Like most objects, a painting is imbibed with the past and, hence, potentially articulate about its mysteries.

Izukan & Michael Ku Gallery present Filipino-Chinese painter Lao Lianben, whose twelve works depict images that are mindful of East Asian spiritual and philosophical themes. The title of each work brings to light Lao’s creative intent without being too telling; he prefers the viewer to make valuations by way of their personal engagement with the work. Some titles are content to be literal, simply naming the familiar setting, like a table or house; others make more literary suggestions, like voices and dreams, pointing out details and nuances in the work to evoke a more physical and palpable sensation, or reveal a more meaningful aesthetic. 

Lao Lianben’s stylistic idiom is generally noted for its abstraction, but his recent paintings unfold facets of his mind through more overt narratives. One particular work “Table with Muchi (Mu Qi)” alludes to a twelfth century painting by monk Mu Qi Fa-Chang, a great exponent of the spontaneous mode of Chan (Zen) painting. The work is famous for Mu Qi’s tremendous skill and subtlety in using thick and thin brushstrokes, creating the lightest persimmons that seem to float against darker ones. Lao references this image in his work with a delicate, mottled background. According to Lao, this particular painting of Mu Qi inspired him to pursue abstraction in his early years as an artist, and that he constantly revisits this connection in his art. 

In “Monk’s Table,” Lao appropriates pictorial devices from Buddhism that has given his works their distinctive character. Silhouettes of various deities sit on an altar-like structure typified in the same Chan painting methodology. Alternating coats of charcoal, emulsion, and sanding serve to flatten the image but also give it varying depth and a sense of spontaneity. The result is a homologous visual experience that is simultaneously profound and mundane. There is no intent to mystify; Lao merely seeks to emulate that atmospheric quality typical in traditional Chinese scroll paintings.

This amalgamation of techniques creates an immediacy that speaks directly to one’s imagination more than any analytical reference to particular styles. In his work “Voices,” Lao paints a mandala-like arrangement of 182 butter lamps under a clear gel encaustic, generating a surface that shows subtle, controlled use of tonality. In another pedantic piece called “Monk’s Dream,” he paints 239 begging bowls on a large-scale canvas in recurring forms and patterns that resolve into concentrating and peripheral focal elements, inviting the viewer to scan the work from various angles and distances. These objects of quotidian Buddhist symbols of enlightenment and non-attachment are stripped of their monastic referentiality to become simplified, formalistic visual cues. The resulting work is ethereally only itself, not beholden to any single interpretation. That is the dream.

The striking textural quality of Lao’s artwork is a result of non-orthodox brushwork and ways of mildly applying layers of pigment on the painting surface. One can relate this way of painting to a system of philosophy akin to a chant of meditative nature. In his work, “Soot,” the negative space is painstakingly painted in layers of striations with controlled crackling marks, imitating a bamboo forest. The background holds immaculately with what seems like repetitive application of amorphous combustion deposit onto a surface. The painting “Monk’s Table” is a variation of a similar subject matter with three achromatic flames within an illusive image of moving water—changing so rapidly that it is gone before we can take notice. This textural ephemerality in his work is just as unique and fleeting as human feeling and physical being. 

Lao’s ingenuity in texture grows when using tangible materials to portray light and darkness. In “Sense of Light 1 and 2” abaca rope is carefully intertwined and stapled onto the surface, making out a grid and source of contemplation. Utilizing a semiotic discourse, Lao is able to convey the idea of light through an abstraction of a candle’s wick. In “Monk’s House,” hundreds of fused joss sticks (incense) are turned into an architectural feat cloaked in charcoal and metallic gold paint. A decorative pent roof, fashioned to a mokoshi (skirt storey) most commonly seen in Buddhist temples, completes the work, giving the impression of a “lighter” look. It’s worth noting that this is the only work in the exhibition that is black, in stark contrast with the others. In Buddhism, offering incense dispels the “darkness of one’s ignorance”, aiding the pursuit of luminous, clear wisdom.

We may gain a deeper sense of the meaning and significance of this particular work from the words of Tibetan practitioner Lama Tharchin Rinpoche who said, “our ordinary eyes, however, are obscured by the darkness of the two defilements—gross afflictive emotional defilements and subtle habitual defilements. While the Buddha does not have desire for offerings, we make offerings for the purpose of our own accumulation of merit and wisdom. When we offer light, the results are the realization of clear light wisdom phenomena in this life; the clarification of dualistic mind and the dispersal of confusion and the increase of wisdom in each lifetime until one has reached enlightenment. “

Other works in the series reveal Lao’s playfulness as an artist. “Voices” and “Buddhist Television” are assembled with hand-sawed plywood that are meticulously stacked and glued together, exposing the wood’s natural complexion. Layers of paint and gel medium are interspersed, producing an understated textural gradation. When asked why he used the word “television” in the title, Lao remarks that art is after all a form of “cheesy” play and invention. The wordplay and astute technique affirm Lao’s masterful understanding and ability to usher the mundane into delightful new contexts through art.

Lao often repeats a title or revisits thematic idioms and subject matter, turning old ideas into fresh constructs. “Table with 13 stones” is a sincere attempt to literally depict 13 stones lined up on a table. Lao recalls the incorporation of actual stones in his old works, exposing their inherent traits and properties; this current painting, however, is imbued with a commentary on numerical epistemology and meaning, the stones having been rendered mimetically. Although the work may be visually literal, its mood consummately refers back to his “Table with Muchi (Mu Qi)” in painterly aspect. Perhaps it is this work that best illustrates Lao’s creative journey—resonating through time, reminiscent of the past, cyclical and aspirational, always evolving. In the absence of a definitive boundary, the figure-ground relationship between the palpable, perceivable and imaginable is heightened.

As a collection, “Sense of Light” is part of a continuum, but it also stands on its own, unburdened by the artist’s identity and history. – AMAN SANTOS

About the artist

Lao Lianben (b. 1948) is a visual artist whose painting career spans 43 creative years. Various institutions and art collectors locally and abroad value Lao’s contribution to Philippine contemporary art. He lives in Manila with his wife, Lilia, who is also an artist.

Aman Santos (b. 1973) is a visual artist, arts educator and editorial designer. He co-authored Lao Lianben’s monograph “Black Water: A Monk’s Dream” in 2016. He has an MFA in painting, a bachelor’s degree in visual communication, and is a licensed physical therapist.