At 88 Years Old, Wucius Wong Unveils His Latest Exhibition

A figure climbs over the railing of a terrace towards steps lined by restaurants and bars. The sky is dotted by symbols: stars, the moon, crosses and — notably — a question mark. The journey ahead is full of adventure as well as the unknown. His back is turned to us but his sense of anticipation is palpable. 

This is “Dream Chasers,” a watercolour on paper work painted by Wucius Wong in 1958. It’s possible the figure represented Wong as he embarked on a series of artistic adventures, including lessons with Lui Shou-kwan, pioneer of the New Ink Art Movement, and co-founding a literary magazine. But it is also a reflection of the artist today, when he still looks forward to doing something different in his art. 

Before Wong became a famous painter, he aspired to be a poet, he tells us when we meet at Alisan Fine Arts, where he was about to open his solo exhibition Water Thoughts and Mountain Visions. Growing up in colonial Hong Kong, his first literary encounter was with English poetry. He liked Lord Bryon and John Keats, but was particularly drawn to the works of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, post-war poets known for their fragmentary writing style. Eliot, in particular, was known for his radical experimentation with style. 

Fashioning themselves as young intellectuals, Wong and his literary friends, including Qunnan Shum and Yip Wai-lim — now well-known poets in their own right — were hungry for anything to do with modernism, a movement which posited new ways of thinking and healing after the carnage of World War II. They founded Poetry Blossom in 1955. Aside from literary criticism, the magazine also articulated the group’s ideas about modernism and creative writing. 

Unfortunately, that came to an end after a few issues due to a lack of traction. It was disappointing for the ambitious young writer. “We poured our savings into it, and we weren’t rich, so there was nothing we could do,” he says. But the experience of running the journal introduced him to like-minded individuals, who later supported him in his artistic endeavours. And it informed the pen name he chose for himself: 王無邪 (Wong4 Mou4 Ce4), which originated from the first chapter of The Classic of Poetry, the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry. The final two characters in the name translate as “innocence.” “It means when you’re writing, you are expressing your genuine feelings,” says Wong.

Around that time, Wong felt the creative urge to expand to other mediums. He tried his hand at painting and discovered he was “pretty good” at it. “I was probably a better painter than poet,” he chuckles. One of his proudest moments in those early days includes exhibiting at the library of the American consulate. After two years of painting, he began to study under Lui, who taught him the history and theories of Chinese ink. In the 1960s, Wong joined Lui’s New Ink Movement, which attempted to modernise the traditional medium during a time when Chinese ink risked becoming irrelevant in Hong Kong, where artistic circles were heavily influenced by artistic innovations and movements from the West. 

Lui’s mentorship had a huge impact on the artist, especially during colonial times,  when schools prioritised Western education. But Wong also says that he avoided painting like Lui, partly because Lui discouraged his students from copying him, but also because of Wong’s ambition to carve his own path. He explains a “particular philosophy” of his: “I’ll only ever be half of, half of…” He struggles to find the right words. “I try to only learn half of everything, so I still have room for other stuff to put [into my work] and make it my own.”

Those were heady years of experimentation for Wong, who worked in crayon, watercolour and ink on paper. Some of his earlier works had strong Cubist influences – “This was done with a palette knife,” he explains, pointing to an early painting as we flip through an old art catalogue. Others were realistic city sketches. He stops at an image of “Observatory” (1959), an ink painting depicting the Hong Kong Observatory. “This is closest to [Lui]’s style,” he says. “The use of broad strokes, the small trees. It’s different from my other works.” He considers the ink painting for a moment, as if looking at it anew after many years. 

In 1985, Wong moved across the Pacific to the United States. Wanting to broaden his artistic knowledge, he studied at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio and the Maryland Institute of Design in Baltimore before moving to New York City. While he owes much of his practice to these years, he also speaks of the feeling of being untethered. “No matter how long I live in New York, I’ll never fully be [a New Yorker],” he says. “I need to find my position. I need my art to reflect my identity.”  

At the Columbus College of Art and Design, Wong became enchanted with the Bauhaus, an art movement that placed equal emphasis on function and design. Not that Wong thinks art should be useful like a chair is, but he found kinship in the Bauhaus’ methodical approach. “If I’m trying to solve a problem, I’d come up with one solution, but I’d also ask if there are alternatives to that solution,” he says. “In that way, I’m different from some of my friends in art schools.” And how does he apply this to his artistic approach? “A painting consists of the use of dot, line, volume, shape, and void. I will ask, why do I need the trees? Do I have enough dots? What will dots add to the painting? How should I create volume? What if I leave this space blank? These are all questions I ask myself.”

While Wong isn’t shy to proclaim he aspires to be “the best” at everything he does, he doesn’t want to stick to something because it sells. “I hate to see myself do something which I’d already done years ago. That’s all very logical but…” Wong already knows what the next question is. “It’s not just about the brain, everything you do also needs to come from the heart.” 

Water Thoughts and Mountain Visions is divided into four chapters, each paying tribute to a period in Wong’s artistic career. Some of his recent works depict mountains that are forever breeding or water forever running. The artist borrows from the language of music to describe these works. “The dots create rhythms, and there are lines, straight or curved,” he says, tracing his finger along the streams of white, which are at times fired up with dots of bright orange and blue. “They create the structure, which is the melody. The colours add to the rhythmic movement.”

Movement is clearly important to Wong, as he notes of the exhibition title. “I actually much prefer water to the mountains. In Hong Kong, you have both, but you have your back turned to the mountains, and you always see the water,” he says. “[But] if I just painted mountains without the water, there isn’t enough movement in the [painting]. Water is the movement, mountains provide the stationary support.” One cannot exist without the other. After all, the way a river moves is dictated by the landscape – the surrounding mountains, hills and valleys. 

The interplay between movement and containment is seen in Wong’s art, whether in earlier works such as “Expression in Calligraphy 30” (1999), where a calligraphy grid gives structure, but the text on top refuses to fit neatly into it, or “Window Dreams” (2024), where blobs of inks appear to be forever mushrooming out of a frame. 

These days, the 88-year-old is still hard at work in his Aberdeen studio. He suddenly lowers his voice: “I do not like exhibitions that much. I just really like painting.” As for what he is going to do next, he says he does not know, but “I suppose I will do it purposelessly. I may just throw a few lines and dots, and try to get them organised into a painting. You know, I have too many choices inside me, and each of them can proliferate into many different choices!” 

Water Thoughts and Mountain Visions runs until May 16 at Alisan Fine Arts

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