“Xung Gu”, can be understood as the studies of historical semantics, where separately “xung” means using a common term to interpret semantics, and “gu” refers to the practice of relying on contemporary concepts to make sense of ancient texts. The term “Xung Gu” in its combined form was first seen in the Spring and Autumn period by scholar Mao Heng from the State of Lu and his annotations Mao Shi Gu Xung Chuan that traced the usage of the Great Seal Script (Da-Zhuan) from the Pre-Qin period in the Books of Songs. In Mao’s book title, the terms of “gu”, “xung”, and “chuan” are interchangeable and seen as ways to annotate ancient texts.
This one of a kind writing system unique to the Han characters is the only surviving logogram still widely in use and continues to self-generate. The system started from pictographic significations (xiangxing) where the characters are “composed by copying the profile of the object they represent”, to the oracle bone scripts and later bronze inscriptions as ideographic (zhishi) and phono-sematic (xingsheng), and to carrying over to the complete composition of liu shu, the six categorizations of Chinese characters, which formulates the basis of the Han character system. This character system has expanded from a total of 9,353 words when Xu Shen compiled Shuowen Jiezi in the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25 – 189). With the advance of culture, the body of Han characters now can be tracked at approximately more than 100,000 words, including character variants.
The signifier for each grapheme also become encompassing over time. During this process, it bears testament to the use and appropriation of characters and writings by literati and artists throughout history, allowing ink arts and the principle of writing to integrate into the cultural experience. As what Father of modern semantics believed, Ferdinand de Saussure viewed the writing characters as the rebirth and reinterpretation of modern languages. The cognitive commonality Han characters inscribed in the Chinese culture has similarly become the relics of everyday life, in terms of the correlation between signifier and the signified.
At the end of 2018, Tina Keng Gallery presents Abstraction Contextualized, exploring the works of pioneering master, George Chann, of Oriental abstract expressionism. Through the abstract aesthetics distilled from his journey through character signs, the exhibition will lead the viewers on a tour to self-analyze their cultural genetics, by deconstructing the abstract brushstrokes and character systems of semantics.
Tracing back the torrent of history, the movement of abstract expressionism in the 1950s and 60s had given birth to masters such as George Chann and his peer Zao Wou-Ki and Chu Teh-Chun, whose works effortlessly blend the cultural essence of the East with the abstractionist spirit of the West. Before the much-known works of the abstract genre were conceptualized, these pioneers had long been immersed in the studies and experimentation of the traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting culture. These early practices gave roots to a solid Eastern texture in their oeuvre which is characterized by a principle of writing.
George Chann was known for his deconstruction of the Han characters and his adoption of calligraphic ink art technique. He spent his early years largely in the United States of America and received his training in painting and drawing for Western modern arts in the Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, where he later ascended to fame within a short period of time. At the beginning of Chann’s creative career, he was in favor of group portraits to reflect the joys and sorrows of the bottom feeders in history, showing strong humanitarian sentiments through his arts. Chann’s works with an intense touch of social realism gave him art world recognition. He was widely invited to museums for exhibitions, later becoming the first Chinese artist to host a solo show at the Los Angeles County Museum. This made young Chann well known to the Californian art world.
As World War II came to its end, Chann returned to China and befriended ink art maestros Huang Jun-Bi and Lingnan painting school giant Zhao Shao-Ang, to further his studies in ink art techniques and delve deeper into the essence of aesthetic theory. During this period, the legendary literature The Quotations on Painting (Hua Yu Lu), authored by renown painter and theorist Shitao from the Qing dynasty, made a lasting impact on George Chann’s practice, specifically with the “single stroke” or “painting of oneness” (yihua)  notion applied to both calligraphy and painting.
Answering to the summon of Shitao and his call for action where “brush and ink (bimo) should move along with time”, Chann later developed a unique style of oil painting, which “expresses the spirit through form” and “discards the form to capture the spirit” to perfectly combine the theories of ink art philosophy and the concept behind flows of works, with post-impressionist beliefs. He further mixed the brushstrokes of calligraphy and ink art with the techniques and forms of the West, giving the landscape and still life on his canvases an utterly different look and feel.
Since then, Chann’s works became more focused on the aura and atmosphere beyond the landscape; at the same time, the structure of the depicted in his painting gradually became more relaxed. These changes gave his works an intense oriental foundation, on top of a faintly discernible tactile sensation. As if swinging between the figurative and the abstract, the composition of Chann’s works essentially lost the traces of form, witnessing a transformation into a practice that prioritizes spirits and aura.
After 1952, Chann lived as a recluse and opened his Farmer’s Market Art Gallery in Los Angeles. The purpose of this art shop was not to promote his own creation, but to broker the sales of jade stones, jewelry, antiquities, calligraphy and paintings for no one other than regular customers. He divided up the store and made room for a space as his studio and reading room, as well as devoted his time to the practice and research of abstract expressionism that epitomized the spirit of New York city as the epic center of such artistic movement. This period later defined his formal transition into abstract expressionism. Taking a drastically different approach from the trend-setting Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Chann chose the Han character system as his core materials to remix the form of various words after their initial deconstruction. He also worked with collage to transform and reframe the calligraphy rubbings from stone inscriptions at his studio Farmer’s Market Art Gallery, and built these rubbings into the base of his canvases, and then to write and paint over these rubbings-built base during post-production with ink and brushworks. This practice seemed to visualize in Chann’s mind the function of “abstract copybooks of calligraphy” which took their deep roots in his cultural experience and keen aesthetic sensitivity. The process is similar to revealing a soft but grand artistic vista composed by the brushworks that was previously concealed in the gesture of history. The brushstrokes in Chann’s works epitomized a cultural signifier that had become its very own traces of existence, as it had lost its original contour and timestamp.
Taiwanese art critic Chia Chi Jason Wang commented: “With automated techniques taking the form of action painting, Pollock partially unleashed the energy buried at the bottom of humanity, specifically in terms of the unconscious and the sub-conscious. Pollock had broken the cultural barrier, and even the barrier of civilizations, allowing homo sapiens to return to a state of the primitives, and further connecting the communication channels between the inner self and the deeply buried memories. In comparison, George Chann’s abstract works neither liberated the primitive self, nor released the undercurrent of memories, but sang the odes to the Chinese culture and civilization, through a deliberate cultural construction, where he strived to highlight the beauty of civilization and tell the tales of the power of culture through his abstract works of arts.”
Time travelled to 1960s. Vibrant and vivid colors and various mediums started to enter Chann’s canvas. His canvas then became an arena for the cultural Other to mash up historical investigations with imaginations. Characters gradually took the visual presentations of decomposed and reconstrued components, making the brushworks barely recognizable. The process cancelled the character composition as well as the physical materiality of xuan paper. “As if within the realm of law, at the same time exceeding the realm of law”, Chann’s practice enabled a character system that were no longer bound by form, to translate and interpret the system of writing as aesthetic symbols that documented history and culture. Chann adapted a painting technique to reproduce the effect seen on the copies of stone inscriptions and scripture relics, as he recreated the weathered effects of the characters incised on stone slates or old coppers worn out by age or eroded away in green rusts. This technique infused a texture of time and enabled the abstract presentation of the Han characters as metaphors of a traditional cultural legacy.
To that end, this has become Chann’s signature abstract expressionist painting style that took the route of historical semantics unique to the Han characters, through which the artist had opened a new chapter of a vista that integrates the abstract expressionist practice in both the East and the West with the ornamented medium of character system and the principle of writing.
Yang Xiong, philosopher and linguist from the Han dynasty, proposed: “Words are the voices of the mind; writings are the images of the mind.” Chann leveraged the character system that became the storage for perception and experience, as an interface for contemporary aesthetics to interact with culture and society. The deconstructed signs were reborn into color and compositional lines and writings, and later translated and reinterpreted by ink and brushstrokes into dynamic and balanced rhythm of cultural odes.
In Chann’s mind, although the presentations of abstract expressionism in the East and the West seemed to fall under diverging sides of a spectrum, the two in fact are connected through the same manifestations –albeit with various representations of flow and structure, brushworks and lines, tonality and color – both with visible and invisible characters and symbols used to construct the metaphysical space of the abstract through perceived imageries.
What the intrinsic philosophical and aesthetic concept of “flow and aura” was able to capture in Eastern calligraphy and painting, through a traditional practice of copying, has further complemented a mellowness that the Western abstractionist counterpart lacked. In the presence of Chann’s works that are filled with an intense web of characters and signs, which gently unveiled the cultural journey inscribed in his brushworks, the viewers are as if standing at the edge of time, looking back into the deserted relics of culture. The experience, anchored in a visual depiction of spirits and meaning, resembles a process that examines the elegantly classical yet contemporary Chinese civilization, through the lens of Georg Chann’s historical semantics and abstract painting.