Geometric Poetry─A Selection of HO Kan’s New Works in 2015
文/ 藝術史家 蕭瓊瑞
Text by HSIAO Chong-Ray, Art historian
As one of the most representative artists in the modern painting movement in Taiwan in the 1960s, Ho Kan’s artistic career seems to have only undergone one transformative change. That change took place in the mid-1960s, in which Ho’s mysterious, writhing surrealist style shifted to a geometric, abstract style that surfaced as tranquil, lonesome, yet poetic. This new style of his juxtaposed sense and sensibility as well as a profound sense of musical movement and philosophical thinking. Since then, Ho has carried on in this style for over six decades. His new paintings in 2015 were mainly created in the same style and context. However, overall, some variations in form and diversified colors have been introduced into these new works. After a close study, one could categorize them by three basic elements of △, □, and ○, and the following is my preliminary analysis.
1. Developing from the shape of △
△ is one of the earliest shapes that appeared in the history of human civilization. It is a symbol of both stability and movement. The Egyptian pyramids are the ultimate materialization of the symbol, embodying the infinitely unchanging and constantly uprising faith and power.
In many ancient civilizations, △ is the male symbol. For example, the Chinese character “且” in ancient Bronze inscriptions is “■,” which is also the foundation of the character “祖.” △ is also associated with the number three, symbolizing a beginning, a middle, and an end. It also represents the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—and different triads such as body, soul, and spirit as well as man, woman, and child.
In Ho’s painting, the symbol of △ might be a little bit less complicated; however, the construction developed from △ usually suggests a sense of pulling and moving forces. Examples can be found in Abstract 2015-050 (f.01) and Abstract 2015-052 (f.02). The former one has an equilateral triangle (white) implicitly comprised by three circles within a right triangle (black). The two parts form a resisting relationship between the right triangle and the equilateral triangle as well as the color black and the color white. The yellow and green in the background actually create a triangular form, echoing and contrasting to the three circles (yellow) in the foreground. Simply put, Ho is an artist that masters using simple forms to create a rich visual presentation.
Upon seeing Abstract 2015-052 for the first time, it seems to portray two tent-like triangles. In fact, the larger one on the left contains three horizontal lines that divide the triangle into three different triangles; and the smaller triangle on the right seems to be situated on a slope with another triangle on its top that resembles a flag. The entire composition involves a resisting dynamics between stability and slant. The colors used are white, light brick red, light sky blue and dark green, which bring out together a harmonious relationship despite some contrast. The composition is eventually encased in a white frame that counterbalances the slant.
In addition, the horizontal lines on the larger triangle in this painting also add a cultural quality to this tent-like triangle. Firstly, it reinforces the association with the tent of the Indian tribes. On the other hand, in ancient alchemic symbols, triangle signifies the four fundamental elements: △ represents fire; ■ symbolizes the wind, that is the air; ▽ means water; and ■ is the earth. When the four symbols unite as one, it is the powerful hexagram, ■, which is called “the star of eternity” by the Israelis.
An equilateral triangle symbolizes the male while an inverted one refers to the female. The latter is also the foundation of the ancient Chinese character, “帝” (king), used in terms like “上帝” (God), “陰蒂” (clitoris), and “花蒂” (the stalk of a flower), which all convey meanings like the origin life and the beginning of things. In Ho’s painting series of △, equilateral and inverted triangles are repeatedly used and arranged, such as in Abstract 2015-053(f.03) and Abstract 2015-061(f.04).
Abstract 2015-053 presents a gigantic triangle, which is cropped of its tip and folded downwards. Another triangle is created within the shape and folded upwards. Hence, a main subject that looks like a trapezoid is formed, which has a crevice below, a horizontal line above, and a circular point above the line. The circular point also falls on top of the tip of the small triangle, constituting a strong yet implicit axis.
Abstract 2015-061 shows a rectangular shape, of which a corner is separated and forms an inverted triangle in white. Along the line of this white inverted triangle, there is an isosceles triangle that contains a circle. Finally, the angle of the hypotenuse determines the smaller inverted triangle in white on the left. However, the two equal sides of this white, inverted isosceles triangle are not perfectly paralleled with those of the larger inverted triangle. Therefore, the seeming corresponding presentation has a tilting quality to it as well.
In the paintings developed from △, there are some works that incorporate circles and arches as well. A fine example would be Abstract 2015-062 (f.05). In this painting, one right triangle in white is piled above another white right triangle. The image is divided into three tiers as the background is portrayed in three similar colors of light blue. At the top of the image lies a large arch with a black dot in an elegant and all-embracing way, introducing a cosmic image that situated the triangles amidst the round sky and the square earth.
2. Developing from the shape of ○
○ is the most primitive and perfect shape among the symbols of human civilization. One finds no beginning and end in a circle, which makes it different from triangles that have beginnings, middles and ends. ○ is often used to refer to completion, eternity and perfection. In Christianity, it symbolizes the unity of man and woman as well as God, the waters around the planet, and the cycle of life. In Eastern Zen Buddhism, concentric circles signify different stages of perfection of one’s spiritual practice. It represents the inner harmony and expansion (or coherence) of moving from one stage to the next. The concentric sand markings of the well-known “karesanshui,” or dry landscape, is a notable example of this.
A good amount of Ho’s new paintings in 2015 begins with the shape of ○, and among these works, two types could be observed. The first group shows a symmetrical or a radiating pattern within circles, such as Abstract 2015-054 (f.06), Abstract 2015-058 (f.07), and Abstract 2015-059 (f.08). The other one reveals an irregular pattern or a spinning momentum within circles, like Abstract 2015-055 (f.09), Abstract 2015-056 (f.10), and Abstract 2015-057 (f.11).
The radiating pattern could be seen most clearly in Abstract 2015-054, in which an apple-green circle in a pink background contains two squares at the center. Yellow rays of light radiate into four directions, and each has a purple round dot at the end.
Abstract 2015-059 displays two white crosses on the top and at the bottom of the image, symmetrically corresponding to one another. The blue color on the top and at the bottom responds to the red in the middle. The black dot at the center of the circle seems to be crushed a little due to the compression of the two white crosses. Red and blue as well as black and white form the simplest and strongest color combinations in the painting, and the entire image is backgrounded by a light yellow square.
The symmetry in Abstract 2015-058 is formed by a few squares in a diagonal arrangement around the center of a circle. The colors of white, red, and blue (of the squares) correspond to the color of light green (the rectangles), standing out from the circle in earth yellow and the background of a square in grayish green. The powerful contrast in color saturation creates a vivid impression.
In terms of irregular patterns within a circle, the representative work is Abstract 2015-055(f.09). In this circle, a part is cut away from the right side. A part is also cut away from the lower left side. An irregular shape that resembles a triangle or a trapezoid extends from the right to outside of the circumference. The colors used here are mainly red, white and gray, foiled with a background in light apple green. Generally speaking, the contrast between red and green is complemented by the analogous colors of white, gray, and light gray.
The other two paintings that have a spinning implication are Abstract 2015-056 (f.10) and Abstract 2015-057(f.11). The former is comprised of a contrast between red, blue, and green in a light blue background; and the latter has the entire image in various shades of apple green while the center of the circle reveals a S-shape in dark blue with some bright blanks as well as a little subtle redness. These spinning images remind the audience the Tai Chi symbol in China and Korea, inviting us to contemplate on the formation of life in the universe.
3. Developing from the shape of □
There is also a large number of paintings developed from the shape of □ in Ho’s new works, including squares and rectangles. Among these paintings, some constructions only use □, such as Abstract 2015-060 (f.12). However, there are more paintings that partly incorporate circles or round dots, such as Abstract 2015-051 (f.13), Abstract 2015-085 (f.14), Abstract 2015-064 (f.15), Abstract 2015-078 (f.16), Abstract 2015-079 (f.17), and Abstract 2015-081 (f.18). Meanwhile, some also include combinations of circles (round dots) and triangles, like Abstract 2015-068 (f.19), Abstract 2015-074 (f.20), and Abstract 2015-086 (f.21).
In short, paintings developed from the shape of □ often seem more orderly and stately in a religious manner; they remind people of the “dul-tson-kyil-khor” (mandalas of colored powders) of Vajrayana, the Tantric Buddhism in Tibet.
Mandalas symbolize the Buddhist cosmos, and use squares to represent the four directions of the universe, or the four worlds in Buddhism most of the time. Perhaps, Ho does not mean to refer to Buddhist paintings with his use of squares, However, through the structure of squares and circles as well as the subtle constructions of the four worlds, four edges, and four entrances (or directions), the artist has unquestionably created a metaphor for a highly spiritual space.
Ho’s construction of using △, ○, and □ in his new paintings in 2015 show an exuberant creative energy. However, how to sidestep the trap of being taken as “artistic design” when using these constructions tests the profundity of the artist’s thinking and cultivation. In an article, titled “On Abstract Painting,” published in 1954 (October Issue, Culture and Art Monthly), Li Chun-Shan stated that “the techniques and materials of abstract art are completely free. It does not have a limited range. Nevertheless, no matter the colors painted in any manners, or the surfaces created through any mechanical means, the quintessential thing is ‘the life of form’ bestowed by the artist. Therefore, being an abstract painter, one had better be acutely aware of the fact that techniques might often easily make him appear to be an artisan instead of an artist.”
Li also said that “[…] not only composition and construction are extremely needed, both need to move in the direction of purification. One must always be strict in applying of materials and techniques to create images. In particular, the techniques that show brushstrokes must have a close relation to the individuality of the artists…that is to say, they must possess characteristic power of expression deeply rooted in the individuality of these artists.”
Throughout the years, Ho’s painting has always emphasized the premise of “the life of form,” which demonstrates his character and individuality. Because of such a discipline, it has also fashioned the unique qualities and charm in his painting.
1.) An obvious warmth of hand-painting rather than mechanical coldness
First seeing the geometric shapes in Ho’s paintings, one might be tempted to associate his art with the Western geometric abstraction, or the Cold Abstract. However, after a closer examination of Ho’s geometric shapes, one would find that they emit a sense of hand-painted warmth that is neither mechanical nor cold. His art is extremely different from the Western geometric abstraction.
Even just one simple line might be painted or scraped. Yet, more are indirectly created by covering a plane of color with another. Therefore, the original background color surfaces as a line between the two color planes. His diversified skills create the enriched visual connotations in the image, giving the audience an infinite space of imagination. Closely observing his painting, they convey a strong sense of hand-painting that rarely employs “the covering of masking tape.” The planes, lines, and forms are all painted by hand, which replace the feeling of sharpness and coldness with a sense of warmth and meaningful depth.
2.) The rich texture instead of simple surfaces of colors
Because the paintings are hand-painted, the color blocks in the image show a lot of brushstrokes, and together with the texture of the canvas under the colors, they have formed abundant texture.
The characteristics of hand-painting as well as the texture of brushstrokes enhance the painterly quality of the works and resolve the dilemma of being possibly taken as “design.” When teaching his students back in those years, Li Chun-Shan once reminded his students with a hand-written note.
One must possess the skill of sketching. Modern painting still requires basic skills of modern sketching. In my opinion, modern painting without basic sketching skills would become either drawings of images or illustrations. The only difference lies in that the sketching of modern painting differs from the sketching of traditional painting. (Li Chun-Shan, “My Painting Philosophy”)
Ho’s mastery of the texture of the image also displays his sketching skills in modern painting that validate the painterly and artistic qualities of his work, rendering them different from common graphic design.
3.) Various shades of color saturation and not just the value of a single hue
In his works from an early period in Italy, Ho has already largely used neutral colors in pastel tones. One art critic once suggested that “the young Ho Kan should add more sunshine to his palette!” (Hsiang Erh, “The Splendid Diversity of Ton Fan Art Group Exhibition”)
Judging from Ho’s later artistic development, nonetheless, the image of “sunshine” has never been the goal pursued in Ho’s paintings. During his six-decade career as an artist, Ho has contrarily constructed a remarkably individual and poetically mysterious quality with his color scheme. His colors are not the common, original colors that could be found everywhere; they are even not easy to find in ordinary color swatches. The colors used in Ho’s paintings are usually unique ones created after multiple times of mixing in his studio. The mixing of colors is not simply conducted on the palette, though. More importantly, it is done on canvas or paper. Therefore, under the surface of one color, another color often slightly comes through, producing a mysterious effect that is faintly discernable and somewhat rippling, for instance, Abstract 2015-76 (f.22) and Abstract 2015-081.
4.) An ingenious combination of colors that defies principles of standard color scheme
As for his color scheme, Ho adopts an ingenious combination of analogous colors and contrasting colors. Generally speaking, he often uses analogous colors, especially cool colors, to construct the primary part of the image. One often sees two similar colors next to one another in these large surfaces of analogous colors. One of the two colors often takes in the other color; this is an effect gained from multiple brushing and layering the colors. Moreover, within this analogous color structure, the artist often places smaller elements in contrasting colors or achromatic colors, like black and white. These elements could be circles, triangles or thin lines, and the contrasting colors would create a prominent, popping, exalting visual perception. The contrasting colors of the small elements usually become the focal points whereas the large areas in analogous colors contribute to the atmosphere of the whole images.
5.) Organic combination and construction of forms and colors instead of just filling forms with colors
Colors do not exist alone, and must be taken into consideration together with forms. Ho’s forms are always the purest geometric shapes with dots, lines and planes, with which he conducts all kinds of dialogues and compositions of balance and imbalance, symmetry and asymmetry, the geometric and non-geometric, and the lineal and non-lineal.
With the construction of colors and the construction of forms, Ho’s painting surfaces that seemingly resemble works of design are actually artistic creations filled with a sense of humanistic tendency and spiritual quality. His color constructs the atmosphere while his form fabricates the plot; especially his form, from the directionality of lines, to the sizes of circles, to the arrangement of triangles, they are all highly signifying. Consequently, Ho’s painting always seems to beckon at something that is taking place or a mysterious quality suggesting that the painting has something to say. This quality is as musical as it is poetic.
6.) A spiritual space that reflects culture rather than a physical surface of form-color combination
Despite an appearance that might look like the Western geometric abstraction, the profound memory and poetry of the Eastern culture is inhering in Ho’s work. Many of his paintings are deeply influenced by Chinese calligraphy and the art of seal carving. Ho’s grandfather, Chiu Ai Kung (meaning autumn cliff), was an excellent calligrapher. When Ho’s was a child, he often helped his grandfather by tucking the calligraphy paper. He noticed the movement and look of his grandfather when he was writing calligraphy, which sometimes exemplified tremendous momentum and sometimes revealed great cadence. The flow and trace of “chi” (or air) was truly inspiring for him, and paved the way for the smooth movement and rippling rhythm in his paintings afterwards. From the effect of an impression and its mirror image in the art of seal carving to the structural changes of intaglio and relief, they all provide inspiration to his creation of form. Perceiving and assimilating what he has seen in the bronze sacrificial vessels from the Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty as well as the patterns on the eaves tiles of buildings from the Han Dynasty, Ho also turns them into a source of inspiration and adds them into his later paintings. He once said that in terms of colors, one must learn from the bronze vessels that “let the all the weight float up, and make the lightness seem incredible heavy!” It is this rhythmic interplay of the lightness and weight that could be associated with the rising and falling of musical notes. It is a kind of demonstration of cultural tradition and values as well as a representation of a spiritual space.
In essence, the new paintings in 2016 have been developed and created with these unique qualities.