In Search of Modernity in the Art of Chinese Ink: Kan Kit-keung’s Works in the Last Decade

Harold Mok
(Professor, Department of Fine Arts, CUHK)

Diversity has become an epithet of contemporary art as the world at large succumbs itself willingly to the forces of globalization. When national boundaries no longer matter, nationalism in art is constantly rocked by cultures other than its own. Take for example traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. Their development has been intricately bound up with the dualities of the tradition versus modernity, inheritance versus innovation, and Chinese versus Western since the Republican period. Artists engaging in the ink medium are still intrigued well into the 21st century. Ink art as it is now is very much a kaleidoscope of formal, stylistic and thematic experiments. The more radical among the ink artists have even attempted to undo the tradition. Kan is one of those dedicated artists aspiring to initiate traditional ink art into the modern world. His works demonstrate his attempts to release himself from the confines of the tradition while keeping it well in sight. A survey of his repertoire in the past decade can perhaps shed light not only on his personal pursuit in particular but also on the development of Chinese ink art in general.

Ink Painting: Monumental Waterscape as Theme

Traces of diversity were evident in Chinese ink painting as early as the 20th century. Owing to differences in background and ideals between the modern and ancient masters, the traditional painting world singularly dominated by the literati is now a thing of the past. Although literati painters who possess the necessary scholarship, talent, skill and perspective to perpetuate the literati tradition do exist in our time, as in the case of Jao Tsung-I, artists who can still connect with the ancient masters are unfortunately the minority. A far greater number of the aspirants are working on a reinterpretation of the great tradition and in turn an artistic path of their own. Among these pioneers, there were Xu Beihong, Lin Fengmian, Ding Yanyong and Lü Shoukun just before our time and Liu Guosong, Wu Guanzhong and Wucius Wong who are still untiringly extending the frontiers of Chinese ink painting. The same passion can be seen in Kan.

Tradition in the strictest sense of the word does not feature prominently in Kan’s creations. Although labeled as Chinese for the media of ink, brush and rice paper, as well as the presence of seal marks and inscriptions typical of traditional Chinese paintings, his works represent untraditional personal choices whether in theme, style or technique. His preference for monumental waters, especially falls and rapids, is striking in the paintings that he has made over the past decade. As a newly arrived immigrant in the United States in the 1960s, he immediately fell for the natural beauty of his new homeland and apparently documented his visits to the Niagara Falls (Plates 1, 27, 28 and 29), Falls of Appalachians (Plates 17, 20 and 30) and Falls of Genesee (Plates 13 and 33) with his art. Water may be a personal favourite for Kan, who has said that it was the tumbling majesty that he aimed to capture in his painting. Kan’s representation of waters can be considered in two perspectives. First, water very often plays no more than a supporting role, not to mention as the theme, although landscape is a major genre in traditional Chinese painting. In the rare case of Water Scenes by Ma Yuan of the Southern Song, it is at best a small work producing a completely different effect (Figures 1 and 2). It can be argued, therefore, that Kan has been making an ambitious attempt within the framework of the great tradition. Second, the breaking through from the traditional literati representation of mists and clouds on paper has been a preoccupation of many artists striving for reforms. Gao Jianfu, Huang Boye and Lü Shoukun, for instance, tried to overcome the problem by painting from life and blowing breaths of realism and hence modern touches into Chinese painting. In this sense, Kan’s depiction of the famous falls in the US is in fact heading in the same direction as those late masters did in trying to reproduce the real world in Chinese painting.

Traditionally, lakes and rivers are represented as blanks or delineated with lines while falls and rapids are kept in the background as integral parts of a mountain. Concentrating on the visual impact of falls and rapids as Kan has done is no doubt a technical challenge. Modern painter Huang Junbi, for one, has attempted to depict monumental falls by resorting to mainly lines as is the case with traditional treatment (Figures 3). While rushing water can be convincingly conveyed with traditional lines, the outcome lacks the momentum that Kan is looking for. So, he mimics the changes in the water when it dashes, rushes and whirls with layers and layers of ink dots and accentuates the contrasts of light and shade which are dismissed in traditional Chinese painting. Standing in front of paintings thus produced, the viewer is awestruck by the breathtaking and capricious falls and rapids that come alive through his meticulous rendering and is left marveling the wonder and sheer power of Mother Nature.

The key to the success of using tiny dots to approximate monumental waters lies in the artist’s virtuosity with ink and brush and his understanding of the water’s physical forms. Judging from the present specimens, Kan is highly sophisticated in his dotting technique and is in full grasp of the variations in the speed and momentum of waters, especially when they break against rocks, such that the visual impact is simply overwhelming. Artistically, Kan’s paintings are more than representations of nature. The regulated brushwork and ingenious composition have crystallized natural scenery into a beauty of the purest order. As such, however turbulent the falls and rapids, what is evoked in the viewer is respect for nature and humility in face of the wonders of the world.

Rocks are an essential element in traditional Chinese landscapes. The texture strokes employed by the literati painter have a historical significance to them in addition to their representational function. This strongly traditional feature, however, is gradually lost in modern ink painting in the course of its evolvement since it has been regarded as a literati value that has become out of date. Despite his exposure to such texture strokes from his early tutelage under Zhou Yifeng and Liang Boyu, Kan has opted out from the traditional framework for a more meticulous depiction of the texture of rocks. In his paintings, rocks are often placed beside or in the middle of turbulent waters to accentuate the richness of the visual. Imposing in size, these stagnant rocks contrast sharply with the gushing waters while their closely packed texture lines echo in harmony with the dense dots representing water spumes. Kan’s rendering of rocks are most notable in the two Glaciers (Plates 22 and 23) of 2004. Although formed out of water, glaciers are as solid and formidable as mountain ranges. In both of these large-sized paintings, the overlapping glaciers built up by Kan’s signature dots can easily be mistaken for monumental mountains. Like his falls, the glaciers have brought out the beauty of Nature in its captivatingly purest form.

Another feature that has set Kan’s works apart from the traditional Chinese landscape is their departure from compositions typical of vertical scrolls and hand scrolls. There are neither the vertically linear arrangement of rocks, trees, waters and mountains nor the traditional perspectives of high-distance, deep-distance and flat-distance. Instead, the composition is conceived in a single perspective, making it immediately relevant to the viewer. To cater for the needs of modern display, Kan’s creations tend to be immense in size be they single square paintings unseen in more traditional genres or sets of two or four panels that are enlarged versions of more traditional formats. Like what is common among modern ink paintings, Kan’s painting surface is usually filled up and is striking in the contrasts of light and shade and reflections.

Despite such untraditional treatments, there is a faint suggestion of Chinese culture as is the case with many other modern ink painters. In the catalogue of an exhibition by Grotto’s in 2005, Henry Auyang has observed that certain of Kan’s works resemble the landscapes by Li Cheng, Fan Kuan and Ni Zan. Indeed, his brushstrokes betray his inheritance of the age-old tradition despite the strong modernist personality. The idyllic associations and the expression of one’s inner world through depiction of natural sceneries parallel most subtly the ideals of the traditional landscape. Thus, his depictions of Western sceneries are unlined by an enduring Chinese flavour despite their modern looks.

Kan may not have preoccupied himself with fitting into either the Chinese or the Western framework. The artist’s preference, however, is an important consideration when ascertaining the role played by any particular artist in the development of modern ink painting. As a doctor in physics, Kan has benefited his analysis from his academic training. His experiences while residing in the West has also no doubt opened up his ken and broadened his acceptance. Yet his exposure to Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy in his early years in his native town and Hong Kong has given him a solid foundation for his creative pursuits. At once modern and traditional as well as Chinese and Western, Kan’s works typify modern ink painting and the pluralistic character of modern culture.

Calligraphy and Calligraphy Installations

The most recent major reform of calligraphy began in the 1980s compared with that for painting which occurred in the early Republican period. The tardiness is mainly due to the lack of a corresponding genre in and hence a ready reference to Western art. As a result, calligraphy has come out unscathed at a time when borrowing from the West dominated almost every aspect of the Chinese way of life. Waves of reforms surged again when Mainland China opened herself up in the 1980s. This time, calligraphy was swept with the tide. New forms of calligraphy given the names of Classical, Neo-classical, Popular, Neo-literati, Modern, Academy and so on have emerged one after the other in association with different schools of theories. Whether conservative or radically avant-garde, the objective remains to be to open up a modern road for the traditional genre. Similar experiments can also be seen in Kan’s calligraphy.

Learning from Ou Jiangong, Kan began his calligraphic study with the traditional. While Ou has been known for his Northern Wei style, few traces of the style are detectable in the regular script in Kan’s Red Cliff I (Plate 61), The Pavilion of Yue Yang (Plate 63) and Forewords for Fool’s Creek Poems (Plate 64) which are uniformly structured and beautifully executed, attesting to his superb mastery of the essentials of calligraphy. Like his ink painting, Kan’s calligraphy does not seek to adhere to the tradition. To seek breakthrough towards modernity, he enlarges the characters of the Mawangdui wooden and bamboo slips of the Western Han to produce formal variations in A Poem by Su Shi (Plate 67). By the same token, individual strokes are exaggerated or the composition rendered unconventional for special visual impact in his Tiptoe to See (Plate 58), I Can Wash My Feet (Plate 59), A Quote from Analects (Plate 65) and Like a Valley (Plate 70). In A Poem by Li Bai (Plate 71) in the running-cursive script, there is an obvious emphasis on rhythm and fluidity. With the modern gallery in mind, a commonly seen modern touch is added to Nature’s Gifts (Plate 68), a set of four giant panels each written with only two characters to take advantage of the apt use of blank spaces in painting.

Kan’s aspirations for innovation are particularly pronounced in two aspects of his calligraphy. The first is the uninterrupted execution process such that the ink of the characters progresses from wet to dry. When this is echoed by a corresponding reduction in character size, a unique visual effect is achieved. Examples can be found in A Poem by Wang Wei (Plate 73), which can be divided into two parts by the size and ink effect of the characters to augment the visual appeal of the piece, as well as Two Poems by Shitao (Plate 74) and A Poem by Wang Wei (Plate 75). An interesting piece in the same category is Quote from “The Character of Physical Law” by Richard Feynman (Plate 81) in which Chinese characters appear side by side with English words, pointing to the global frame of mind of the calligrapher. The second aspect is the emphasis on the unrestrained quality of calligraphy through an extremely wild rendering. This is typified by the colossal piece Two Fragments of a Poem by Du Fu (Plate 79). To stress the vitality of the lines themselves rather than traditional aesthetics, the set of two panels strikes the viewer with its uneven and slanting characters executed with a dry brush so as to reveal the speed and the process of writing. The gigantic Ultimate Perfection (Plate 80) presents itself as yet another example in which it is more akin to abstract art that stresses texture and composition than the usual principles of calligraphy.

Kan has moved a step further in his experiments in recent years. To delve into the modernity and globalization of calligraphy, Kan has attempted to make an alliance between installation, a quintessentially Western expression, with calligraphy in his calligraphic installations. The approach is very much in the same vein as attempts done by his contemporaries to reinterpret traditional Chinese art through installations. In Homage to a Statesman (Plate 90), for instance, a vertical scroll of calligraphy is left to have its lower ends trailing on the floor in the midst of stones, bringing to mind the ink installation conceived by Leung Kui-ting except that the latter uses landscapes on silk rather than calligraphy (Figure 4). Resemblances to Leung (Figure 5) can further be seen in River Journey (Plate 91) with its adorning branches and Origin (Plate 88) with its stones scattered on the floor. The found objects have added a third dimension to the two-dimensional traditional calligraphy for more visual variation and freer imagination and helps in bringing calligraphy out of its traditional cast into the modern domain. As for display, Kan hangs his calligraphies in a continuous loop from the ceiling in the large installations Journey to Shu (Plate 96) and Calligraphy Installation II (Plate 99) like what Xu Bing has done with his Book from the Sky (Figure 6). Naturally, a distinctive feature of Kan’s calligraphy installations is that the traditional process and visual impact of writing remain to be the key elements. What these experiments of Kan will lead to further down the road is no doubt an exciting prospect.

Final Remarks

The road towards modernity is a particularly thorny one for Chinese ink art including painting and calligraphy owing to their rich historical and traditional content. In forging his personality in ink art, Kan has neither turned his back entirely on the tradition nor blindly trodden the beaten track. Instead, he has availed himself freely of whatever form or content that can fit comfortably into the modern age. After persistent trials and experiments, he has achieved a style that embodies both his rational pondering of the possibilities of art as well as the daring spirit typical of modern art. At a time when Chinese ink art is evolving unstoppably to rise up to the expectations of the international community, Kan with his immersion in the West has contributed to and left his mark on the artistic exchanges between the East and the West. With so many ink artists like Kan working wholeheartedly towards the same goal, it will not be long before Chinese ink art can play an important role and establish itself firmly in the international arena.