Foreword The Lightness of Being and Floating Dreams: CHAN Kwan-lok and his Conceptual Dimension


李白 (701-762) 《春夜宴從弟桃花園序》

The world is but a large hotel, we are its guests passing by every day.  All the success and failure, honour and disgrace are mere fleeting dreams.  Nothing is worth lingering on. 
Li Bai (701-762)  Preface to “Spring Gathering at Peach Blossom Garden”


Li Bai's preface serves as the central theme for Chan Kwan-lok's new exhibition.  Particularly, the phrase「浮生若夢」(adrift in a floating world) provides direct reference to two major works, The Lightness of Being 浮生 and Floating Dreams 若夢. In handscroll format, both works depict figures in directional procession, from right to left, intertwined with ocean waves and currents rendered in continuous line drawings.  Floating Dreams features a group of thirty-nine swimmers drifting in a sea of waves.   Appeared weightless and afloat, their elongated bodies echo the dynamic linear contours of the composition, creating a sense of flow in an ultra-relaxed state that is peaceful and idyllic.  In stark contrast, all forty-six figure in The Lightness of Being are dressed in business attire or dresses.  The added clothes in water only incur weight and burden to group who appear indifferent, lost and helpless.  Although both paintings employed similar composition arrangement, the sentiment cannot be more different.  These two scrolls represent essentially the dichotomy between mundane life, the pragmatic requirement, and spiritual revelation, a higher standard.

The Lightness of Being 浮生 | Ink on paper | 34.5 x 209 cm | 2017

Floating Dreams 若夢 | Ink on paper | 36.5 x 178 cm | 2017


Comparing to Nirvana 2016, Chan's new works are clearly executed in more abbreviated manner. The heavy-handed approach and multiple layers are replaced by light colours and pure line drawings. If Nirvana brings forth man's darkest desire and indulgence, Odyssey, the present exhibition, offers a light-hearted perspective on the artist’s perception of life. 

Despite the different stylistic approach, Chan is fundamentally a figure painter.  While there are many ways to represent the human figures, Chan favours primarily the baimiao白描(pure lines) technique. The sweeping brush lines expands and contracts and creates three-dimensional quality through contours. Merging the purity of calligraphy, the literati ideals  and classical portraiture, Chan's creative rationale is clear -- to balance the expressive and descriptive power of ink lines while initiating the essence of Abstract art.

It is at this very last point that we as audience begin to see the marvels of Chan's true intention. Looking at these two handscrolls, it is not difficult to identify their reference to classical works. No artist, past or present, is more recognised for the use of pure lines to express outer and inner qualities of the human anatomy than Wu Daozi  (吳道子, ca.680-759). One of the central figures in Tang Dynasty (618-907) art scene, Wu not only enjoyed a career at court but had the creative energy to execute some three hundred wall paintings in the temples of Luoyang and Changan (modern Xian). His brushwork, in contrast to the colourful court painters of the period, was full of such sweeping power that crowds would gather to watch him as he worked. He painted chiefly in baimiao (monochromatic lines) and was famous for the three-dimensional, sculptural effect he achieved with the ink line alone.


Wu Daozi (吳道子, ca. 680-759), Eighty-seven Immortals (八十七神仙圖)
Handscroll, ink on silk, 30 x 292cm, Xu Beihong Memorial Museum, Beijing, China   


Wu's Eighty-Seven Immortals is the most famous figure painting in baimiao.  Depicting eighty-seven Daoist immortals paying homage to the supreme deity, each figure, whether the supreme god, deities, divine generals, or celestial maidens, comes alive with vivid facial expressions, and their dresses and ornaments further add a vibrant touch to the painting's artistic appeal.  The picture is considered a representative of China's best achievements in line drawing techniques of classical portraits.


Detail,  Eighty-seven Immortals (八十七神仙圖)

Detail,  The Lightness of Being 浮生


Comparing Wu Daozi's Eighty-seven Immortals to Chan Kwan-lok's Floating Dreams, we immediately recognize the stylistic lineage but also departure. Both works utilise the human figures as the central landscape, like mountains and rivers, with the flow of bodies occupy the entire composition and generate a dominating atmosphere. Lines are essential to depict body movement as well as facial expressions. But perhaps the most important quality is that both artists manage to allow their lines, at various parts of the composition, to travel freely and without restraint, and thus create ambiguous sections within the painting. In Wu's scroll, we find these at where the draperies overlapped, and lines intersected but not crossed.  Wu's lines here become simply patterns, geometric might they appear, they offer the viewer a moment of contemplation amidst the crowded scene. Unlike the ancient masterpiece, the contours of Chan's figures and their dresses do not overlap. As the narrative was intended to take place in water, Chan cleverly allocated a large area of unpainted space above and below the figural landscape. We follow the contours to an unexpected end, hesitated and lingered on before dissolving into the unknown. The artist's approach refers to classical landscape painting where myriad details and complexity are given way to sudden openness o airiness. Such breathing space, as in Wu's geometric patches, give rise to an exciting "conceptual dimension" of line drawing – yixin xiezhen 以形寫神 (Use Contours to Manifest Spirit). 
The human figure as a subject in Chinese painting appeared well before such later popular ones as the landscape or birds-and-flowers. From cave murals in Gansu to the Emperor's household in Changan, the human form was celebrated as celestial deities, Daoist sages and wealthy patrons. Wu Daozi was a versatile painter capable of producing colourful courtesans at play as well as imperial portraits at the highest level. But at core he was a devotee to pure lines technique which ultimately distinguished him from his contemporaries. It is not surprising that Chan also saw this genre's potential permutation as his single most important artistic signature. Through his last exhibition Nirvana in 2016 and all subsequent paintings, he had demonstrated versatility and unparallel skills. Yet, Chan always went back to pure lines technique and these two new handscrolls only further cement his position as a competent painter and above all a true conceptualist. 

Henry Au-yeung
August 2018  




About The Artists:

CHAN Kwan-lok

Born in Hong Kong in 1992, CHAN Kwan-lok graduated from the Fine Arts Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2015. Chan is keen on exploring the feasibility of lines through depictions of the motions of human and nature. Using rhythmic lines to construct a rigorous yet subtle framework, Chan portrays ordinary objects, people and marine animals to create a whimsical fantasy. His skillful works have earned him numerous accolades including Professor Johnson Chow Su-sing Chinese Painting & Calligraphy Award and Grotto Fine Art Award. His works are popular among private collectors.


Catalogue available
Size: 24 x 24cm | 108 colour pages | Biligual | Softcover | Published by Grotto Fine Art Ltd. 2018

Copyright © Grotto Fine Art Ltd. All rights reserved.