Kurt Chan’s Elemental Art

Among the multi-faceted swirl of influences in Kurt Chan’s latest body of work is Life on Our Planet, the Morgan Freeman-narrated, Steven Spielberg-Netflix produced docu-series about how life began on earth and how it has evolved amid cycles of mass extinctions.

Making generous use of CGI, the series features scenes of dinosaurs and other now-extinct mammals. “Life had to start somewhere – the first spark appeared four billion years ago,” Freeman declares as his characteristically soothing tenor sweeps over us as an asteroid crashes into the surface of earth, erupting into a sizzling blaze that engulfs three quarters of the planet.

That is one of the sparks behind Old Landscapes: Lightning, Water and Rocks, Chan’s latest solo exhibition depicting old or prehistoric landscapes at Galerie du Monde. A mix of ink on paper, ink and acrylic on canvas, and sculptures, the works in the exhibition stem from Chan’s obsession with a question: how did life begin on earth?

His attempts to answer that question sometimes take the form of abstract works in which everything is stripped down to strokes, dots and blobs. In “Trees of Light” (2023), streaks of lightning zap a landing. “Silky Water” (2023) is a diptych in which a voluminous wash of black ink sweeps across the landscape – that record of encounter; that anarchic state before transformation. 

Silky Water_水橫如練_Acrylic on Canvas, 2023, by Kurt Chan – Courtesy artist, Gallery du Monde

These situations are encapsulated in the exhibition’s Chinese title, 電、光、水、石, (Electricity, Light, Water, Stone) where the four characters, din6, gwong1, seoi2, sek6 make up a Chinese idiom that loosely translates into “in a split second.”

Chan is following in the footsteps of a long list of artists fascinated by the cosmos. They include some that would be familiar to a Hong Kong audience, including Irene Chou, who fills her magnificent ink landscapes with cosmic motifs and imagery. 

In a way, the malleability of ink makes it the ideal material for exploring the theme of transformation. Whereas Chan recently deconstructed Chinese characters, lately he has been experimenting with Chinese landscapes, and like his New Ink Painting predecessors, pushing them towards abstraction. 

With humankind’s eternal fascination with life’s beginning as fodder, the artist also attempts to tease out a dialogue between fundamental elements that make up life on earth and Chinese landscapes. And so the element of water transforms into rivers, minerals turn into rocks, and electricity into trees. 

Art and science coalesce in 10 small ink paintings near the gallery entrance. While some like “Sanctuary” (2023) look like sketches of imaginary landscapes, others like “Swinging in the Breeze” (2023) and “Luxuriant” (2023) evoke computed tomography (CT) scans, with splattered ink blobs in varying shades of grey and streaks of inks reminding viewers of blood cells and blood vessels. 

These ink paintings act as prelude to the rest of the exhibition, where another kind of transformation beckons: acrylics, conveying the sublimity of primordial skies. It’s the first time Chan is showing his ink and acrylic on canvas works. While ink puts him at ease, he admits he is still wrangling with acrylic. 

“It’s harder to blend and it could be very dry,” he says. “It’s another language altogether.” But acrylic also offers richer palettes, allowing for greater artistic experimentation. “I turn to acrylic whenever I need light. With ink, you can draw darkness, but you cannot draw light.” 

This results in slashes of neon pink, streaks of silver-tainted with thin films of yellow and purple-across broad washes of black and greys. Blazing asteroids are suspended against dark skies; inIn One Night,” a massive blob of vivid pink bursts forth from a fizzy column. They simultaneously inspire awe, and terror. If an asteroid strikes Earth, what will be left of humankind and our culture? 

Is it rebirth, as Life on Our Planet suggests? In Chan’s exhibition, the dance between death and rebirth is distilled in Reincarnations, a series of sculptures featuring craggy arches, loops and terrains. Chan says they’re inspired by fulgurites, ‘glass’ columns or crusts created when lightning hits sandy soil.

In the mid-20th century, Hong Kong ink master Lui Shou-kwan and his contemporaries pioneered modernisation of Chinese ink through abstraction. One ink painter of that era left an indelible impact on Chan’s artistic practice: Taiwanese ink master Liu Guo-song, who exerted a vast influence on Chan’s generation. He was appointed chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1972, seven years before Chan entered the university as an arts student in 1979. “Liu Guo Song inherited Lui’s approach, that mix of Chinese ink and Western abstract expressionism,” says Chan. “But his works also had that pop art influence, which spoke to me.” 

Chan, then in his “impressionable 20s,” rejected Chinese ink in favour of trendier mediums such as mixed media art and sculptures. Only in recent years has he returned to ink. “I don’t think it ever left me,” he says. “It’d been in my DNA all along.” But that early disillusionment with ink proved crucial for Chan, as it freed him to experiment with mixed media art and sculptures, which is informing his current practice

“At the heart of mixed media art is the idea of collage,” he says. “Even now, I’m not afraid to mix styles, mediums, even different philosophies in my art.” 

In Old Landscapes: Lightning, Water and Rocks, three sculptures draw directly on his mixed media art practice for inspiration. Scattered around the gallery are chunks of petrified wood supported by molecule model-like structures forged from steel and wheels. These curious specimens look at once mystical and quotidian, evoking the robotic rovers that crawl the moon’s surface whilst also looking like found objects on the streets of Hong Kong.  

While the wood strata is a record of earth’s history and invites contemplation, the whimsical wheels seem to convey a need to keep moving. It has been six years since Chan, newly retired from a 27-year tenure at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, picked up his brushes again. Old Landscapes: Lightning, Water and Rocks appears to be a turning point for him. “I think this has laid the foundation for the next stage of artistic endeavours,” he says.

While the next stage might bring new materials (“Will you paint with oil next?” a reporter asks, to which he replies, “Maybe…”), one constant is the artist’s irrepressible desire, fired up by a quest to know more about art and life, to throw paint and objects together to see what they might conjure. “There seems to be a raison d’être to everything I do,” says Chan, “but I always make the art first, and everything else is in retrospect.”  

Old Landscapes: Lightning, Water and Rocks is on display at Galerie du Monde until December 30, 2023.

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