Rediscovery—Unearthing the Treasures of George Chann
J.J. Shih/ art critic, independent curator
The 20thcentury has passed, and so soon will pass the supremacy of Western modern art that dominated the century. While modern Chinese art has largely followed Western art’s lead for an entire century, it has not been without its share of pioneers and trailblazers—some of whom reside in Taiwan or mainland China, some of whom have settled in Europe or North America, and others who have passed from this life. No matter where they live, from a Chinese perspective, as long as they have played the role of an innovator, and have distinguished themselves with artistic accomplishments, by now nearly all of these artists been investigated and/or recognized by scholars on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. While this is generally true, there are surely some lost treasures beyond the realm of familiar modern Chinese artists. Among them, George Chann, who died in California in 1995, is a historical figure whose works deserve to be “unearthed” and understood today.
In January 1995, an essay by US collector Michael Brown in Hsiung Shihart monthly (vol. 287), “Puritan of the Art World, George Chann,” helped us to see in hindsight that, other than familiar names such as San Yu, Pan Yu-liang, and Chao Chun-hsiang, and the recently rediscovered Yun Gee—Chinese artists who spent the better part of their years living quietly overseas—existed another elderly figure, George Chann, still alive at the time at the age of 82!
Brown’s essay provided a detailed introduction to Chann’s life and artistic development. The accompanying pictures, all taken from Brown’s personnel collection, largely displayed figurative paintings of Chann’s dating from the 1950s and earlier. As for the abstract paintings that more aptly illustrate the artist’s concerns, desires, and talents as an artist in his maturity, and which provide superior basis for exploring his thought and feelings as a Chinese artist, only one picture was selected. The article in Hsiung Shihart monthly seemingly failed to elicit much attention in Taiwan, nor were there any further reports here when the old Chinese artist died at home of an illness just two months after the article’s publication. Time can be cruel and people forgetful, yet fortunately, after George Chann’s death, thanks to the dedication of his family toward the ideals and accomplishments pursued during his lifetime, and their belief in the importance of bringing the artist and his art to light once again to allow a proper historical assessment, we have the good fortune to view his excellent art works in Taipei and Shanghai consequently.In the words of a 1988 California newspaper report on his final solo exhibition, Chann was cited as a “forgotten artist” in the States, but modern Chinese art history might forever pass by this artist if there is no chance for his art achievement to be exposed..
Based on Michael Brown’s essay, Chann’s own words (recorded during a 1981 state “census” of California artists), and the significant art works he left behind, we can ascertain that if modern Chinese art history were to include an “overseas chapter,” then George Chann would not only qualify as a senior player, but a true pioneer who took on the art world overseas.
As one of the first Chinese artists to settle in the United States, George Chann’s life and fortunes parallel to some extent that of Yun Gee (1906-63), an artist who has recently attracted the attention of Taiwan’s art world and the favorable reaction of the local art market. Starting with geographic background, both Chann and Yun Gee were Cantonese, and both followed their fathers to the United States at a young age (Brown’s assertion that Chann was born in California in 1915 is refuted by Chann’s own account). Restricted by US immigration laws, they each settled in San Francisco, a city second only to east coast counterpart New York for its favorable climate for arts and culture. There, they fostered their respective passions for art and pursued their aspirations to become professional artists. Both Yun Gee and Chann studied at local California art institutes, subsequently setting out to make their mark on the art world during an era in which anti-Chinese sentiment ran through American society. After making a start for himself in California, Yun Gee journeyed to Paris to study on two separate occasions, pushing hard and achieving tangible results. Returning to the United States in 1930, Yun Gee landed in New York, where he managed to work and exhibit his output uninterrupted despite the Depression and anti-Chinese discrimination. If frailty hadn’t stopped his output and withdrawn him completely from the art world, perhaps we would not have come to such a late and ambiguous assessment of this artist’s output.
George Chann was born in 1913, seven years later than Yun Gee. The address book he left behind includes telephone numbers and addresses for Yun Gee at different times, indicating that the two not only knew each other, but likely maintained periodic contact. Yun Gee matured as an artist comparatively early, entering the California School of Fine Arts in 1924 at the age of 18. While studying there (1924-26), it is known that he actively assimilated the concepts of Synchronism (a new Californian school of modern art highly influenced by French Orphism, predicated upon complementary hues﹐while combining cerebral structures and emotive splashes of color), thus setting his compass for the avant garde and modernism. Yun Gee’s first solo exhibition in 1927 was a success, winning critical acclaim and commercial favor as nearly all works were sold. Thanks to the sponsorship and encouragement of wealthy benefactors, Yun Gee made a smooth transition to Paris, where he held solo exhibitions at major galleries and gained entry into the 1928 Salon des Indépendantat the age of 23. It was quite a start for the young artist. With the Great Depression sweeping Europe, Yun Gee returned to the United States in 1931, where he stepped up the pace of his participation in group exhibitions held by the Brooklyn Academy of Fine Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, the John Reed Club, and the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, as well as several solo gallery shows. In 1935, Yun Gee joined up with the WPA (Works Progress Association), established by the US government to help artists through the dismal economic times of the Great Depression. These examples demonstrate the recognition accorded Yun Gee’s artistic accomplishments, despite his move to the east coast of the United States.
George Chann got a later professional start compared to Yun Gee, entering the Otis Art Institute in 1935 at the age of 22 despite having studied painting since around the age of 15. Founded in 1918, the Otis Art Institute was located on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The institute was named after Los Angeles Timesfounder General Harrison Gray Otis, who left land from his estate to the city government to be used for an art institute. Compared to the California School of Fine Arts at which Yun Gee studied, the Otis Art Institute was conservative. The school’s marquee professors included Alexander Brook (1898-1980, Brook was runner-up for the international modern painting prize sponsored by the Carnegie Institute in 1930, the year the winner was a fellow by the name of Picasso), Edouard Vysekal (1890-1939), and Joan Hubbard Rich (1877-1941). Most of the faculty followed traditional photographic realism or impressionist approaches to art. Learning from these renowned teachers, Chann distinguished himself well, winning himself a five-year scholarship, earning an MFA degree, and staying on after graduation as a teaching assistant. Still, judging from his style as a fledgling artist, Chann was not one to stick to convention. Rather, he liked to depict disenfranchised children found between the cracks of society, displaying greater compassion and humanistic interest than his teachers. His style was also rich with Expressionism, seeking to depict the representative innate qualities of children rather than unique individual physical appearance.
Despite having received rigorous fundamental training in sketching and oil painting techniques, Chann devised paintings closer in spirit to the Bay Area Figurative Painting style growing on the west coast. This affinity in turn afforded Chann an even greater chance for success in the new mainstream of local art.
In spite of his comparatively late start, Chann’s early fortunes still compared to Yun Gee’s. Just two years after graduation from Otis, he became active on the west coast art scene. In 1942, Chann attracted notice as the first ethnic Chinese artist to hold a solo exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Art. In the same year, he won the top prize from the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego, which collected his work and enlisted him for a solo show. Further exhibitions followed at the de Young Museum and other major galleries. In addition to a constant stream of exhibitions, the Chinese painter received glowing reviews from major local media including the Los Angeles Timesand The Guardian. Compared to Yun Gee, who was viciously belittled by a local paper writing about a San Francisco exhibition shortly after his return from Paris, Chann seemed to enjoy smooth sailing.
Other than outstanding painting skills, a “benefactor” was instrumental in helping Chann’s art win the widespread favor of west coast society. During his stint as a teaching assistant at Otis, his works were discovered by Roland J. McKinney, director of the Los Angeles Museum of Art, who was highly impressed by his work. Reportedly, McKinney can be crediting with pulling the strings to ensure the string of exhibitions in LA’s art museums and commercial galleries.
The Bay Area Figurative Painting style began to spread through the San Francisco Bay area in early 1940. As the mainstream current of the west coast art world, it took on the Abstract Expressionism that at the same time was making big waves in New York. We know that Abstract Expressionism was a new artistic movement that contrasted sharply from the portrayals of regional life and social realism that characterized American art since the 1930s in the United States. Many American critics considered Abstract Expressionism “American-type” modern painting, and in 1952 distinguished critic Harold Rosenberg renamed the movement “American Action Painting.” Employing Existentialist theory to interpret this school, Rosenberg described how the New York School artists playfully turned the canvas into “arena of struggle” between man and material. With his essay, Rosenberg thus extended the movement avant garde status and historical significance, while announcing this American style of art’s independence from and cleavage with the conventions of modern European painting. Interestingly, as Jackson Pollack and the American “action painters” distanced themselves from European thinking, some people began to see the personality and aesthetic interest of “Oriental culture” in their work. As Abstract Expressionism swept the global art world worldwide, Eastern artists, Taiwanese among them, were filled with a new sense of ambition and purpose.
In the early 1950s, the Abstract Expressionists grabbed the spotlight and New York became the de factoart capital of the world. However, on the west coast of the United States, the Bay Area Figurative Painting Style continued to set the tone throughout the 1950s. It is especially notable that during this period, George Chann, who started out and gained notice in California with figurative painting, finally gave in to the temptation of the New York tide and began to create in an abstract style.
Despite his interest in joining the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists, George Chann was uninterested in becoming a painter for whom “action replaced thinking.” Observation proves that Chann set out to inject “Eastern” qualities into this school from the very beginning; similarly, it can be said that Chann began to have a strong urge to call attention to his identity and cultural heritage as an ethnic Chinese. However, we can see that while seeking aesthetic forms with which to measure up against the Abstract Expressionist school, he actively merged elements of Chinese culture into Abstract Expressionist paintings. Here, the Chinese calligraphy he had studied for years with a Chinese-American priest became symbolic material he could apply intuitively. From that point on, George Chann continued to work diligently on the fusion of old culture with new art, refining and expanding his explorations uninterrupted through the late 1980s. On the basis of his body of works, it would appear that Chann achieved considerable success in his endeavors toward that aim by the 1960s. Unfortunately, however, his attachment to California kept him from attracting as much notice as before, while at the same time, Abstract Expressionism began to lose favor in fickle America following its golden decade of the 1950s. Ultimately, lacking a requisite benefactor, a collection of abstract works truly capable of reflecting Chann’s aesthetic approach and unique artistic gifts never received the opportunity to go out and meet the world during the artist’s lifetime.
Among the Abstract Expressionists, Franz Kline, Mark Tobey, and Jackson Pollack—artists whose works were considered to convey Oriental interest, and who often employed quasi-linguistic structures—emphasized calligraphic brushwork. Kline, whose work was marked by robust brushwork and skillful use of white space, and Tobey, who filled the entire picture with polished linear scrawls, represent two opposite approaches to thinking. Kline, who simply took a quasi-calligraphic approach rooted in direct observation, never admitted taking any inspiration from Eastern calligraphy. In contrast, Tobey deliberately borrowed Eastern aesthetic concepts, studied calligraphy in China and Zen in Japan, and subscribed to Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, Tobey developed the “white writing” for which he became famous from out of his practice of Chinese calligraphy. Many people believe that in filling the entire canvas with linear writing, Tobey opened the way to a new kind of painting lacking a center or focus and which exhibited anti-structural concepts. However, by the same token, keen observers have noted that Tobey sought not just to forge new formal appearances, but a semiotic web of complex text and elaborate meaning. Conceptually, this diverged widely from the ideographic (or pictographic) ‘impotence of meaning’ stressed by Kline. From the outset, George Chann’s early abstract paintings exhibited a deep emotional affinity for Chinese culture, as markers of time were clearly indicated, and historical associations and cultural nostalgia bubbled through the surface. And while his works were not absent of free writing and liberation of words, they clearly belonged to the Tobey line, in fact never taking a back seat to Tobey in intent, or even less so emotional investment. These characteristics are easily recognized throughout Chann’s work.
Apparently, the American abstract painters George Chann admired most during his life were Tobey and Pollack. To further our understanding of Chann’s spiritual connection with these two, we might benefit from a comparison of Tobey and Pollack. Pollack’s later paintings were somewhat similar to Tobey’s in that from top to bottom he used linear colors to cover the entire canvas. The two differ in that Pollack treated the canvas as a playing field, as he was infatuated with the action of painting itself and the energy it produced. Pollack has been quoted as saying that he completely lost himself while painting, and that he was looking for an out-of-control chaos—not easily obtained harmony, or a painting with a perfect ending. In other words, Pollack’s paintings were pure “chronicles” of action, and did not touch upon the presentation of additional meaning. Pollack’s paintings chronicled the impulses and energy squeezed out of the artist’s body, rather than the concepts and symbols cooked up inside his brain.
Tobey’s artistic intentions were just the opposite of Pollack’s. Art scholar Edward Luci-Smith once noted that, strictly speaking, Tobey should not qualify as an Abstract Expressionist, as his paintings always pay such attention to overall harmony, pursue a certain visual dynamism that can be refashioned at any time, and are capable of inspiring the possibilities of different perspective. In other words, Tobey conducts a constantly evolving exploration on the canvas, without a bottom limit or ultimate objective, but just the pursuit of change and infinity. This is one aspect of Tobey’s approach that completely separates him from Abstract Expressionists, who seek from the very start to “limit the painting to within a given boundary.”
George Chann’s style took shape and evolved quietly and without fanfare. Identifying with Tobey’s mystery and multiplicity of meaning in his early career, by his later years Chann had moved toward the pure expression of Pollack. In the intervening years, Chann moved around between the two notable artists, as if seeking an abstract style that could reconcile both artists. In this sense, Chann once again demonstrates a penchant for compromise and the cultural affinity for harmonizing, an attribute seemingly carried in the blood of modern Chinese artists residing in China or abroad.
Generally speaking, George Chann’s artistic development reveals three styles. The first of these, and the one with the strongest Eastern character, is “textual paintings” completed from the 1950s through the early 1960s. This type of painting featured scripting of symbols based directly on Chinese characters, bolstered by the expression of various brushstrokes and textural qualities. Exhibiting Chann’s familiarity and skill with painting materials, more importantly it played out his artistic ambition to marry textural imagery with historical imagination. In this way, he placed Chinese characters of different styles (such as script, running script, block style, etc.) together with different materials (including carvings, rubbings, talismanic writings, images of birds and critters, blood writing, soiled walls, fragments from classic books, and discarded paper). The aesthetic intent of these works was to achieve a balanced combination of formal visual components and textural physical patterns, to effectively tap the charm and tension inherent in each material and the myriad associations triggered by various written characters and symbols.
The second variety of painting dates largely from the 1960s. Despite the scarcity of Chinese characters, the overall formal aspects of these works nonetheless directly echoed the Abstract Expressionist spirit. For these works, the most commonly applied techniques included black-bordered white calligraphic characters pasted in layers over a light gray-blue background, which were then pressed, rubbed, or scratched so as to break the characters apart. Next, Chann filled in further inscriptions and patches of color to cover over the true appearance of the paper characters. In this way, all elements on the canvas (including the mounted characters themselves, the Chinese pictographs on the pasted paper, the bright orgy of color patches, improvised brushstrokes, and the underlying canvas itself) were mixed together into a primal state where top/bottom and image/background became difficult to distinguish. Upon first inspection, the surface is cluttered with thick textures, and distinguished by rich, resonant hues and tones, conveying a visual appeal at once classical and modern. Concentrating deeper, we seem to suddenly tumble into an ocean of ideographs or a forest of words, as if we can hear all sorts of odd ancient messages bursting from out of the scattered markings. Indeed, these paintings can transport people to a mysterious imaginary world.
The 1960s, while apparently George Chann’s most creative, stylistically diverse period, are also marked at times by conflicting intent. On the one hand he attempted to “get closer to the East” and “write more paintings out,” in Tobeyesque “white writing” marked by neutralized texture and elimination of a focal center. Meanwhile, Chann tried to boost the weight and import of color while beginning to break through the concept of pictographic writing and structure via unrestrained linear development. Chann’s most ornate, third kind of work developed out of the thinking of the second variety. Here, it is clear that in both appearance and spirit the artist’s works have moved far away from Tobey and closer to the drip-color style of Pollack.
Chann’s later abstract paintings demonstrate his keen sense of color and capacity for creating order out of chaos, while at the same time proving the meticulous yet nevertheless lyrical artistic qualities of a pure abstract painter. By this time, written words and symbols are no longer present, and the “writing” has become purer, freer, and more organic. In constant streams, or broken fragments, or perhaps overlapping and intermingling, diaphanous white lines wending through and around blasts of color, the complete communion of patches of color and shimmering lines, sing together like notes and melody. Despite their garnished richness, devoid of all fire, unlike the raw drive of Pollack’s works their unique character rewards repeated viewing.
Initially establishing a reputation in the California art world for figure painting, in the 1950s George Chann made the abrupt shift to abstract painting, a world in which he would silently live out his years. His abstract progression, initially fashioned upon the symbols of cultural sentiment and historical memory, progressed toward the polished visual vocabulary of formal freedom and textural richness. Throughout these various creative phases, Chann gave himself over completely to his creative energies, bearing many unique artistic fruits. Today, with the approach of the tenth anniversary of his death, the retrospect exhibition of his finest works in Shanghai indeed is helpful to erase Chinese people’s unfamiliarity and neglect of this fine artist. Now that these works have come to light again, we sincerely hope that this old overseas Chinese artist will gain renewed attention and appraisal.ㄇ