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A conversation with Hsu Kuohuang

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