earl lu @ 80: beyond the golden mean

by Michelle Chin


Roses - Celebrating Abundance

Earl Lu painted fish and plants at first but he wanted to paint flowers. The only one he knew by name was the rose and he has now been painting roses for over 40 years. He has also painted irises, narcissi, hydrangeas. In his early paintings of roses, he left the background empty, as in Chinese classical paintings. He now paints the background as is usual in European paintings. His early roses were black ink on white rice paper. He now more often paints in ink and pigment as he says that "the colour makes the paintings look more modern."

Ink and Orange Roses, 2003
He paints the subject matter first and adds the background later. Lines are of paramount importance - he paints the lines first, and the background comes right at the end after he has painted the lines. Sometimes the background may even partly erase some of the lines that have been painted first. Or he may add shading that gives the impression of a celadon glaze. The thorns on the stems are a dot of paint that is applied with a lift of the brush which produces a sharp end or tail: this gives life to a painting.

Sometimes, he paints soft brushstrokes of colour first, then adds lines giving emphasis as can be seen in Ink and Orange Roses (2003) where he began with broad brush strokes, then applied the background, and finally added the black outlines. He likes strong things so he puts on the black outlines.

Generally, Earl Lu's rose paintings give the impression of wealth and abundance. The flowers are grand, the vases are for the most part exquisite antique Chinese ceramics. The flowers bloom in profusion, giving the distinct impression of wealth in the house. Born into a wealthy family, Earl Lu has always liked what is rich, extravagant and abundant. He says that, "My philosophy of life is 'in excess of the golden mean.' I think if you practise the golden mean, you live a dull life, you must go beyond."

What does Earl Lu mean with his philosophy of life "in excess of the golden mean"? The golden mean is an irrational number, approximately 1.618, that possesses many interesting properties. Shapes defined by the golden mean have long been considered aesthetically pleasing in Western cultures, reflecting nature's balance between symmetry and asymmetry and the ancient Pythagorean belief that reality is a numerical reality, except that numbers were not units as we define them today, but were expressions of ratios. The golden mean is still used frequently in art and design. The golden mean is also referred to as the golden ratio, golden section, golden number, divine proportion or sectio divina.

While respecting the golden mean or divine proportion, Earl Lu wants to go beyond it. As a flower, the rose is already very pretty, and he wants to make it attractive without being vulgar. He says, "We Chinese are very fussy in trying not to be vulgar and the one word that we use is clarity or qing which probably equates with purity, non-vulgar, refinement."

In relation to Earl Lu's approach to art, we can use the example of the painting entitled Beyond the Golden Mean (2004). Earl Lu challenges the "divine proportions" of nature by including lines that are not natural. He creates colours that do not exist in nature, and to give a feeling of strength to what is usually known as a very delicate flower, he uses gold colour in this painting. It is a case of the artist playing at being God, perfecting what is already thought of as "perfect".

Earl Lu's love of Chinese ceramics is plain to see in his rose paintings. The roses are often depicted in exquisite "Yuan" vases and sometimes in vases with ox-blood red, celadon or green glazes. Not all of the blue and white pots are necessarily Yuan Dynasty pots: sometimes Earl Lu just wants to create a new design that may never have been used in Chinese ceramics.

Earl Lu's roses are always depicted in full bloom. (In a similar vein, his preference for the models at life drawing sessions tend to be mature women in their 30s or 40s). The petals and leaves are similar in shape to Fu Bao Shi's style of portraiture: almond-shaped eyes, cherry lips and fluttering moth eyebrows. Sometimes, a white ceramic pot holding the roses may have "beauty spots" as in a lady's face.

Beyond the Golden Mean, 2004

Women - Celebrating Sensuality and Spirituality

Earl Lu often combines the subject matter of women and roses in his paintings. While he is clearly celebrating their beauty and sensuality, he is able to produce art because of the connection between the senses and the emotions when he is faced with this subject matter:

"I don’t think a human being, any artist, is ever able to divorce his art from the fact that he is one sex or the other and he finds the other sex attractive. In the case of a homosexual artist, his models are usually male, his paintings are usually of males and he does them very well. There were quite a number in Bali among the Europeans and they do really beautiful Balinese men. Similarly, when a male artist paints a woman, he can't divorce his attraction to women, of women's attractiveness to him. It's not possible to divorce that. I think that attraction is very important."

He perhaps sums it up best with his comment, "You must like the human body to do a good painting, you must be thrilled by it."

According to Marjorie Chu, author of Understanding Contemporary Southeast Asian Art, "Earl Lu paints breasts in absolutely the most natural and beautiful way. In the middle of the body, in between the beautiful faces and feet you will see those really beautiful lines of the breasts, and how he enjoys making those sensitive lines. Quite unaware of the impact of his paintings Earl would submit works to a public exhibition and on more than one occasion his nudes had to be removed because they did not pass the board of censorship. I think people could not quite define the reason but it is a credit and a compliment to Earl's work because he has really projected that sensuality of the body. Not only is he eloquent in his nude drawings but in all the lectures that he gives he is often complimented at the end, 'Dr Lu, you are both a charmer and a rogue.'"

Earl Lu explains:

"I do not know whether a piece of ceramic is genuine or not. I'm a collector but I have not handled enough ceramics to understand their weight, thickness, texture or the smoothness of the glaze because most times I see them in a gallery. But when examining a patient for breast cancer, chances are I will know whether it is cancerous or benign because I have handled a thousand breasts."

Three Women Praying, 2000
Apart from life drawing sessions, Earl Lu often sketches and draws figures in coffee shops and markets in Singapore and when travelling overseas. He is fascinated by awkward poses where people have feet half out of their shoe, or a foot placed on the stool in what he calls "the pose of royal ease". What is very important and very intelligent in his rendering of the figures is that he still draws the figures as if they are naked, then puts on their clothing afterwards. It is a very intelligent approach because it ensures the correct structure of the figure. This may have been the way that he created the painting Three Women Praying (2000) as we note that the rounded buttocks of the three women depicted in the painting add a lush sensuality to subject matter that could otherwise be rather dry and devout in nature.

Earl Lu's painting entitled Still Life (2002) also includes some unexpected sensual pleasures. We see a wine jar, a cup and some lush, red fruits on a tray perched on the edge of a bed that has a striped blue and yellow cover. Red curtains create a frame for both the window and the painting itself. The surprise element is a rear view of a nude, which is either a painting of a nude that is displayed on the wall by the window, or the reflection of a woman sitting on the bed with her back to the mirror.

While there is indeed a very strong physicality in his paintings of women, it is important that we remember that Earl Lu feels very tender and protective towards women due to the fact that they bear children, and their bodies are designed for this function. He firmly believes that men have inherited a particular admiration for women as a matter of evolutionary necessity. Earl Lu's paintings of nudes celebrate the beauty of women in general, and especially the woman as (potential) mother.

We should note also that less accomplished artists often paint the faces of women in an overly-pretty way. Earl Lu is not interested in painting chocolate-box beauties. His aim is to make a quick sketch, to give the spirit of a person, the essence of a woman, rather than a particular woman. And again we are reminded that Earl Lu believes that it is the connection between the senses and the emotions which produces art, and the greatest of the emotions is spirituality:

"There should always be a sense of spirituality in the face, of contentment, of not wanting anything from you, of finding complete fulfilment in her own life. The most beautiful stone carvings of apsaras are to be found at Angkor Wat. The apsara is a demi-god with a face that depicts contentment as if there is nothing else she wants in the world."

For example, look at the expression on the face of the woman in the painting entitled Nude 04 (2000). It is precisely in this way that Earl Lu's paintings of women achieve a wonderful blend of sensuality and spirituality.

Nude 04, 2000

The spirituality and sense of contentment expressed in the face of an apsara is related to an important aspect of Earl Lu's philosophy of life which may be summed up by a section of The Doctrine of the Mean:

"The Superior Man acts accepting his own situation. He does not hope to be somewhere else. When he is in a position of fame and fortune, he acts within fame and fortune. When in a position of poverty and low status, he acts within poverty and low status. When dwelling with uncultured tribes, he acts as if he is with uncultured tribes. When he is in stress and difficulty, he acts from within stress and difficulty. There is no place where the Superior Man is not completely himself.

When in a high position, he does not step on those below him. When in a low position, he does not drag down those above him. Correcting yourself and not expecting things from others, you will not create resentments. You will not resent Heaven above, nor blame men below."

Landscapes - Celebrating Spirituality

According to Earl Lu, "In the Chinese tradition, all landscape paintings are spiritual in a sense. The artists show their longing for the life of the village, the life of the farmer, the life of the shepherd, to retire from the hustle and bustle of the city. The subject matter of landscape is often a recluse with a servant boy bearing his books and painting materials. There is also a sense of unifying all the strokes and colours, usually very subdued colours, so that unifying is easy and of course the relative sizes - the old teaching of ten foot for mountain, one foot for trees, one inch for houses and a tenth of an inch for man. Chinese artists revere landscape because landscape represents the immensity and vastness of nature in proportion to mankind. Basically that is spiritual because it puts man in his right proportion in the universe and I'm sure that's correct."

Hills Like Sugar Loaves, 2003
While many of his landscapes do include mountains, trees and water, and the general shapes come from nature, Earl Lu invents his own colouring. As opposed to Chinese classical paintings, Earl Lu uses bright colours which give a more modern look. He sometimes may paint the sky black in the style of Vlaminck as it has a more dramatic effect. He often paints clouds outlined simply in red, in the style of Chen Wen Hsi because he finds them attractive. However, Earl Lu later realised that "clouds are flat below and billowing on top".

He likes to use the wet on wet technique, which gives a furry outline, particularly apt for landscapes. His preference is for roundedness: the misty, mountain landscapes feature rounded peaks, which may be related to his preference for the shapes to be found in his life drawings and paintings of nudes which feature women's rounded bodies, rounded breasts, rounded toes. Sometimes, the rounded mountains may even look like nudes with their safe, comfortable, round shapes.

While Earl Lu considers that landscape painting is the most refined form of Chinese painting, in all of his paintings, he wants to transform vulgarity into refinement. Flowers are too pretty and vulgar: how to make them appear refined? Or, in the case of a woman, rather than focussing solely on the physical beauty, he prefers to incorporate the spirituality that is found in the face of an apsara: her face represents absolute contentment in life in that "everything I want is already within me". (However, for this very reason, the apsara can be unapproachable: Earl Lu thinks that in reality the best type of woman would be a mixture of devil and angel!)

How to make landscape paintings spiritual without putting in a monk which is obvious? How to produce a landscape painting that moves one spiritually? I think that the answer can be found in The Doctrine of the Mean:

"Confucius said: 'The overabundance of the power of spiritual beings is truly amazing! Looking for them, they cannot be seen. Listening for them, they cannot be heard. There is nothing that they do not embody. They are overflowing, seeming to be above, seeming to be on the left and on the right.' The Book of Odes says: 'Trying to investigate the spirits, we cannot reach them. How could we possibly grasp them with our thoughts?' The manifestation of the subtle and the inconcealability of sincerity is like this."

Spirit of Mountain, 2003
One of Earl Lu's objectives is that paintings should have more soul. His landscape paintings are the most obviously spiritual of all his paintings. In his landscape paintings such as Spirit of Mountain (2003) or A Place to Meditate (2003), the landscapes may appear to be Chinese, but I suspect that the landscapes in Earl Lu's mind may be inspired by his year in India when he was a teenager:

"I went to a boarding school deep in a pine forest and every time I walked to school I could see pine trees, some of them several hundred feet high and I told myself I understand now why India is so full of mystics. The country lends itself to contemplation." It is not important however, that the landscapes be identifiable by location. The landscapes are "landscapes in his mind", they are his version of reality.

HA Place to Meditate, 2003

As with his other paintings, Earl Lu comments:

"I'm not worried about reality. I'm worried about my vision of reality. After all, when you ask an artist to paint, what are you asking him to do? Give you his version of what he sees, not what he sees, a camera does that much better. His version, his selection and his addition of nature, of the colouring that he likes."

[published in Earl Lu @ 80: Beyond the Golden Mean by Michelle Chin (Singapore, Art Forum, 2005)
ISBN 981-05-4074-4, in conjunction with exhibition of same name held at Art Forum, Singapore in September 2005]