In the late 1970s and early 80s, Luis Chan Fook-sin, Hong Kong’s quintessential and polyhedric painter, started to experiment with collage. By this time, Chan had already explored a number of styles, testing out every imaginable technique, Western or Chinese: ink and spray paint, dripping and watercolour and oil painting, colour splashing, printing. Here is a distinctively Hong Kong artist – one open to the world, who kept developing and expanding his repertoire throughout his life.
Chan’s first love had been watercolour, with which he had been painting Hong Kong vistas in the English mode—contemplative landscapes and local vignettes—gaining a reputation as a master in that medium. He approached oil painting in a similar representational way, adhering to a naturalistic school based again on the classical Western canon, concerned with realism and an effort to achieve a faithful reproduction of reality.
These were his early years as a painter, which have become the foundational part of the Luis Chan legend. Born in 1905 in Panama, he was brought to Hong Kong by his parents at the age of five. Orphaned very young, he grew up free to pursue his intellectual and artistic curiosity, but also having to hold down a day job at a law firm in order to support himself. He grew up without a formal art education, but simply observed the world around him, studied art through magazine subscriptions and gained an art degree by mail with the London’s Press Art School. The lack of an art academy in Hong Kong made his path harder, and so did the Japanese occupation of the city from 1941 to 1945. But it also gave him the determination to absorb as much knowledge as he could. If we try to imagine what his mental landscape was like in the years when he established himself as an artist, we can see how the relative isolation of the British colony from more established art centres allowed Chan to refine his aesthetic sense without being weighed down by an oppressive sense of tradition – something that might have happened had he been growing up in mainland China or in the West. These are the years in which his approach to painting was more naturalistic, and where we get a sense that he was enjoying acquainting himself more deeply with Hong Kong, roaming its spaces and its streets to make realistic reproductions of its changing light, its landscapes and its lively street corners.
This was the era when Hong Kong as we know it was still being built. It was in the process of establishing its own vernacular and its own artistic tradition, and its hybridity was already its greatest freedom. It allowed a young and confident artist to look in any direction, without feeling bound by any particular school or current, and pursue his own path, all the while being nourished by this unique place, perennially changing and perennially looking for its identity.
After exploring watercolour and oil, by the mid-1960s, Chan shifted towards ink, re-elaborating a classical Chinese medium. This led him to experiment further by merging landscapes and abstract images, as he created accidental signs through monoprints, made by placing ink on a piece of paper and pressing another piece of paper on top, in order to create unpredictable effects. He drew more naturalistic images on top of these. At this point, we can already see how the fusion of elements from the two traditions closest to Chan—the Western one he was absorbing through magazines and the Chinese one in which other Hong Kong artists were steeped—was producing something new and unique that escapes facile classification. Chan would throw himself into every new experiment with abandon. One of his greatest proponents is Jonhson Chang Tsong-zung, founder of the Hanart TZ gallery. “He always worked in big quantities,” he says. “He would always work very intensively in certain styles or certain techniques and he would make a lot of these works until he felt that he had exhausted these ideas, or his interest got caught in something else.”
In spite of having been born in an overseas Chinese family, Chan spent most of his life in Hong Kong. He visited the mainland and spent time in Macau during the Japanese occupation, but for the rest of the time his extreme openness to all the art movements that had been developing around the world—from Cubism to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, with which he shared the attention for colour—took place while he resided in Hong Kong.
He was a famously social painter, both through his students (he established his own painting school in his studio in 1953) and through the active role he had in the local art scene. In 1954, he created the Hong Kong Artists’ Group and the Chinese Contemporary Artists Guild in 1958. He was also a well respected and prolific art critic who played an important role in the new art institutions that were being established in Hong Kong, like the City Museum (completed in 1962) and the Art Gallery of Hong Kong (which later became the Hong Kong Museum of Art).
Some of Chan’s most recognisable dreamscapes were developed after those years – paintings, in various mediums, in which scenery and landscape mix with a poetic set of animals, flowers, characters and patterns. By the 1960s, Chan was drawn in by psychedelic art. A multitude of rounded figures that do not abide by any rules of perspective or proportion inhabits his most expressive works. His psychedelic inspiration takes the viewer onto a reimagining of the subconscious, playing with the size of the objects and of the people who populate his paintings, and also of the roles they are assigned.
Fascinated by the aquariums that he saw around Hong Kong’s restaurants, and in Wan Chai Market at the time, Chan started to develop images of fish that swim around human figures, or that carry them inside. He depicted faces on top of large coloured fish, one profile after the other, in a puzzling yet intriguing representation of something familiar and destabilising at the same time. Is this a game of possibilities, or a psychological exploration, in which the floating images carry onto the surface something that lies deep within us?
Many critics have looked at these new productions as a time of gentle hallucinations, colourful visual emanations of dreams, or of subconscious impulses. Art critic Lu Peng wrote in the Asian Art Archive collection of essays The Art of Luis Chan that “Luis Chan is an artist who worked constantly in accordance with the changes of his mind. Invariably he tried to capture his inner fantasies, even though they are ambiguous and elusive. Who can ‘format’ a multifarious soul?”
Looking at his paintings, however, it is not necessarily clear whose subconscious is being addressed. Maybe it is Chan’s. Or maybe it is those of the enigmatic characters that populate the paintings with what seems to be a head full of opinions. Maybe still it is the viewer’s, engaged in trying to decipher the social interactions of the rounded figures that occupy the space in which they are drawn. Or maybe it is the subconscious of Hong Kong itself.
Right in the middle of this phase, when Chan had already developed a highly personal pictorial language, he decided to explore the possibilities of collage. Some of these were exhibited by Hanart TZ last month during the Hong Kong Art Galleries Association’s art fair, Unscheduled, in which the gallery installed only works by Luis Chan in a section called Everyday Haute Couture of Luis Chan 1980s.
In one of them, “Untitled (Nude in Art Exhibition) 1978,” images are tied together by an electric blue meandering line, and they offer an eclectic, intriguing combination: a female nude, pieces of cut-out paintings—the naked woman is seen as if adding the final touches to one of these—some like imaginary planets floating in space, and animals. In the other, “Untitled (Nude on the balcony) 1978,” the various elements of the collage are divided by a white strip that mimics different rooms. The nude referred to is a sultry woman lying sitting on the floor with her back against a wall, surrounded by pieces of cut-off paintings and a butterfly. The strip and the meandering blue line seem to both reference an art gallery, or an exhibition space, in which various objects and images float in an interconnected geometry.
“These are both images cut from magazines as well as his own paintings, pieces that he cut from his earlier works,” says Johnson Chang. He explains that Chan would use them both to reuse paintings he wasn’t satisfied with, and to create these imaginary galleries in which he would exhibit his own works together with that of other masters, along with female nudes, animals, found objects, and cut-outs from his vast collection of magazines. “They are very beautifully constructed exhibition spaces,” he says.
Today, much of Luis Chan’s works are still being kept in the Luis Chan Trust, administered by his family, of which Hanart TZ is the sole representative. It is not entirely clear how many collages Chan has produced. According to Chang they may be “a few dozen,” but so far they haven’t been all inventoried. They are truly striking – and they complement the rest of Chan’s work in an unexpected yet harmonious way. As with his other works, they strike on his eternal themes of landscapes, dreamscapes, imaginary worlds. But what is created through the collage process of painting, cutting and pasting, is an entirely new variation of imaginary visual worlds that lend themselves to endless interpretations and contemplation.
Along with collages, the 1970s also saw Chan pursue his fascination for landscapes and dreamscapes in a new type of ink and colour technique. In these works, elements that follow some Chinese landscape painting conventions are mixed with modern abstract themes and surrealist elements – landscapes that keep revealing new secrets the more they are observed. A mountain is in fact composed of two human heads, locked in a conversation, while fish swim in the water but also fly in the air, mixing the layers of space and distance in a joyous world of the imagination. On the side are small coteries of animals, some recognisable and others completely mythological creatures, while strange plumages, or symbols, are fluttering from the top of the hills, or of a mountain. This level of creativity and of unbridled imagination is exhilarating, and it seems one of the most fitting products of the cultural plurality that has characterised Hong Kong until now.
Now a new exhibition, Landscape Fantasy, held at Wheelock House from October 18 to December 31, 2021, will present a selection of Chan’s landscapes from the 1950s to the 1970s. This will offer the possibility to appreciate the scope of Chan’s evolution and transformation through the decades, and the way in which he moved from faithful reproductions of recognisable corners of the city to a world outside reality, of unbridled fantasy.