Kit-Keung Kan — An Artist That Bridges Art and Science

Chu-tsing Li, Professor, Department of Art History, The University of Kansas
Kit-Keung Kan’s Ink Painting, 1965-1995, Hsiung Shih Art Books Co, Ltd, Taiwan, 1995

Having lived in America for more than twenty years, he did not adopt the Western way of painting in oil on canvas, but continued to paint in his semi-abstract style in ink on paper in his own way. At first his painting concentrated on hills and mountains, gradually leaving out trees and houses to form extremely simple compositions. Especially important was the fact that his hills and mountains gradually took on more abstract and geometrical direction and his brushwork and textures became more patternized. As a result his painting seemed to have captured the expression of the rhythm in nature, and some times coming close to the order and pattern of modern architecture. This approach seems to be the result his study of physics. It was the result of combining the two major interests in his life, art and science. He wrote about this in following way:

In majoring in physics, at first, in the first two years I did not have any special ideas about it. But later the more I studied the more I enjoyed the taste of the field. I felt that the theories developed by the physicists were like an incomparable piece of art work. The basic goal of physics is to gain an understanding of Nature, and to form some king of law based on all the phenomena of Nature. Indeed, physics is the science to develop a model to describe Nature. Theories are formed by men. They relate all the seemingly unconnected matters together to show their common inner characteristics. This is an expression of beauty in its deeper sense. It is very close to the expression of landscape artist who has taken the impressions of mountains and rivers, to relate them with his thoughts and to express them in aesthetic terms.

This attempt to bridge the gap between art and science is his own achievement. Many people generally regard them as two opposing elements, each rejecting the other. But he found the common ground between his physics resrach and painting and their close relationship. This is the true meaning of his artistics expression. In this period his painting showed the poetry of hills and moutains, with their architectural beauty and geometrical rhythm and abstract form. This was his style in the 1970’s.

During the 1980’s, in addtion to the hills and mountains, he gradually added rivers and clouds to form interesting contrasts. His hills and moutains were done mainly in straight lines and hard edges, very patternized, but his rivers and clouds were curving and moving. They seemed to enhance each other, creating a new rhythm. this new appraoch is actually a reflection of his own life. During the weekdays he worked on his physics resarch for eight hourse everyday, and he returned home to paint for four hours. Both of the two activities seemed to harmonize each other, without any conflict. All these made his life richer and more interesting.

During the last ten years there were a number of new elements in his paintings. The new porous rocks with various form became a new contrast to his hard-edge mountains. There is an increase in his clouds and mist. Sometimes yellow maple leaves dotted the surface of the rocks, again forming a beautiful contrast. Recently after he visited the Niagara Falls several times he made them another theme in his works. He also found the trees in his sloping backyard, with their bare branches with leaves in the winter, antoher exciting subject for his art. Especially the smaller branches seemed to be dancing before the clouds. In this way he seemed to have changed first from his previous manner of regular patterns and hard edges in hills and mountains, then to the varying changes in his rocks, rivers, and clouds, and then to the rushing of the waterfalls and the dancing of tree branches. This is his new feeling for Nature and his new expression.

In his development, Kit-Keung Kan began from the tradition of Cantonese painting, then he began to simplify and to move into semi-abstraction, absorbing some ideas from modern Western art, to find his own poetry and lyricism between painting and science. However, unlike some of the artists in Western art, he did not take up the extreme position of total abstraction without any reference to actual images, but found his direction between the Chinese landscape tradition and Western abstract art. He made use of some of the basic approaches of Western art, such as simplification, hardedge, and abstraction to capture the essence of traditional Chinese painting. Among the mountains and rivers, rock and trees and clouds and mist, and waterfalls and dancing branches, he has found his spiritual solace and discovered the common ground between scientific research and artistic expression. As a results, between man and nature he has found his new poetry and new sense of beauty, reaching the point where man nature attain their spiritual communion. This is Kan’s artistic achievement in synthesizing the self and nature, art and science, and China and the West, to form a new style in modern art.