Gallery owner, Martha Sutherland talks with Hsu Kuohuang about his new exhibition “Views of Taroko Gorge” (on view by appointment at M. Sutherland Fine Art through January 2015).
MARTHA SUTHERLAND [MS]: When did you start serious study of painting? How/why did you decide to concentrate on ink painting?
HSU KUOHUANG [HK]: Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been fond of the arts and laid a solid foundation in learning painting and art design, both in Chinese and Western media. Then, around 1970, I came to realize that traditional ink painting would be my lifelong devotion; I have loved it even more because of my fondness for calligraphy.
MS: Why did you choose Taroko Gorge as your inspiration for these paintings?
HK: In fact, as early as in the 70s, I visited the Taroko Gorge in Hualien. And I was also intrigued by the early works of my teacher, Mr. Chiang Chao-shen, one specifically called “An Album of Travels to Hualien”, painted in 1968. After seeing that, I went to see the towering peaks and hills of Taroko’s unique landscape quite a few times. In the summer of 2004, I decided to settle down in Hualien after my retirement from the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Quite naturally, I get to transform what meets the eyes into artworks through my direct contact with the beautiful landscape views of Hualien.
MS: What method do you use to compose your art? Do you first photograph the views or sketch? Do you ever paint “plein air?” What is the process for creating these landscape paintings?
HK: Normally, on my regular hikes in the mountains, I gather my ideas through my sketching. Sometimes I use a paint brush to do the sketching. But mostly I prefer to use either a pencil or a pen, or even a felt-tip pen for the sketches because carrying painting brushes and ink stones are not as convenient. After I get back to my studio, I often need to recompose the original sketches when I apply them onto the paper. For instance, I need to consider the dimensions, think about taking a horizontal or vertical composition, things like that. When I paint, I prefer to use light ink to decide an overall composition. Then, I would use different shades of ink to paint the hills, trees, houses, etc. Then come the applying of colors several times after the ink work has become totally dry and solid. Finally, I add the inscription and use the seal to complete it.
MS: This exhibition highlights a range of brushwork techniques in your work. The most abstract and loose series, “The Pen Follows where the Mind Wanders” is a departure from even the loosest brushwork from previous works. What prompted this new and exciting brushwork?
HK: The truth is, the idea of “The Pen Follows Where the Mind Wanders” series came from my practice of calligraphy. I used free, continuous, calligraphic lines to paint the rocks and hills, without a definite shape in mind. It’s rather about “a playful wandering/wondering of mind”. What is worth noticing is that in these four-piece series, I used quite a variety of brush techniques, longer and shorter linear expressions. The ink applications are so diverse—wet or dry, heavy or light, and dense or sparse, along with the choice of colors. They can be viewed as a complete set of four works or seen individually.
MS: You are one of the few artists I know that is highly proficient at numerous calligraphy styles as well as ink landscape painting. How does your practice of calligraphy influence your paintings — and vice versa? When you get up in the morning, do you know that the day will be dedicated to calligraphy or to painting? Is brushing calligraphy done everyday as a warmup to working on ink landscapes? Or is it the opposite?
HK: I spend more time on the practice of calligraphy than on painting. It could be that I like the abstract beauty of calligraphic brushwork better. Doing calligraphy offers me a sense of freedom from the restriction of the figurative image and framework of objects. Also, different calligraphy styles result in triggering different sensations and inspirations. To me or many other artists who still cling to traditional art forms of ink landscapes, there is an intertwined and inseparable relation between calligraphy and Chinese painting. When I do calligraphy, there are two kinds of scenarios. When I practice after a model work (of an ancient calligraphy master), I try to capture the subtle brushwork as well as the thoughts of the previous masters. At this point, calligraphy can be seen as a warm-up for my creation of paintings. On the other hand, when I create my own calligraphic works, the process is no different from creating a piece of painting. I need time to dwell upon the dimensions of the work and the calligraphy style that fit my sentiments at that moment in time and the need of the work. I like to write about Tang poetry or passages of some great literary works that I like. Aside from the standard scripts that are about 1 square centimeter in size which usually require several tries to complete with full concentration (and to my full satisfaction), I usually finish most calligraphy each pieces in one sitting within a certain amount of time; I need to finish a work with that momentum and the fit of my feelings.
Hsu Kuohuang: Views of Taroko Gorge is on view through January 31st, 2015, open by appointment