Chui Pui-chee's calligraphy brings traditional art to life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 October, 2015, 10:42pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 October, 2015, 11:22pm

Chui Pui-chee is an anachronism. When other twenty-something artists were experimenting with multimedia conceptual installations, he went up to Hangzhou's China Academy of Art and spent six years studying Chinese calligraphy.

Now in his mid-30s, Chui remains firmly wedded to traditional scrolls and silk screens. His raison d'être is to make traditional art relevant without fiddling too much with form.

Despite the scholarly style of Chui's calligraphy, he has his feet very much on the ground. His new solo exhibition at Grotto Fine Art is steeped in his own struggles with high property prices and the pressure of being a young, working parent in Hong Kong. Beyond the poetic beauty of his cursive script is a Munchian scream.

The exhibition has some familiar elements, such as the way he gives dignity and weight to pop lyrics by copying them onto traditional scrolls. This time, he has picked out plaintive lines from songs such as Eason Chan's Bicycle, Sammi Cheng's High Mountains and Deep Valleys and Qi Qin's Night Night Night Night, and deliberately used very watery ink so that some of the words have spread and blurred on paper. "I want to give the impression of tears," he says.

A number of his scrolls are less than 30cm wide - they are about the width of the bedroom windows he saw in a show flat a few years ago. "I was shocked that Hong Kong people have to slave away all their life to afford a small flat, and are still not allowed to have enough light when they return home at the end of the day," he says.

Also in the exhibition are the bees, flying ants and mosquitoes from his earlier Friends of Humble Chamber series. These, too, display a sense of doom. His bees are trying to seek refuge in the corners of the frame as white smoke spreads from the centre. A beautiful gold screen looks decorative, until you see that it is covered in shed ant wings.

Chui says the works reflect the gloomy outlook of a struggling Hong Kong artist. For eight years, he could only make art in stolen moments between a tedious, full-time job in university administration and the demands of a new family.

Chui is lucky: his works sell. Most artists do not receive the recognition and support they deserve despite talk of Hong Kong becoming a major art hub, says Henry Au-yeung, owner of Grotto Fine Art, a local gallery dedicated to local artists.

There are quiet, zen, moments in the show, panels featuring different forms of the Chinese word for flower, and stone seals carved with the words of Buddhist sutras.

Levity is provided by a number of silk paintings inspired by the works of ancient Chinese masters. Cat owners will be able to sympathise with The fool who tries to move a …. In this painting, the fool is not battling against a gigantic mountain, as he does in the age-old Chinese fable, but a huge immovable cat.

Chui recently joined auction house China Guardian as a classical Chinese painting and calligraphy specialist and he loves his new job. "I get to see plenty of works of art passing through auctions and I feel energised for the first time in years. Seeing older works is providing valuable nutrition to my own creativity," he says.

He is keeping his fingers crossed ahead of his employer's December Beijing auctions, which will feature his works for the first time.

Will mainland collectors have an appetite for an artist known for his very Hong Kong sentiments?

Chui Pui-chee: My Tiresome at the Bottom of Valley , Grotto Fine Art, until Nov 7, 1-2/F, 31C-D Wyndham Street, Central. Inquiries: 2121 2270