Hong Zhu An: Expressions of a Peaceful Mind
By Dr. Britta Erickson, interview with artist Hong Zhu An,
Some artists’ paintings work as a window into another world. Peering in we experience another point of view, a different kind of space, an echo of the artist’s mind. Hong Zhu An’s paintings echo a mental state, bit they have such a strong and decisive physical presence that instead of representing another world, or inviting a view into a separate space, they appear as objects – objects worthy of deep and extended consideration, many of them with the potential to lead the viewer into a contemplative or even meditative state of mind.
In its general outline, Hong Zhu An’s life story is similar to that of many diasporic Chinese artists: leaving behind a promising artistic career in China, he moved to the West where he spent many years as a struggling artist beset by language difficulties and relying at first on sketching portraits on the street to make a living. Eventually he achieved a degree of success, traveled, and developed a personal style showing the influence of broadened experience in both the art world and the world in general. Finally he arrived at a secure position of respect as an artist of note. In the particulars, however, Hong Zhu An’s life is quite different from most, following a unique geographical path and thus leading to a unique style that otherwise would not exist. While in the late 1980s many young Chinese artists emigrated to the United States or Europe, Hong is one of a relatively small number who went to Australia: he lived and studied there from 1989 to 1993. Feeling out of place, he eventually headed back to Shanghai, stopping by Singapore on the way. There his life changed in an instant: he entered a competition he learned about from a newspaper, and won, whereupon, the Singapore government invited him to remain. For a while he taught at LaSalle-SIA College of Arts, but now he works as an independent artist.
Hong Zhu An’s painting’s insistent physicality is the result of the creative process: the artist adds layer upon layer of paint to the paper, waiting to allow the layers to shrink and crack as they dry, producing a crackle effect that is highly distinctive and unique to Hong’s works. This reveals the layers underneath, resulting in complex and subtle colors and variations such as we find in nature, or in aged materials: the layered blues and greens, for example, bring to mind the patinas of ancient bronzes, and rusty reds and ochres are reminiscent of Chinese pottery. There are several important influences on Hong’s sensitivity to color. First, his youthful artistic education roots him with the mid-nineteenth century explosive growth of that cosmopolitan city. Noted for their rich color juxtapositions, top shanghai school painters were highly sophisticated colorists. Second, he was influenced both directly and indirectly by the earth-toned heavy color paintings (traditional painted with earth) of Australian aboriginal people. In 2004, Hong visited Bali and was deeply impressed by the rich colors and dense forms of the landscape, landscape not so different from that of Singapore, but which had hitherto been of minimal interest to him. And finally, Hong Zhu An reads and looks, so that he has a familiarity with the span of Chinese art history and much of western art history, too. His diverse experience manifests itself in his art in other ways, too: the crackle of his paintings’ surfaces relates to the cracks in the batik wax. And while it would be easy to link the thick presence of his paint to such twentieth century masters as Liu Kuosong or Zhang Daqian, it more resembles that of Australian aboriginal painters.
Hong Zhu An was from a scholar family that ran the local school. He began learning calligraphy at age four and then as a youth studied under a master from the Xileng Yinshe (an important calligraphy society in Hangzhou) who impressed upon him the notion that to become a good artist, first one must excel at calligraphy. The calligraphy in Hong’s paintings is very understated: there is no bravura brushwork; instead, every line is elegantly placed, conceptually composed from an integrated series of dots that infuse the characters with quiet strength. The quiet strength radiats out, setting the tone of the paintings. it is not necessary to understand the calligraphy – which often relates to the artist’s ideas on art, or is copied from ancient texts carved in stone (beitie) – to appreciate the paintings. The paintings exist as an expression of a peaceful mind, and a path leading others towards calm and quiet.