Published Jul 20 2016, by

Part 2 | Contemporary Chan Buddhism: Master Shen-Long’s Divine Environmental Scrolls

Left:  Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment World, 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet
Middle:  Master Shen-Long, All Beings Are Inherently Perfect, 2016, gold ink on black canvas, 300 feet x 5 feet
Right:  Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment Dragon, 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet 
Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Left: Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment World, 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet Middle: Master Shen-Long, All Beings Are Inherently Perfect, 2016, gold ink on black canvas, 300 feet x 5 feet Right: Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment Dragon, 2016, ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet Photograph courtesy of the artist.

A door opened to a vast warehouse and it was as if I had entered a postmodern equivalent of the central chamber of an occult Buddhist temple where arcane rituals are conducted. Real life spaces such as the ritual chambers of Khao Luang Cave, Thailand or Yungang Hanging Monastery, China are exemplative of invoking similar emotions to those I felt here.

Divine phrases or sayings of Daoist practice and Buddhist creeds were often imprinted on charms to help relieve the worries of the people so they can have better lives.

Two massive scrolls drenched in paint, 12 feet x 80 feet long, dominated the warehouse space. The sense of divine energy permeating from them filled my entire being immediately, leaving me in a state of awe.

I walked along each of the scrolls taking in their extreme amount of detail in the small bouts that it was sustainable. Their presence and energy was so overwhelming to my mortal mind that it was rather difficult to take in everything at once. It was as if each scroll was a portal to sublimity itself. The uncontainable, all-over nature of them gave off the feeling that each scroll could barely keep in what was depicted within its borders. The result was the feeling that the entire space was filled with an aura of celestial energy oozing out from the paintings.

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment World (Detail), 2016. Ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment World (Detail), 2016. Ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

The scroll on the left, Enlightenment World (2016), drew my attention first. It had this gravity to it, like it was pulling me in. Staring at even just one section of the gigantic scroll felt highly stimulating as the detail and variation in patterning along with how densely layered the paint was applied made the work seem alive.

Enlightenment World’s various abstract forms appeared as though they were in a state of fluid motion, rippling along the scroll’s surface and against its borders as if at any moment the writhing mass could spill out and envelope all reality.

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment World (Detail), 2016. Ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment World (Detail), 2016. Ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Vital to the effectiveness of this aspect of Enlightenment World and its sublime presence more generally concerns Master Shen-Long’s use of traditional Chinese painterly elements. For example, a small red stamp or seal, of the fashion seen on almost any traditional Chinese or Japanese scroll, appears amongst the ocean of paint. Many times these seals simply act as a signature or brief poetic phrase associated with the artist to identify who created the artwork. Subsequent owners of scroll paintings would often add their own personal seals to contribute to the provenance of the piece. The build up of seals over time on a work, especially if the owners were highly renowned, often contributes to its aura or sense of energy.[3]

Master Shen-Long plays with seals, thus amplifies the energetic presence of each scroll via these traditional meanings yet also in a new way.  His concept of seals is as though binding the universe’s sublime energy, and is a concept that is not utilized among other artists working today.

In other words, the act of binding the universe’s energy was never an aspect of seals on a work of painting, as in the case with Enlightenment World.  The resulting aesthetic effect is that the seal acts as a barrier or field that contains the great writhing mass Master Shen-Long has created from spilling out of the painting.  Considering Enlightenment World as a representation of existence itself, it is no wonder it seems to be bursting at the seams.

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment World (Detail), 2016. Ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Master Shen-Long, Enlightenment World (Detail), 2016. Ink and mixed media on canvas, 80 feet x 12 feet. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Indeed, the power of text was and still is an essential feature in the various philosophical traditions of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism.  Divine phrases or sayings of Daoist practice and Buddhist creeds were often imprinted on charms to help relieve the worries of the people so they can have better lives.  Buddhist scrolls with Buddhist figures function to help and teach people to realize that they are Buddha originally, and that everyone is Buddha originally.

The traditions of painting and calligraphy emerged at the same time. However, calligraphy was “revered as a fine art long before painting; indeed, it was not until the Song dynasty, when painting became closely allied with calligraphy in aim, form, and technique, that painting shed its status as mere craft and joined the higher ranks of the fine arts.”[4] In this regard, calligraphy is generally seen as holding more power and energy than any other art form in the Chinese tradition.

Those with enlightenment ability demonstrate enlightenment power and energy in their calligraphy; those of high erudition will demonstrate high erudition and training in their calligraphy; those with high integrity will demonstrate high integrity in their calligraphy.

The power of calligraphy in relation to Master Shen-Long is perhaps best demonstrated by the center scroll in-between the two larger ones in the warehouse, All Beings are Inherently Perfect (2016). Chinese characters composed with glimmering golden paint feature a loose, gestural quality that contributes to the idea of a confluent reality that the artist’s work seeks to express. This also can be seen in the calligraphy at the top of Enlightenment World with its unstructured, cloud-like appearance.

Another aspect of Master Shen-Long’s work concerns the medium of monochrome ink painting. His restraint in his use of color serves “the demand of Zen painting for spontaneous, individual expression, for meditative immersion, for simplicity, and ultimately for all-encompassing void.”[5] Bold color was considered to disrupt one’s focus and antithetical to the harmony of reality Chinese painting sought to depict.[6]

In seeking this ideal, Enlightenment World nearly abandons the use of color entirely seeking to visualize the void of existence through the use of black and white. However, Master Shen-Long does incorporate color into the work through the subtle use of blue throughout the composition along with a bold gold-painted eye that appears amongst the ocean of paint. Likewise, Enlightenment World’s counterpart to its far right, Enlightenment Dragon (2016), though featuring a uniformly subdued pallet of browns redolent of traditional works, also has hints of blue scattered amongst the billowing waves of abstraction.

Continue reading part three here.

About the Author: Devon Hersch is currently the McDermott Curatorial Intern of Asian Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. He received his Bachelor of the Arts Degree last year from New York University, graduating summa cum laude with high honors in Art History. His honors thesis on Postmodern Japanese Art won multiple awards, such as the Douglas F. Maxwell award for excellence in the study of Art History. The award included a generous stipend for travel abroad to view culture and art which Devon used to travel to East Asia.

[4] Delbanco, Dawn (Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University). “Chinese Calligraphy.” Metropolitan Museum of Art (April 2008). https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chcl/hd_chcl.htm (accessed March 12, 2016)
[5] Kanazawa and Brinker,122.
[6] Hisamatsu, Shin. Zen and The Fine Arts. Translated by Gishin Tokiwa. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1971, 30-31.