Kit-Keung Kan’s Elemental Elegance

Hank Burchard, Art Critic
Washington Post, September 17, 1993

The canard of the scientific nerd persists in the face of abundant evidence that doing science is very often very like doing art. Researcher and artist alike seek underlying principles and solutions that not only work but look and feel right.

Intuition is equally essential to both processes, and the greatest compliment one can pay a scientist’s work is that it is elegant. Which is precisely the word for the landscape paintings of nuclear physicist Kit-Keung Kan, 10 of which grace the lobby of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Kan, 50, was born in Guangzhou (Canton), China, moved to the United States in 1968 and received his doctorate from the University of Maryland in 1975. His academic career has been paralleled by the production of superb works in ink and watercolor on rice paper.

His eye is so fresh yet disciplined that Kan can even extract aesthetic energy from Niagara Falls, that black hole of North American landscape painting. “Mist of Niagara” (1991) evokes the thunderous power of the cataract without showing a single drop of falling water.

The blending of Eastern and Western artistic traditions is evident throughout Kan’s work, nowhere more emphatically than in “Autumn Leaves IV” (1992), in which the seeming transience of fallen leaves is contrasted with the massive boulders on which they lie. In truth it is the leaves that endure, renewing themselves annually and eternally, while the stone weathers away. As in the Oriental fist-and-finger game, “paper wraps rock.”

The physicist in Kan comes to the fore in “Mountainscape XXV” (1986), in which the arrangement of branches of a foreground frieze of evergreens suggests a Fibonacci series and the mountains compose themselves fractally, order emerging from chaos.

Art? Science? Immaterial.