The Washington Post, E5, September 9, 2016
In the galleries: Chinese ink paintings, enhanced with water and words
By Mark Jenkins
Poems and pictures have long cohabited in Chinese ink painting, an ancient form updated in two current shows. At the Athenaeum, Kan KitKeung takes a more familiar approach, at least to the verse he inscribes into his landscapes. Freda LeeMcCann, whose work is at Studio Gallery, also incorporates calligraphy, but often via collage, with the characters brushed onto scraps of newsprint. Painting with black ink, Kan realistically portrays trees, rocks and birds, but these are just framing devices for the main event: water in motion. The Chinabred Maryland artist’s show is titled “Falls, Waves and White Water,” which is accurate yet doesn’t convey the difficulty of Kan’s selfappointed task. He depicts the torrents and mists mostly as unpainted absences. Use of white space is customary in Chinese ink painting, but rarely to suggest something so dynamic as a waterfall. Kan has scrutinized Westernstyle landscape painting, and visited epic North and South American vistas. The effects of those studies are evident in his paintings, although more so in the fullcolor ones. The nearmonochromatic pictures in this show couldn’t be mistaken for orthodox Chinese paintings, but they tip the balance toward that tradition. It’s their vigor, not their style, that marks them as madeinAmerica. Where Kan occasionally adds subtle blue tints, LeeMcCann often uses a second color, mostly blue, green or reddish brown. The D.C.born Chinese American artist’s “Spirit of the Mountain” also depicts waterfalls, as well as snaky rivers. But these are secondary to her principal subjects: rocky peaks and outcroppings. These are rendered in ink, supplemented by watercolor and collage, or in acrylic. Ironically, the paintings made with latter, a modern medium, are the more traditional in form. Some of the verse in LeeMcCann’s work is by her greatuncle, Jen YuanTao, who wrote while fighting in the Chinese civil war during the 1920s. No translations are provided, but the titles of pictures such as “Longing for Home” give a sense of his concerns. Kan’s poems, which are translated, were inspired by specific sites, notably Brazil and Argentina’s Iguazu Falls. “My brush can highlight but a little portion of the wonders,” he wrote. Perhaps so, but “Falls, Waves and White Water” freezes the surges’ roar with silent grace.