Body, Mind, and Cosmos
Anita Chung Curator of Chinese Art
Reflection 2002. Irene Chou (Zhou Luyun; Chinese, 1924–2011). Ink, color, and acrylic on paper; 60 x 96 cm. Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund 2013.32
Whether we see traditional Chinese paintings through the contemporary lens or we try to approach contemporary ink art from a cultural and historical perspective, it is evident that the aesthetics of the Chinese brush and ink is never out of fashion. Significantly enough, it plays a role in linking China’s artistic past with the present.
On display in the Chinese painting gallery for the spring rotation are two recently acquired contemporary works by the Australian-Chinese and Hong Kong artist Irene Chou (Chinese name Zhou Luyun, 1924–2011). Not only do they join the other late Ming and early Qing paintings in the same gallery in expressing artistic individuality and experimentation, but they also add colors and vibrancy that transform the gallery’s ambiance.
Since the late 1960s, Chou had been in the forefront of the Hong Kong art scene. She participated in the New Ink Painting movement spearheaded by the artist Lu Shoukun (1919–1975). This modernist movement in the former British colony marked a dramatic contrast with the directions of guohua (national Chinese painting) developed in mainland China. Chou positioned her art as a continuation of the Chinese ink-painting tradition, yet she was eager to negotiate a position between East and West and to engage with both tradition and modernity.
Reflection was painted a decade after Chou had suffered a stroke and then moved to Brisbane, Australia, in 1991. After her stroke, Chou practiced qigong (an ancient healthcare practice integrating body movement, breathing, and meditative concentration), and she struggled to continue with artistic explorations. Here, by splattering ink freely and duplicating the ink blobs to form chance images, Chou makes an allusion to a natural world of reflected light and images. The work is symbolic of her search for the knowledge of dao and a state of “pure heart” through inner reflection. It is her imagination of Daoist freedom and mystery that connects her subjective world with the powerful life forces of the universe.
My Heart is the Universe about 2000. Irene Chou. Ink, color, and acrylic on silk; 63.5 x 95.9 cm. Mr. and Mrs. Richard W. Whitehill Art Purchase Endowment Fund 2013.33
My Heart is the Universe belongs to a series of Chou’s late work, which is inspired by two lines written by the Southern Song idealist and neo-Confucian philosopher Lu Jiuyuan (1139–1192): The universe is my mind, and my mind is the universe. Inthis painting, thebackground of ink washes is suffused with a brilliant green to create a depth of infinite space—“the symbolic depth, the depth from one’s heart and mind,” as Chou said. In the midst of this infinite space is a small modulated sphere, her “inner self.” The sphere echoes with the red disc and red lines of veins, which are the abstract symbols for the artist’s communion with the cosmos. The painting communicates an exuberant joy and absolute freedom in her late years.
Both works summarize Chou’s artistic approach of engaging with Chinese philosophy and the abstract elements of Chinese painting to seek artistic individuality and meanings in life.
Cleveland Art, May/June 2015