Mindscapes: Concerning Kuo Kuan-hsin's Paintings

By Lin Wen-Hai, Curator

Head of the Fine Arts Department,

Tunghai University

December, 2012

Most artists, when creating art, usually think of creativity as having a functional purpose associated with skill, use of medium, or discovering a method in order to solve problems that occur in the process of making art. They may wish to express some lyrical feeling, communicate a message or perhaps accomplish an impossible mission. Whatever motivates artists, they must undertake a long and hard journey that can last a lifetime.

For Kuo Kuan-hsin, the driving force that has enabled her to maintain the determination and perseverance she has shown in making art for the past twenty years, is the path she cultivates for herself through spiritual study. This study has made it possible for her to spontaneously explore different levels of the creative mind. Up until 2006, she worked on smaller canvases, and the subject matter of her paintings was of a surrealistic or dreamlike nature, often employing the symbolism of fairy stories to portray feminine feelings or emotions related to her own identity. The reason for this is probably has something to do with the art that Kuan-hsin came into contact with during the four years she was studying at San Francisco Art Institute.

In Kuan-hsin's art statement she talks about a number of artists that she has deep respect for such as Remedio Varo (1908-1963), Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), whose works were created from a subjective point of view and explored the ambiguity of the subconscious, life, death, the past and the ďabsolute realityĒ of the future. These highly-regarded female surrealists preferred to use their creativity to express their inner feelings. Although these feelings were expressed pictorially, their paintings also contained a strong sense of narrative.

During the ten years that Kuan-hsin spent overseas, she was very much influenced by these great artists. However, during the period 2004 to 2006 the style of her paintings gradually transformed to portray deeper, more spiritual feelings, as we can see from the work on display in her exhibition titled Transition.

Coming from the inner spirit

In 2004, Kuan-hsin went through a short period of illness and recuperation. This led her to think more deeply about her life, and, in the process, she developed a greater understanding of life and what art means to her. She started to study the written works of spiritual teachers, particularly Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). The essence of Krishnamurtiís message is that one must think for oneself and have great feeling for everything. In terms of creativity, he taught that one should create in the original sense, from oneself. I am not exactly sure how his teachings played a part in Kuan-hsinís development, but I believe they led to her becoming more compassionate, selfless, and also helped her to acquire new insights into the meaning of personal freedom and mature love.

Looking back into art history, there are several artists who have explored themselves through spiritual practice and then built their new ways of understanding into their work. For example, Yayoi Kusama, born March 22, 1929, a Japanese artist and writer, has experienced hallucinations and severe obsessive thoughts since childhood, often of a suicidal nature. She likes to talk with plants. However, she works gently by using the Bushido, which literally means "the way of the warrior". For her, painting is a door to relief.

Another artist, Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002), liked to create her paintings by sculpting boxes made of plaster onto a canvas and filling them with liquid paint. She would then use a gun to shoot at the canvas and paint would literally bleed down the canvas from the resulting bullet holes. As a child, born in a conservative Catholic family, she exhibited strong resistance to tradition values. She married young and became a mother, but found herself living the same bourgeois lifestyle that she had attempted to reject. The internal conflict caused her to suffer a nervous breakdown for which she was treated as an in-patient in Nice. She found painting helped her to overcome this crisis in her life, and so decided to become an artist.

In art history, there are many examples of great artists who used their suffering to create artworks, but also to overcome the suffering in themselves; Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Jackson Pollock ( 1912-1956) and Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) to name but a few. The stories of their loneliness, the pain and the struggles that went through to create their art are legendary, as are the accounts of how only in painting could they experience feelings of great joy and freedom.

Of course, Kuan-hsin, on her artistic path, has not suffered like these great painters did. However, the honesty, vitality and grace on display in her work may well have emerged from the mental and emotional struggles she herself has experienced in her own personal life and in her work, and also from the change that she experienced in recovering from a serious illness.

The essence of exploration and transition in creativity

When a different style starts to appear in an artistís work, it is a sign that a fundamental change has taken place in the heart of the creator.

Kuan-hsin has always expressed her own feelings in her work, and has never been confined to working within any particular style or form of painting. However, the change that occurred in her work after 2006 was much more dramatic; she began to paint much more from instinct, her paintings became considerably larger, there was been a big shift away from the figurative in favor of more abstract form and her use of color changed significantly. However, one thing that never changes is that she always remains true to her own nature.

Artists get a lot of inspiration from what they see in the environment around them. There are two aspects that need to be considered in this process: complexity and simplicity, and deciding whether to increase or decrease one or the other. This involves a lot of soul-searching, going beyond the known and arriving at something new.

In order to analyze art, we often talk about it in terms of genres, but it is not easy to categorize Kuan-hsinís work as it contains elements and feelings of eastern, western, classical, modernist and surrealist art.

Unlike the abstract expressionists who, in their preparation, paid particular attention to the method of composition, Kuan-hsin does not concern herself too much with the pigment, medium or overall effect of the work when she begins to paint, but instead, relies wholly on instinct.

Kuan-hsin draws inspiration from her own mind, not from the external world. Color is her primary motivation. Painting, for her, is a very organic process. It happens spontaneously. She is guided by an energy that determines the rhythm of her brushstrokes and the color that she applies on the canvas.

"Infinite" and "Liberating"

The way that Kuan-hsin paints is in line with the ideal of the art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994). He suggested that artists, by abandoning such elements as subject matter, and definite brush strokes would attain a level of "purity" that would reveal the truthfulness of the canvas as a two-dimensional space.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said, ďIf beauty comes from the mind, then the idea should be universally accepted because if we judge objects merely according to concepts, then all representation of beauty is lost". Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) said, The quality of beauty that comes from the mind is "infinite" and "liberating". On the other hand, nature is limited due to it being dominated by inevitable forces.

In Zhuang-ziís philosophy, the human relationship with nature is central to creating harmony in the universe. This differs from western philosophy which places the ego of the human being at the center.

In Kuan-hsin's work we can see how the abstraction of landscapes subtly reveals a feeling of being in harmony with everything. The viewer, observing the natural scene in a painting, interacts with the energy of the work and is taken beyond the image to experience a sense of the supernatural.

The above philosophical notions can be applied to specific paintings in this exhibition:

1. Poetic feeling. Examples of the abandonment of pictorial representation in favor of imagination and feelings can be seen in the following paintings: Transition, Woodland, Blue Valley, Moon River, Dawn, Going Home, The Blessing, Solitude and Under the Weeping Willows.

2. Integration of subtle composition. Georges Braque (1882-1963) said, "The mythical feelings and inexplicable attraction in each piece of artwork comes from the uncertainty the artist experiences at the time of creating it." We can see examples of this in the following paintings: Embryo, Heartbeat, Anticipation, Migration, Sanctum, Resurrection, Awakening, and Skylight.

I think Kuan-hsin allows the natural force to overcome her urge to control the direction of her creativity, so that viewers can put their own imagination to work in arriving at an interpretation of her paintings.

About Transition

The idea of liberation can be applied to all the work in the Transition exhibition. It is not a question of resistance or conflict, but more an evolution of attitude. This kind of change is not easy because by relying on instinct rather than technique her work may appear flawed in the eyes of those who have fixed ideas about how art should be created.

Concerning what seems flawed, Lao Tzu said:

If you pay full attention

to what seems flawed and ordinary

you will notice the perfection

hiding beneath appearances.

Of course, Kuan-hsin doesn't intend her work to appear flawed. It is just that she believes that if you display too much technique on the canvas, it will hinder the communication of feelings.

I believe Kuan-hsinís aim is to move on from her previous style of painting. However, even though technique can be modified, the thought processes involved in creativity can always be tracked. She may try to eradicate signs of her academic training, but it will always be visible in her work. It is clear in the way she is able to mix various colors to give the impression of light as it is in the natural environment.

Here are three dimensions of her work:

1. Mind

The transformation of figures, objects and landscapes into dream-like images of the mind. Examples of this can be seen in the paintings titled Transition, Migration, The Blessing, Solitude, Going Home, Moon River, Resurrection and Sanctum.

2. Reality and Fantasy

In this series of works the images seem almost invisible. However, elements such as sky, stars, sun, moon, forest, ocean, and field are clearly discernible. Above all, the ethereal nature of these paintings represents the gentle side of human beings. Examples of this include: Estuary, Woodland, Pink Valley, Dawn, Blizzard, Rain, Under the Weeping Willows, The Angel, Field of Gold, Desert and Waves.

3. Sensitivity The creation of atmosphere from subject matter to represent and reflect inner feelings. Examples of this include Waterfall, Lightning, The Way, Ladder, Anticipation, Heartbeat, Embryo, Skylight and Forest.


Modern art has spread around the world. However, it has become limited by being art for artís sake and by having less and less philosophical basis.

Kuan-hsin has a planet of her own where she simply and happily cultivates her garden. No matter what happens outside, she always remains calm and focused on understanding the essence of truth. The integrity of her artwork is arrived at through a combination of the organic nature of her creative process and the simplicity and deep-thought of eastern philosophy. This kind of experience is the most treasured gift that an artist can give to mankind.

If we believe that this world is made from heart, then we should all communicate from the heart. When searching for form or trying to gain something in the creative process has become less important, Kuan-hsin's work reassures us that the value of art lies in the way it can heighten our sensitivity and vitality.

Kuan-hsin creates beautiful mindscapes that take us to an unspoiled wilderness of great beauty. Through her work, we may all discover it for ourselves.≠