Readers might remember artist Lam Tian-xing from the Instant Reflection: Hong Kong Artists and Sketches exhibition at Sun Museum. This time, he is displaying a series of his Chinese ink quick sketches titled Yuanyang Rice Terraces, Yunnan, done in the form of twisted, monochrome lines.
The artworks combine the freehand charm of traditional Chinese ink painting with wild traces of Western expressionism. For example, when illustrating the terraced rice fields, Lam said he got more and more excited when painting them, and began to continuously extend the fields from his imagination.
Taking a look at his new paintings of calamus plants – in which he uses blazing colors that are so vibrant they seem to burst out of the bright white wall – it is evident that, unlike most reserved Chinese painters, Lam is an unabashed romantic.
“Cubism and expressionism affected me a lot, and I also like fauvism,” Lam said at the Illuminati Fine Art Gallery in Central, where his solo exhibition, Anthem of Calamus, is running until September 19.
Lam first immigrated to Hong Kong from the mainland in the 1980s. But he didn’t know whether he could prosper in his career by staying here, as the city didn’t have much of an artistic atmosphere at that time.
On the other hand, during that period, the mainland was experiencing its most ferment period on campuses since the country’s establishment. So Lam went to Beijing to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1989. “Everyone wanted to create their own Chinese ink painting styles, and I was one of them,” Lam said.
Chinese ink painting had remained unchanged in composition and color use since the Yuan dynasty, so Lam wanted to integrate the composition and colors of Western art into his ink paintings.
Lam is famous for painting lotuses, a plant he studied for more than a decade. He became fascinated with lotuses during the 2003 SARS outbreak, as the perennial is heavily symbolic in Chinese tradition and Buddhist teachings, where it is associated with mercy and resilience.
The starting point of the new series is somewhat similar to that of the lotus series.
In Chinese culture, the calamus is a symbol of healing, as it was initially used as a spiritual grass to prevent sickness and evict demons.
Moreover, in ancient times, when scholars studied at night, a pot of calamus was often placed nearby, imbuing the plant with a poetic quality.
The artist’s focus on this plant in his new series acts as his blessing and support for Hong Kong and other regions during the pandemic.
While most Chinese ink paintings of calamus typically depict a pot of calamus on a blank canvas alongside a poem, Lam’s works are different. He places the plant in nature and characterizes it through colors, light and shadow and composition.
In some paintings, the plant is depicted in orange and magenta to express positive energy. In others, dense drops of blue are painted in the background to represent a sense of healing or depression. Occasionally, black is also set against stormy gray.
Though the artist has not painted any lotuses in the two years of creating the calamus series, his passion for it can still be seen.
Admire depicts calamus flowers in full bloom. Lam filled the paper with bold red, brown and gray, layering crisscrossing lines on top to represent swaying reeds. In the center, a single white lotus is clearly visible.
The black-and-white Mystic Thought depicts reeds growing in all directions at unique and abstract angles. The dense foliage dominates the frame, yet an opening peeps through the center to offer a space for healing and discovery.
Shining Glory, inspired by the divinity of calamus, eliminates the figurative elements of the plant. The intuitive brushstrokes and dancing lines, all in gold, are “a subtle yet profound celebration of life,” with gold representing eternity, said Lam.
Lam’s latest painting for the exhibition, Mountains, was completed in March, just as the second wave of Covid-19 hit Hong Kong. Lam posted the blueish abstract painting on social media around Qingming Festival and said that from the audience’s reponses, he felt that they understood the sadness, healing and prayers behind the work.
“The calamus is like a sword,” he said. “When I’m painting, I feel like I’m wielding a sword. It will dispel the fear, heal the people and then everything will get better.”
(This article was published at The Standard on August 14, 2020: Weekend Glitz: Flower power )