East Meets West on Divergent Paths: Artist Pairs Chinese Calligraphy and American Landscapes

East Meets West on Divergent Paths
Artist Pairs Chinese Calligraphy and American Landscapes

By Sara Gebhardt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page PG32

Although most people, including those fluent in Chinese, cannot read the large-scale Chinese calligraphy hanging in Harmony Hall Regional Center’s main gallery, they will easily grasp the blended East-West sensibility of the artist who created them. That’s because alongside the large black-and-white paintings depicting ancient Chinese scripts are works reminiscent of contemporary American landscape painting.

Kit-Keung Kan’s solo show, “From the Brush of Kit-Keung Kan: American Landscapes and Chinese Calligraphy,” gives clues about the Bethesda brush-stroke enthusiast’s evolving artistic style. The show runs through Oct. 31 at the Fort Washington gallery.

Kan, who was born in China, learned to paint using bamboo brushes and Chinese ink on rice paper as a child in Guangdong province. His grandfather, an artisan who created temple carvings and murals in the region, exposed him to classical Chinese art, and Kan began studying and copying the works of masters of traditional Cantonese painting.

Now, at 60, “he is considered a master in the Chinese community [here],” said Valerie Watson, visual arts specialist for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Division, the show’s sponsor.

When Kan was 14, he moved to Hong Kong, where a more open cultural environment allowed him to explore modern Western art and the work of young Chinese artists who were reinterpreting traditional styles of painting. He began moving toward abstraction and simplification in his landscape paintings. After moving to the United States 10 years later for graduate studies in physics, Kan’s style continued to change, and he began to focus on natural settings such as Niagara Falls, Alaska’s glaciers and Great Falls National Park.

Rather than painting broad, bird’s-eye views as a conventional Chinese artist would, Kan now sticks to fixed-point portraits, zooming in on specific slices of scenery. Despite the changing styles, Kan never strays from his original method of brush-stroking using Chinese ink, watercolors and rice paper.

Over the years, even as he worked as a physicist for a private company, Kan exhibited his works in local and foreign galleries. In the past year — he is newly retired — Kan created all but two of the 36 large-scale works on display specifically for the Harmony Hall show. Half are watercolor landscape paintings and the other half are calligraphy.

“I am inspired by nature, and I like very much American scenery,” he said. Kan now is fixated on waterfalls and white water, settings for many of the displayed works.

Kan is also inspired by Chinese calligraphy because it challenges him artistically while allowing him to express philosophical ideas. The pieces are all inscriptions of quotes, sayings or poems, including a saying by Confucius: “Learning without thinking gets you lost; thinking without learning makes you tired.”

Most Chinese cannot read the calligraphy because the script is ancient, Kan said. The art world appreciates Chinese calligraphy because, he said, “it is something like a dance — each character is composed and you have to see the relationship between the different characters, different lines. . . . There are rhythms; some strokes are stronger and you improvise it as you go along.”

A dance. Improvisation. Building upon different parts. It sounds as though Kan also could be describing his evolving artistic style.

“From the Brush of Kit-Keung Kan: American Landscapes and Chinese Calligraphy” runs through Oct. 31 at Harmony Hall Regional Center, 10701 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Admission is free. Kan will lead a $25 Chinese brush-painting workshop from 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 23 at the gallery. 301-203-6070.

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