Behind the mask

TWO people wearing masks are playing chess. They are floating in the air, relaxing freely in an atmosphere which has lost its gravity. It is one of the 14 prints and 12 oil paintings by artist Wong Chun-kit on exhibition at the Fringe Club from now until May 4.

Inspired by traditional Chinese and primitive art, Wong uses masks and masked people as the subjects in his prints. His sensitive calligraphic strokes betray his earlier training in Chinese painting.

His special style is shown in the combination of the wild and carefree lines with expressive colours. ''I wish very much to explore the real life and soul of the universe,'' Wong said.

The material was created during his stay in America. In 1992 he won the International Fellowship in Visual Arts and was sent to the United States as artist in residence at Rutgers Centre at the University of New Jersey. For one month he visited art galleries, artists' studios and talked to art critics in New Mexico, Arizona, Los Angeles, Yellowstone Park, Boston, New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia. Then he worked at Rutgers Centre for six weeks.

Ironically, the 41-year-old Shanghai born artist had no interest in drawing or painting whatsoever when he was little. Yet his father was a painter. ''The fierce expression on his face scared me half to death,'' Wong said.

During the Cultural Revolution, Wong could not study. His father painted gigantic Mao pictures on street walls. When his father's health deteriorated with lung disease, and it became difficult for him to climb up and down the ladder, Wong, who was then 15, began to help his father paint.

''I became interested in drawing. I drew a lot of propaganda pictures of Mao which people hang in their home as it was a fad at that time,'' said Wong, whose father taught him the basic drawing skills.

In 1978, Wong was enrolled in the Shanghai Academy of Performing Arts. He learned drawing in the first two years and stage design in the third. He can still vividly remember two oil paintings he did at the academy - one of a man boxing and the other of a person sitting and staring out vacantly.

''At that time most of the paintings I did belonged to the school of realism. You were not allowed to draw abstract pictures. So I rented a cottage in the village to create abstract paintings,'' Wong said.

After graduation he worked at the Shanghai Cultural Ministry. When he moved to Hong Kong in 1983, he brought all his unexhibited pictures with him. During the day he worked for China Travel Advertising and in the evening he drew pictures. He created many lithographs and monoprints on hand-made paper.

In his work, he often grouped meaningful signs and characters and rearranged them to give new significance. ''I tried to create my works in an entirely free and unrestrained way. My work was deeply affected by the Chinese big character posters of the Cultural Revolution,'' Wong said.

Besides doing prints and lithographs, he also creates three-dimensional installations. Mud and steel are the two main ingredients of his installations. ''When I was 17 I had to dig mud for building underground bomb shelters. My second job was working in a steel factory. It was a dangerous environment, you could die anytime,'' Wong said.