What's in a brushstroke? According to Chinese ink painter Leung Kui-ting, it reveals much about the artist's style, cultural cultivation and temperament. Each stroke is so carefully considered, contemplated and executed that it is a personal and unique expression of the bik (brush) wielder's sense of movement, rhythm and mood.
So a landscape painting is seldom just a pictorial depiction of a natural scene or calligraphy a fancy method of writing, the 66-year-old says, but a 'portrait' made up of techniques, sentiments, emotions and life experience.
In his latest solo outing at Hanart TZ Gallery titled 'Roaming Vision + Digital', where more than two dozen of his works from the past three years are on display, Leung presents himself as an artist still in search of his own artistic expression and style using the traditional vocabulary of Chinese ink. The exhibition comes four years after his last major show at Johnson Chang Tsong-zung's gallery in which he used scholars' rocks, which were particularly popular during the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), as his inspiration. This time around, he has taken a big leap forward to look at how the digital age is influencing his way of looking at nature and artistic practice.
'Modern technology and images have created a new world view and different feel for society,' he writes in his artistic statement. 'The constant revolving in my mind of the elements of nature and time has prompted me to insert a digital element absent in traditional painting: namely, geometric lines and broken lines. Through the medium of traditional ink and pen-brush, they interweave and harmonise within the structural space of Chinese traditional landscape painting, to explore an innovative and modern spatial aesthetic.'
At first glance, his paintings resemble traditional landscapes - the colours, misty scenery, contour lines - but a closer look shows they are made up of different kinds of lines, some thick, others extremely fine, even disjointed. Leung says that to appreciate his works one needs to look at the details: 'How each line is being drawn ... it's all different. [The composition] looks like design or a map.'
Although widely regarded as a contemporary artist, Leung's practice derives largely from traditional Chinese painting. Only a good understanding of the past - 'other than techniques, you need to read a lot of literature on the history of the art form to build up a solid foundation' - will give an artist's work depth and credibility, he says.
That was exactly what Leung did when he decided to pursue traditional Chinese ink around the mid-1980s. Up until that point he was still trying out various mediums and forms including painting, sculpture and contemporary ink to find his artistic path. He was also heavily influenced by Western aesthetics. After much exploring and experimenting, he thought he had better start specialising and build a solid foundation in one discipline: 'So I started all over again and went back to the basics, learning how to use a brush.'
Born in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Leung doesn't have any formal training in traditional ink painting. He moved to Hong Kong in 1948 and in 1964 studied under master painter Lui Shou-kwan.
Leung was part of the New Chinese Ink Painting movement in the 1960s and 70s, spearheaded by Lui and a group of local ink artists who encouraged individual expression rather than simply copying. He was a part-time lecturer at the then Hong Kong Polytechnic between 1974 and 1990 and is now teaching at the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre. He is regularly shown in solo and group exhibitions around the region.
Today Leung finds his inspiration in rocks, trees and mountains - the very subjects that had fascinated literati painters over the past 600 years. Leung says that years of practise as a sculptor have enhanced his sensitivity, imagination and appreciation of three-dimensional space, and he is still fascinated by the infinite shapes of natural rock formations. 'The exotic forms, ubiquitous contours and jumble of cavities in rocks are nature's creation. Thus a mere block of stone is life, the existence of decay,' he says.
'Throughout history, the delight of the literati in stones reflects their cultural taste and aesthetic view. Rock contours are in themselves landscape art. When I view them with the eye of modern man, I savour their symbolic form and abstract beauty; and their transparency, cavities and folds enable me to apprehend a world beyond outward appearances.'
He visits the mainland, especially Suzhou, to get inspired by its 'dreamy' natural landscape. 'That sort of scenery doesn't exist in modern-day Hong Kong,' says Leung, who has a studio in Fo Tan.
The painter is now dabbling in Chinese calligraphy, practising his strokes on long scrolls. It's not so much the meaning of what he writes that matters but the lines, forms, flow and rhythm, he says.
'It's almost like an impromptu act ... the lines are an expression of my feeling at the time of the work. Again, I'm looking for my own style and to not be influenced by other traditional calligraphy.'
'Roaming Vision + Digital, Hanart TZ Gallery, 407 Pedder Bldg, 12, Pedder St, Central, Mon-Fri, 10am-6.30pm, Sat, 10am-6pm. Inquiries: 2526 9019. Ends Nov 19