronger, establishing its historical position, resolving conflicts between ethnic groups, and finding solutions for political differences. Every Taiwanese, from politician to ordinary citizen, was buried under pressure since birth; and each household was faced with difficulties of its own. Therefore, every person carried weight on his or her mind that needed to be released. Through Liang's Gravity ReleaseSeries, each piece of wood block became light and thin with a sense of levitating beauty. Upon viewing the series, the body and mind became weightless to the point that one felt to be able to fly. This was undoubtedly the psychological freedom that Taiwanese people needed the most.
Liang's last and longest stay in Sanyi was from 2004 to 2007. The previous two exitsfrom and thirdreturnto Sanyi had created an incredible creative energy in him. Despite his two departures, or "summer vacations," he had been intermittently staying in Sanyi for about ten years. In terms of his woodcarving career, it was the most excellent and prolific period. In the following years, he created the Non-ObjectsSeries around 2004, the Non-BooksSeries in 2005, the Whisper of the Wilderness Series in 2006, and the Mask Series in 2007. Until this point, all series created in this period in Sanyi had surfaced, and it was not until the IT Park Dachee Exhibition ofthe Integral Series did another new series appeared in 2015.
Nonetheless, Liang did not hold many exhibitions during this prolific period. The only exhibition that took place was Fertile Land at the store of Herb 24 in Eslite Xinyi Store in 2005.It was like an overture announcing Liang's return to the art scene in Taipei and foretold his Taipei Period.
In 2011, Liang held his first solo exhibition, Possibility of Wood・Imagination of Carving, at InSian Gallery. Being represented by the gallery, it was a "standard activity" to hold solo exhibitions as well as a "peak" that needed to be conquered. Symbolically speaking, this solo exhibition summed up Liang's time in Sanyi. Among the showcased six series, except Gravity Release, Non-Books, Non-Objects, Whisper of the Wilderness, Mask were all displayed for the first time and fell into the dialectic discourse of the Post-Sanyi Period—the books were not books, the objects were not objects, the species were not of this planet, and the masks were not really masks.
To discuss Liang's art, one could not avoid talking about the artist himself, and to do so, one must start with his changes in life.
From being a painter, to being a businessman, to being a sculptor, the transformation has demonstrated Liang's inner being. The years of being a painter marked a glorious period in his life, during which his world was entirely consisted of art-making and he had strived for excellence. He endeavored to conquer different challenges in his career. The artist at this stage, like all the other people in a similar stage, was only satisfied by the achievements in his professional life whereas other affairs not related to art did not matter at all.
Becoming a businessman could be seen as a beautiful mistake that Liang had to accept. However, the period symbolized a transmutative stage in the art of alchemy when bronze turned into gold. For Liang, it was as if the Bodhisattva had created a realm of illusion with His might powers, a trial and test specifically designed for him. During this period, except his inner kindness and artistic talents, he had become another person. His achievements in this period were all illusions that were as incredible as they were transient and ephemeral. The teaching of the Bodhisattva was not necessarily pleasant and easy to stomach.
If anyone still sees Liang as the member of Ban Niao or the artist studying in NYU, that person must still be living in the 1980s. Liang has undergone a complete transformation and become the opposite of himself from that period. He is now a diligent artist who refrains from drinking, women, and places of sensual pleasure. His wife is still the highway beauty in the legendary story. He works seven days a week, eight hours a day; a self-disciplined artist that contradicts to what people imagine an artist to be. He is down-to-earth, secluded, frugal, hard-working, disciplined, keeping to religious precepts, compassionate, and charitable. Is this still the artist that his friends remember?
After the transformative third stage, Liang has come to see art in a different light. He is still making art, but the essence of his work has changed. His artistic creation does not aim to please and flatter, and displays no colors of a glamourous life. Artistic creation is now his profession as well as spiritual practice. He does not recite the Buddha's name all the time in religious attire. He is still the person that feels passionate for and enthralled by art, the artist who practically lives in his studio. Then, how is he different from the past? We shall see and meet this Liang Ping Cheng.