With a name derived from an old tale, “Sky Rains Grain” is a new series of paintings by Kurt Chan Yuk-keung that reimagines the birth of Chinese words in the style of Western “cold” abstraction, culminating in a fresh take on the timeless East-meets-West concept.
As the fable goes, the gods decided to rain grain from the heavens when the legendary figure Cangjie invented the first characters nearly 5,000 years ago, because they feared that humans would become too preoccupied with wordplay and the pursuit of wisdom to grow enough food for themselves.
For Chan, using a Western style of geometric, rational design to deconstruct Chinese characters – a visual wordplay in a way – can bring out new ideas about structure and meaning.
Notably, the exhibition forgoes wall labels: Chan says while some titles give away the Chinese character that a painting is based on, he wants viewers to come up with their own interpretation and not become obsessed with guessing the words in the pictures.
Chan was inspired by the calligraphy of ancient stone inscriptions predating the Tang dynasty (618-907), and decided to marry the style with Western abstraction through imaginative use of colour combinations, layering and repetition. And he chose to paint in acrylic, which provides more fluidity than oil.
In some of the works, Chan explores the duality between word components and meanings. For example, Connection plays with the fact that the Chinese words for “broken” and “continuous” are made up of similar elements even if their meanings are opposite. In others, he simply revels in the beauty of the form. A painting titled as of, for example, is based on a word that resembles the alphabet Z with a dot on top and could almost be a landscape painting.
Chan, who taught at Chinese University’s art school for 27 years, is a pioneer of Hong Kong contemporary art. His previous works have been mainly mixed media and installations, but his latest collection of acrylic paintings represents a significant departure. He attributes the change in medium to the unsustainable nature of his mixed media works.
“In 20 years, all the artworks I created couldn’t be kept because of storage reasons,” he says. “When they were completed, I’d throw them away. I felt that it was a shame, and I didn’t want to keep making work that was not environmentally friendly and couldn’t be kept.”
Following his retirement in 2016, Chan has sought to create art that has longevity – works that can be revisited.
“Of course, the challenge now is how to translate my previous skills to my current work,” he says. “[But] when I create pieces of work, I don’t just look at the skills or style – that’s not my interest. I’m most interested in the work’s core ideology, and that isn’t any different from my past artworks.”
“Sky Rains Grain”, by Kurt Chan Yuk-keung, is showing at Contemporary by Angela Li, 248 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, until April 26. Visit cbal.com.hk for details.