Kan Kit-Keung at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Ian Findlay, Editor, Asian Art News
Asian Art News, July/August 1995, p. 62

This fine retrospective of 40 works, covering Chinese-American artist Kan Kit-Keung’s work from 1965-1995, is an imposing display of an artist who has impressively merged the traditions and philosophy of Chinese landscape painting with many of the sensibilities of Western super-realism and graphic art. All of the works in the exhibition are ink and colors on paper, mediums which Kan has adhered to faithfully all his artistic life.

Kan’s paintings, even from the earliest works on show (1965-68), have a freshness and openness that is part of the immediate attraction to them. The drama of his landscapes is also enhanced by a grandness of scale in which Kan has almost always worked. Even in his smaller works there is always a sense of the monumentality of his subject. There is nothing tentative about this for Kan wishes to show us his view of the majesty of the natural world, where only occasionally is the presence of mankind felt and then solely in a few buildings.

The works from the 1960s clearly follow the technical, philosophical, and emotional requirements of traditional Chinese landscape. And though pictorially formal, there is already a hint of the drama to come. As Kan moved away from the Chinese and Hong Kong art scene, however, under influences that were increasingly Western his art began to become less a clearly defined Chinese landscape statement but a more graphic Western idiom, as in such works as Plain 1 (1979), Winter Falls I (1988), Clouds in Mountain Space XXXVII (1988), Autumn Falls V (1992), Fallen Leaves II (1993), and Yosemite II (1995).

Kan’s shows in his immensely detailed and subtle works from his imagination and nature suggest that he has never been a prolific painter. A branch, a leaf, a tree, a rock, water, and clouds are set before us in a way which reveals their physical and textural qualities anew to us. It is Kan’s eye for detail (he is also a working physicist) that gives his work a refreshing intimacy which is enhanced by the scale in which he works.

Whether monochromatic or photographically super-real, naturalistic or imaginary, his spiritual journey is with nature’s changes. Nature is where spectacle and drama lie, as all landscape artists know. It takes courage and maturity to face them, and a deeply cultivated visual vocabulary to expose them on paper. Kan has achieved both after 30 thoughtful years. Kan’s finest achievements then lie, not in the imaginary, but in the natural world of the immense panoramas that are offered by the likes of the Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon. It is as if all his other works were but pedestrian studies in preparation for such dynamic series as Niagara (1993-95) and his wonderful piece Grand Canyon (1994). Many other Chinese artists have attempted to capture the drama and power of the American landscape, only a very few have succeeded. Either the end result had relied too much on learned techniques and philosophy and thus become a strange hybrid of Chinese landscape, or they fail to capture the rude intensity that is singularly American.

The power of the water plunging over the great cliffs at Niagara and the mist rising to embrace the land at the grand Canyon inject a sensuality into Kan’s landscape which was only hinted at before. Standing before these works one feels that one could reach out to snatch at the water or waft away the mist. The whole is entirely naturalistic, the details are exquisitely abstract.

In essence, what Kan has achieved, much like another expatriate artist Wucius Wong and numerous other Chinese artists of the 1960s and the 1970s, has been to add fresh perception to the whole idiom of Chinese landscape art. His landscape is not a mongrel art, it is a universal one whose sprit and vitality, like abstract painting, crosses the artistic and cultural borders of East and West with ease.