Tied up with tradition

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 March, 1999, 12:00am

One of Chu Ko's most startling paintings leaps out from the large canvas, a yellow background lighting up a lion's head, a Chinese painting but with a Western interpretation.

'People find something very controversial about my pictures,' said Ko. 'Because the image is a very strong one if you're Chinese, but even the paper and the brush are Western. Even when I buy materials, the mix of two cultures is questioned.' 'I want to put Chinese culture in a modern space to enrich our lives. This can rouse people to a social awareness of both the new and the old at the same time.' There is no ego involved in Ko's belief in his ability to influence. He has emerged as one of the leaders of the second generation of Chinese modernists, a man who's scholastic background is formidable but who, in person, is just rather jolly.

'I maximise fun. I treasure every moment,' says Ko, who recovered from nasopharyngeal cancer in 1984. 'When I'm painting, I forget everything that bothers me and escape into a different world. If I discover a new brush-stroke, I'll shout out with delight!' It is this happy blend of characteristics that has put Ko - whose real name is Yuan Dexing - at the forefront of China's New Literati movement: the spontaneous, good temperament, the joy of expression, the educated scholarly attitude, the ability to refer to Chinese philosophies.

His exhibition at the Arts Centre's Pao Galleries, which then moves to Alisan Fine Arts, features 50 of his recent works which all demonstrate the same colourful, powerful and vibrant approach, based on a recurring theme 'The Unwinding Knot'. The intricately woven lines of the knot wind and unwind, connecting the sky and the mountains, tying the clouds to the earth, interconnecting all aspects of his personal vision.

The series features not just knots and festal lion heads inspired by folk art, but landscapes, flowers and primitive Nuwa figures and always calligraphy in his experimental approach to traditional subjects.

Full of movement, Ko's lines snake and curl across an unconventional palette of bright colours, adding a modern vitality to work that seems to bear little relation to the placid seriousness of traditional Chinese ink painting. He appropriates the old and embellishes and it is his own history and his knowledge of history which allows him this freedom to relate forms to each other.

Born in 1931 in Hunan Province, Ko had a classical education, which included studying poetry and calligraphy. In 1948, he enlisted and the following year moved to Taiwan with the defeated Nationalist army.

He enrolled in night courses at an art college and became an instructor at the Chinese culture college and, in 1968, entered the antiquities department of the National Palace Museum and became an expert in the study of ancient bronze vessels.

He began to exhibit worldwide in the 1970s and when he recovered from cancer, he devoted his life to painting.

His unusual technique, taking a Chinese character, using a brush that is actually 10 brushes bound together, and deliberately seeking imperfect strokes, leaves him ambiguous space, voids and welcome imperfection. The meticulous, one-dimensional nature of traditional calligraphy is left far behind.

'Calligraphy has a depth and subtlety for a modern man to explore,' said Ko, who counts former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten among his fans, 'There's a lot of possibilities in the abstract. A modern man should be able to discover much from it, to discover his own potential. In the modernity, is ancient tradition.' Geometric rational calligraphy is given a more conceptual image, enlightened by Ko's fresh, emotional input and his knowledge of many different disciplines. But his work is specifically about the infinite variety one can create with the line through unravelling knots. 'Chinese culture uses knots to record everything, passing time, for instance,' he said. 'Unwinding them can be very pleasing, yet always it ties us to our historical, Asian roots.' Chu Ko, The Unwinding Knot. Pao Galleries, Hong Kong Arts Centre until March 16. 10am-8 pm daily. Alisan Fine Arts until 26 March. Mon-fri 10am-6pm, Sat 11am-6pm Sun closed