Hu Chi-Chung’s abstract paintings, at once intricate and vast, evoke what Kandinsky revered in art—the Stimmung (“essential spirit”) “which preserve[s] the soul from coarseness; … ‘keys it up,’ so to speak, to a certain height…” (Kandinsky 2). Chi-Chung’s organic forms, poetically suggestive of animal-life and natural materials such as island-chains, mountains, and caves, express interesting relationships, with fractal-like displays of pattern, between the microcosmic and macrocosmic, the inner and outer realms, and the regenerative double. His use of numerals for titles may point less towards the notion of an ordered sequence and more towards the unnamable, hermetic framework of the artistic process itself.
While the Grove Dictionary of Art identifies 20th century abstract art as “a wholly modern phenomenon” with “assumptions of self-sufficiency” and as fundamentally separate from abstracted natural forms, Chi-Chung’s work seems to me a series of interior landscapes made physical—like strange dreams of land-forms seen from uncanny aerial perspectives (Turner 2). Indeed, Chi-Chung’s use of sand—earth-matter—mixed into his oils makes literal his subjective manipulation of natural forms. Some of the works seem to gesture towards Bachelard’s concept of “intimate immensity,” and many Chi-Chung paintings seem to phosphoresce with small, spherical “lights.” These compositions demonstrate a relationship to what Klee identified as “the powers which do the forming”—a process which might at first appear only to be the “deformation of natural forms” (Klee 43).
Painting 6423 and Painting 6503 display similar relationships between large and small masses suspended in space; the paintings gesture towards a kind of fecund, regenerative “reality.” The overlapping spheres and scrawls creating a “massy” form brings to mind Varnedoe’s assessment of Cezanne and Seurat’s use of “system-bound modules… as the starting point from which to build a picture of nature… In these generative moments of modern art, meaning arose from… the assertion of innovative languages of abstract form” (Varnedoe 164). The brilliant blue surrounding the “solid” forms exudes a sort of peace—“Space, vast space, is the friend of being” (Bachelard 208). I can’t resist seeing this particular work and so many of Chi-Chung’s paintings as a poetic mapping of land-forms and water.
In Painting 6615, I sense again the aerial perspective of an “island”-type subject with Chi-Chung’s motif of a massive structure paired with a smaller “offshoot”—here is again the sense of the macrocosmic/microcosmic in relationship to one another. Although the parameters of abstract art necessitate that any assertion of even perspective is only speculation, the sense that Chi-Chung’s perspective is a radical one, and one perhaps meant to be read as “from above” seems right to me; in fact, in Varnedoe’s brilliant work A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern, he cites “the imagined view from above” as one of the defining shifts in artistic consciousness leading to 20th century modern art (Varnedoe 225). Here, too, are “primal” colors—the “volcanic” black, the fiery red, the pacific blue—held in delicate balance.
Born in Chekiang, China in 1927, Chi-Chung endured an adolescence haunted by “hunger, poverty, and the constant threat of death” (Kwang-Chung 14). From the age of fourteen, Chi-Chung served for twenty years in the Chinese Nationalist Army. In a near-mythic event, Chi-Chung witnessed his first oil painting at the age of twenty-two while stationed in Shanghai. Mostly a self-taught artist, he became a “navy painter” while he was an officer in the Chinese Marine Corps.
His personal experience of creation out of violence—his growth as an artist intertwined with a youth spent in the military—is perhaps reflected in his imagistic motifs. The red floral-like spheres in many of his works, which find expression in what might be imagined to be vibrant burning embers, seem to suggest both purity and a sort of mortality. Chi-Chong explains this paradox in terms of personal context: “For many years I have been through the gauntlet of fire and blood, wars and tortures. Yet I still keep a tranquility of mind…” (Kwang-Chung 8).
Complex motifs of death and renewal are evident in Painting 6532; the spacious forms surrounding the dense masses of color appear almost as bones and skin. Art critic Yu Kwang-Chung characterized Chi-Chung as “ingenious in shifting the center of gravity” (Kwang-Chung 10). The doubleness of the figures in this painting create the sense of the regenerative—as an image doubled in a mirror—the oval shapes in the lower field of the painting echo one another, as the inverted funnel-like shapes in the upper half of the field echo one another.
Chi-Chung’s images confront the viewer with a power built from inherent tensions; in addition to dualities such as the pacific and the violent, we also sense the immense and the microscopic through the perspective of creation itself:
The view is geared
(that is, the view’s perspective)
so low there is no ‘far away.’
and we are far away within the view
--Elizabeth Bishop, from “The Monument” (Bishop 23).
According to Klee, the artist must be “forgiven if he regards the present state of outward appearances in his own particular world as accidentally fixed in time and space. And as altogether inadequate compared with his penetrating vision and intense depth of feeling” (Klee 47). The created form has it own stunning reality, just as organic forms contain myriad surprises; indeed, “A glimpse through the microscope reveals to us images which we should deem fantastic and over-imaginative if we were to see them somewhere accidentally, and lacked the sense to understand them…” (Klee 43-7).
In Painting 7323, we are grounded just enough in the presence of an objective reality—mountaintops—to be startled by the sphere in the foreground, which immediately places the viewer in the realm of the symbolic.
The shifts in Chi-Chung’s style from his first nascent attempts at painting—portraiture and other representational work—to more evocative, abstract form-making, make me think of the poet W.S. Merwin’s transition towards less formalized, more spiritually radiant verse. By the time he had crafted “The Sleeping Mountain,” Merwin had given up punctuation and “allegiance to the rational protocol of written language” (Merwin 1).
Under asters the color of my shadow
the mountain stirs in its cold sleep
dream clouds are passing through it
shaped like men lying down
with the memories of lights in them
-- W.S. Merwin, from “The Sleeping Mountain” (Merwin 298).
Merwin’s distilled lines find harmony with Chi-Chung’s simplified portrait of inner and outer realms—the buried “light” within the cave—Chi-Chung has “liberated pure form from extraneous (representational) content so that essential (spiritual) realities could now be directly apprehended” (Heartney 66-7). Perhaps the most abstract is the most representational; yet what this abstract art conveys with excruciating exactness is not the world of forms but the inner-life.
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (312) 814-8510
To see a Chi-Chung painting in person is a riveting experience indeed; should you desire to view his Painting 6423 at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc., please do email: email@example.com or call (312) 814-8510 or view it on the MIR Gallery website.
Arts Club of Chicago. The Fifth Moon Group. Chicago: The Club, 1974.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Heartney, Eleanor. Art & Today. New York: Phaidon, 2008.
Klee, Paul. Paul Klee on Modern Art. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1948.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York: Dover, 1977.
Kwang-Chung, Yu. Paintings by the Contemporary Chinese Artist Hu Chi-Chung.
Taipei: National Chinese Arts Center, 1967.
Merwin. W.S. The Second Four Books of Poems. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon
Oriental Art, Autumn 1967 v.13, no.3, Report from America, p.211-15.
Turner, Jane, Ed. The Grove Dictionary of Art: From Expressionism to Post-
Modernism, Styles and Movements in 20th Centuy Western Art. New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 2000.
Varnedoe, Kirk. A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern. New York: Harry
N. Adams, Inc., 1990.