Art comes in for a lot of criticism these days. It is often accused of being flashy and sensationalistic. Artists are accused of using shock tactics and of making entertainment the central point of their work in order to appeal to a culture obsessed with fashion, celebrity and to fulfill the desire of consumers. People often talk about art having lost its way, so it’s a pleasant surprise to come into contact with an artist who is taking art by the hand and gently guiding it back to its original values and a sense of purpose. So what are those values, and what is the purpose of art?
The classic ideal is that art should outwardly document what is happening in the hearts and minds of a particular generation at any given time in human history. It should represent what is best in us and provide us with a reference point for what is good and great in us. In a world dominated by the ugly side of politics and the routine atrocities of war, art should make us care, and give us something to aspire to – it should say, “We don’t have to be this; we can be something so much better!” Unfortunately, too much art these days simply reflects the horror rather than offering us something different, or works are created from such an egocentric viewpoint that they end up being utterly meaningless to the viewer and so completely fail to fulfill another important objective of art – to communicate to humanity as a whole.
The above criticism does not apply to the artist Kuo Kuan-hsin or her oil paintings. Over the twenty years that she has been painting, her work has moved through various genres from surrealism to abstract expressionism. Her early works were smaller and more dreamlike with mythical landscapes and mysterious figures. Now, her canvases are much larger; virtually all recognizable form has vanished and been replaced by sumptuous arrays of colour with delicate changes in gradation which are almost indiscernible to the human eye. The eclectic nature of her work makes it difficult to categorize, and means viewers have to come to it without preconceptions and with an open mind.
Kuo’s paintings have a serious message. People often talk about having a feeling like being in a church when they look at them. The works are quiet and contemplative; they speak with a soothing voice and exude a subtle power that stirs us to think about the world differently by putting us in touch with some deeper part of ourselves.
Kuo says, “I’m not consciously trying to be contrary to what is popular now, but at the same time I’m not trying to subscribe to the demands of modern society. In my work, I am simply painting what I feel; being true to myself.”
Kuo’s work bears some resemblance to what the Impressionists were doing at the end of the 19th Century. The difference is that whereas the Impressionists focused on portraying the light or a scene at a particular moment in time, she focuses on portraying a feeling that she experiences at a particular moment in time. In effect, instead of depicting something that happens externally, what she is revealing and relating to the viewer is an internal experience.
“When I paint a landscape, it is not simply a case of painting mountains, sea, sky, trees etc…, it is a case of capturing on canvas a change of feeling that occurs in a moment as a result of being in a particular environment, Kuo says.”
While she may not intentionally go against what is currently popular, there is an aspect of Kuo’s work that runs counter to the current trend of conceptual art and its focus on cerebral activity which makes ideas and thoughts all-important.
Kuo says, “Today, our brains are forced to work harder than ever, constantly analyzing a never-ending flow of data which speeds up and increases in line with technological developments. I believe our brains need a break from the ceaseless scream of digital information. This is where I hope my art can come to the rescue.
“It seems to me that all the problems in the world are the result of thought. So, in my art I’m saying, “Wait a minute, what happens if, instead of responding to thoughts we do something else, we go beyond them?”
In conceptual art, thought is everything. The classic ideal is that art should communicate ideas to the heart and the mind, as well as, and not just, the brain. There is a danger that if an artist puts too much cerebral thought or complex technique into a work, these things act like a wall, preventing viewers from getting past them to connect with the work at a deeper level. It may be that there is nothing to “get past” and that the work is nothing more than thought and technique. If this is the case, then the work has no point other than to demonstrate technique and present a thought that has no meaning for anyone but the artist. In order for it to be viable, viewers must be able to connect with a work of art – to feel it. That’s why it is essential for an artist to lose all sense of self in the creative process, and that’s what makes Kuo’s work so appealing.
She says, “In my art, thought is only a door to creation, and the creativity does not begin until thought stops and feeling takes over. The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “The dew falls upon the grass when the night is at its most silent. Thoughts that come on dove’s feet guide the world” I, like Nietzsche, believe that truth is only revealed to the quiet mind.
“This is reflected in my creative process. While I am painting, I enter a quiet space and at that moment my body and mind are infused with extraordinary energy. I am guided by this energy. It determines my creative direction, and I follow it without thinking, without analyzing, without judging and without naming. In this state, the art reveals itself to me. It is completely new. It is nothing I have known before. It is something so real, and while I am painting I have a feeling of being totally alive in each moment, from moment to moment, without past or future, and I believe that it is possible for my artwork to communicate this state to the viewers.”
For this “communication” to occur it may be necessary for people to change the way they view works of art. It has become the norm these days for viewers to spend no more than a few seconds on a work of art as they hurry through a gallery or museum in their quest to see everything. Tour or audio guides tell them exactly how they should see, think and feel about a work, and, as a result, they see, think and feel nothing at all.
Art is a language, and for it to communicate their must be a “conversation,” and for that to happen the viewer must be a participant in it, not merely an observer. It’s not necessary for there to be recognizable objects or identifiable form in an artwork, but interaction between it and the viewer is absolutely essential.
Mark Rothko’s (1903-1970) abstract paintings have been known to make viewers cry without knowing why. Rothko said the reason why people respond to his paintings in this way is because he built emotion into his work and people were touched by it. So, this effect is the result of a silent conversation, one without words, taking place between the viewer and the art at an emotional level.
This is the same thing the realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was talking about when he said, “Paintings should act like a mirror so that when people view them what they respond to consciously or not is a sense of the depths of their own humanity and emotion.”
If we are to return to the classic ideal of art, we need to see that art is not just a form of entertainment. It’s not just for fun. It has a serious role to play in educating us about ourselves, the world we live in, and how to live in it.
Kuo’s paintings challenge the way art is viewed today by requiring viewers to take time to absorb what is in front of them, and to commit themselves to having a “conversation” with the work on some level that goes beyond the surface of the canvas.
Like Rothko’s and Hopper’s, the language of Kuo’s work, by being evocative but not definitive, can be interpreted in a myriad of ways depending on both the painting being viewed and the viewer’s state of mind at the moment of viewing. It is a living language which constantly changes.
Kuo says, “On first seeing my more abstract work, viewers might think, ‘What is this? I don’t see anything.’ However, if they spend time with the paintings they will discover that a strange phenomenon occurs – the paintings become animated and form materializes out of nowhere. One viewer who spent time with my work said, “Where at first there was only green, the next moment there was a sun rising through the trees. Where one moment there was only blue, the next there was an embryo, and what was just aqua-marine became a beating heart.
“I am a painter. I’m sensitive to color. That’s where my creativity starts. I get a feeling for a colour and it all develops from there. So, it doesn’t surprise me that viewers happen to see form materializing out of colour in my work. This effect may not have been achieved intentionally, but I’ve always believed that what a viewer brings to a painting is just as important as what a painter puts into it.
“All I ask is that the viewers also come to my work without thinking, without analyzing, without judging and without naming. If they can be with my art quietly and just be guided by its energy, they too may enter this state of perpetual newness. With this energy comes great feeling for everything. I believe this is the energy at the heart of artistic creation. From it, new ideas flower, new discoveries are made, life is redefined, a transition takes place, and we arrive at a completely new understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.”