Duo make a splash with traditional works
Artists show why old-school Chinese painting remains relevant
In the 1960s, artists such as Lui Shou-kwan initiated the "New Ink" movement in Hong Kong. The unconventional approach to its teaching and learning, which stresses individualism rather than imitation, gave the ancient art of Chinese ink painting a new lease of life.
Today, a new generation of Hong Kong artists is trying to capture the essence of traditional Chinese art with relevance to our times, and some of their artworks will go under the hammer at the SCMP Charity Art Auction on September 3.
There is Koon Wai-bong's black-and-white Forestscape (2013), donated by the artist and Grotto Fine Art to the cause. The work shows a row of trees growing so close together there is no telling where one ends and another starts. Every leaf - and there are thousands of them - has been drawn using the jiaye method inherited from the Tang and Song dynasties, essentially a couple of light flicks with the tip of the brush.
The baimiao, or line drawing, tradition is also apparent here in the way the trunks and branches are executed and the outlines of the leaves unfilled. And yet, the repetition of a single motif and the disorienting arrangement of the branches give the large ink-on-silk diptych a fresh perspective.
"In my art, the traditional refers to the techniques. Chinese art has strict ways of painting rocks, water, clouds and trees, and I stick to them," Koon, 40, says.
"At the same time, I try to convey something about the society we live in, such as crowdedness, mass production and how a lot of city dwellers live in a tight space but are still introverts."
Chinese art came late to Koon: he was in his second year at Chinese University, where he studied fine art as an undergraduate, when he received his first lesson in traditional Chinese painting.
"My understanding of the visual arts had a very Western perspective and then suddenly I realised there was a whole new world to be discovered," says Koon, an assistant professor in ink painting at Baptist University's Academy of Visual Arts.
In particular, he adores how the mastery of classical techniques allows him to describe moods and ideas spontaneously. For that, he is ever grateful to his university mentor, the classically trained painter Chow Su-sing.
Spontaneity and well-honed techniques are also the trademarks of Chui Pui-chee. The 35-year-old is determined to promote Chinese calligraphy, though that may not be apparent in Friends of Humble Chamber (2013), the ink-on-silk triptych that he and Grotto Fine Art have donated to the auction.
The three scrolls are covered in a thousand life-size mosquitoes so realistically drawn that one can almost hear their annoying, high-pitched whining. "My training is in calligraphy and the techniques used in calligraphy are very relevant when trying to capture the mosquitoes' outlines," he says.
Chui, born in 1980, started studying calligraphy as a child. Like Koon, he went to Chinese University for his undergraduate degree, and then won a scholarship to study at the venerated China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. It was an unusual choice for a young Hong Kong artist, perhaps, as the mainland is hardly known for cultivating free expression. For Chui, however, the three years in Hangzhou allowed him to become immersed in calligraphy. "That's all I did aside from sleeping and eating."
Friends of Humble Chamber is a reference to the bare room he lived and worked in at the time, with only mosquitoes for company.
"It was hard work painting a thousand mosquitoes, but I enjoyed the impromptu nature of the process," says Chui, programme co-ordinator with Chinese University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Using insects to create dense clusters and their interesting dynamic with empty space resonates with his love of caoshu, the most abstract and free form of Chinese calligraphy, Chui adds.
He has created a whole series of paintings featuring mosquitoes, flying ants and wasps - a choice of subject matter that seems perverse. But the insects' vulnerability and insignificance to the human eye strikes a chord with an artist who has struggled for years to get Hong Kong people interested in calligraphy, and who feels pessimistic about his own chances of becoming a full-time artist. "In real life, we are just as inferior as these insects. Who hasn't been sidelined, ignored?"
Both Koon and Chui feel that a lot of "good art" is being produced in Hong Kong, but they are often overshadowed by mainland art that can be read in the context of tectonic shifts in the country's political, economic and social landscape.
From Ai Weiwei's protest art to Zhang Xiaogang's ruminations on the Cultural Revolution, it is virtually impossible for viewers to detach their works from conditions on the mainland today. Hong Kong artists are less likely to adopt themes that are instantly recognisable to an international audience, Koon says.
However, Hong Kong's "New Ink" artists are increasingly shown abroad, often together with ink works by contemporary mainland artists. There may be a lack of distinction between the two groups because this genre is more about the evolution of calligraphy and the classic genre of shanshui landscapes, and less about a national point of view.
"I dislike talk of nationalism because it excludes others. I just appreciate the process of creation in Chinese art," says Koon.
This distance may help local artists to emerge from obscurity. Breaking away from rigid concepts about what Chinese art is can pave a new way for "New Ink", as the pioneers did in 1960s Hong Kong.