Issue C76 October/November 2015
Duality in Abstraction
Hong Zhu An’s artworks are intricate montages combining Eastern and Western mediums and influences.
Hong Zhu An’s paintings are hard to fully appreciate and understand through photographs. From afar, the composition on the canvas is the most striking – blocks of colour collaged in abstraction, sometimes interjected by fluid swashes of a Chinese brush. Up close, one is drawn to the intricacy of the layers where Chinese calligraphic inscriptions in ink and paint bleed into each other, woven together like a tapestry on the rice paper that has lost their translucent quality.
It is this duality that makes Hong’s works mesmerising. His art is a synthesis of many things: of textures, of influences, of mediums. “My work is distinctively Eastern due to the mediums I use (ink and rice paper) and energy in [them]. The Western influence can be seen by how I deviate from the mainstream ways of using ink and painting. The mammoth blocks of colour and composition that I have been using in my artworks are Western influenced. I’m not bound by the rules and always try to explore new ways to create,” he says.
’20 Years of Art: Retrospective by Hong Zhu An’ was held from 15 to 21 July at Ode to Art Gallery@Raffles City. The solo exhibition was also his biggest in his Singapore career since he established himself here in 1994 after winning the UOB Painting of the Year ‘Grand Award’. Born in 1955 in Shanghai, China, Hong was first exposed to Chinese calligraphy by his grandfather and father at age four. Later on, he trained under the famous art scholar Wang Zidou at the Shanghai Art and Craft Institute.
Eventually, with a desire to “re-engineer these paintings [influenced by Chinese calligraphy] to differentiate myself as a 21st century contemporary artist,” Hong begun experimenting with various art mediums, venturing beyond the ink and rice paper to ceramics, pottery, woodwork, textiles, and in recent years, Western colour, composition and mediums. But still, he continues to pay homage to Eastern calligraphy and the written word, which have become hallmarks of his works. This, he highlights, is inevitable. “Ink and rice paper are my main mediums because they are distinctively Eastern. The identity of these mediums if inescapable; they represent our Eastern culture and history.”
For instance, in Summer, a block of khaki green is interrupted by a line of soft yellow down the middle; a lotus root, painted in ink rises up elegantly, like a ballet dancer in poise, as if reaching for the sun caressed by strips of Chinese text. In Wind, swirls of black ink swim across the vertical canvas, accompanied by floating Chinese characters – their fluid motions a reflection of the title and a result of the artist’s unbridled, spontaneous strokes. These are very unlike the scenes in Chinese traditional painting that usually feature monochromatic and bare landscapes or calligraphy, Hong points out.
“My philosophy is to create and transform Eastern art into something entirely different from what we normally see. Through combining calligraphy and paint in my artworks, it is a different presentation of a traditional Chinese painting.” Hong’s use of text is also unusual. They are not original verses that usually relate to the imagery depicted on the canvas but function not unlike the colours he chooses or strokes he metes out. “The text that one sees in my works is usually incoherent. They are plucked from journals, books I’m reading, and some from the thesis research I [happen to be] doing. They do not mean anything. Rather, they are a combination of excerpts at work,” he explains.
In a sense, Hong’s art is very much a personal journey, an avenue for him to express his feelings and emotions. In the retrospective, one can see this journey unravel. “You can sort of see how I feel through the colours I use in each piece. In the past, the colours used in my paintings were more vibrant. There was more red and blue, [the strokes were] more energetic perhaps, but also filled with many other emotions, i.e., anger, sadness, uncertainty, etc. Recently, my works have displayed a more muted colour combination. You see a lot of earthly tones [that] are more subtle, calm and quiet.” But in his practice of calligraphy is where there is a constant, as he shares: “I’m still learning and improving now. It’s a life-long learning process and I’m enjoying it.”