As Clouds 《如雲》 – Ink Paintings of Irene Chou
Venue: iPreciation (誰先覺), 50 Cuscaden Road, HPL House #01-01, Singapore 249724
Private Preview: Sep 4, 2021 (Strictly By Invitation Only, Sign Up Below)
Exhibition Opens to Public: Sep 6 – Sep 25, 2021
iPreciation is delighted to present works of the late Hong Kong pioneer New Ink master Irene Chou (b. 1924, Shanghai, China – d. 2011) dated between 1994 to 2007. A leading figure of Hong Kong’s New Ink Painting Movement (between the 1960s and 1980s), Irene Chou was a prolific artist who has dedicated her life to narrate her universe and documented a lifetime of her musings and struggles with her art.
Born in Shanghai in 1924, Chou had a wide exposure to new ideas and beliefs during her childhood days. Under the influence of a calligrapher mother and editor father (who was also an amateur photographer and music lover), Chou grew up with a basic foundation in Chinese ink. Having received a westernised secondary school education, she was first formally introduced to western painting. As her intellectual parents have hoped, Chou excelled in her studies and got into the medical school of the prestigious St. John University in Shanghai. However, the lionhearted switched from medicine to major in economics and minor in sociology after two years in the course.
Chou graduated in 1946 and became a journalist for Peace Daily Shanghai, where she met her husband, Evan Yang (renowned Hong Kong director who was also known as Yi Wen). Due to the turbulences in post-war China, the couple left Shanghai in 1949, briefly staying in Taiwan, then settling down in Hong Kong in the same year where Yang became an editor of Hong Kong Times and Chou became a freelance writer.
Hong Kong marked the start of Chou’s spectacular artistic career. As fate would have it, she went fortune-telling with a few acquaintances one day and was told that she had an artist’s destiny. Later, while driving, her acquaintance casually remarked that she had a pair of artistic hands and should give drawing a try. With the help of a friend, she was introduced to and came under the tutelage of Lingnan Style artist Chao Shao-an (b. 1905 – d. 1998) in 1954. Under the guidance of Chao and being a diligent learner, Chou picked up the techniques quickly and conscientiously imitate (linmo) works of her mentor as well as Song and Yuan dynasty masters. In fact, at one point in time, she was so skilled that even Chao once mistook her piece as his own. As Chou found herself increasingly drawn to the tranquillity of painting, she was increasingly drawn to religion and philosophy, subjects which she saw a resemblance with art.
As such, Chou embarked on a self-discovery journey. As she accompanied her husband (who became a film director by then) to work, she often had her husband drop her off in the middle of nowhere in the outskirts of Hong Kong. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the deserted suburbs first went from an intimidating space to an environment Chou grew very comfortable with. With the lush landscapes, trees then became a major motif in Chou’s works, slowly evolving to become the buttress of her ink styles and have never departed from her oeuvre. Unknowingly, Chou gradually set herself free, moving away from the structured Lingnan style.
The 1960s saw Chou mature in style, shifting from traditional Chinese ink painting to contemporary creations. In 1966, Chou came under the tutelage of Lui Shou-Kwan (b. 1919 – d. 1975). A major figure in Chou’s artistic life, his ground-breaking theories of New Ink Painting inspired her to explore more expressive ink styles. At the encouragement of Lui, Chou delved deeper into the natural world and self-expression. Seeing the beauty of rustling leaves, flowing streams, swaying grass and more, she sought to weave these elements into her work into work. While Chou was experimenting with different mediums including oil, acrylic and watercolour, she eventually returned to ink, bringing with her a modern twist that gear towards abstraction and surrealism.
In 1968, Chou joined Lui’s initiative and formed In Tao (Yuan Dao) Art Association together with Wucius Wong and Tan Zhicheng. In the same year, Chou held her first-ever solo which had a sold-out success. She later participated in the 1969 Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in London. Chou quickly emerged as one of the most innovative painters in Hong Kong’s art scene.
Chou started off at great heights in the 1970s; she was part of the pivotal force to drive Hong Kong’s New Ink Movement, a founding member of Hong Kong’s leading art group, One Art Group and has certainly developed a style of her own. At this time, Chou began studying drum-shaped stone inscriptions and lines began to take centre stage in her oeuvre. These lines, bearing a resemblance to twigs and branches, are the most reduced form of her feelings and emotions, as well as a verbatim of life. At this stage, Chou’s hallmark spheres entered her space and later became a notable visual symbol of her inner mind.
However, the death of her beloved mentor, Lui Shou-Kwan in 1975, followed by that of her husband’s in 1978 was a huge blow to Chou. The darkest period of Chou’s life arrived. Swamped with grief, she channelled her overwhelming emotions into her works and later developed one of her most known ‘piled ink’ technique. As such, paintings after the mid-1970s were dominated by sorrow and anguish. She termed these paintings layered with slabs of black ink as ‘dark paintings’ where darkness became her loudest silent cry and bleak lines traced her anxiety and agony. However, along the same timeline, Chou also established a contrasting technique she termed ‘impact’. It was characterised by broad sweeps of black ink, yet with a significant amount of blank spaces to diffuse a bit of light-heartedness. The juxtaposition of two opposing emotions outlined this interchangeable shift of emotions in one’s course of life. It is precisely this close bond between Chou works and her emotions share that make works of this period especially powerful. They are a reminder that art heals and the significance of an artist’s life journey in their process of creation.
It was not until the 1980s that Chou slowly moved on from the passing of her mentor and husband, so do her dark paintings. Her ‘impact’ technique evolved into ‘impact structure strokes’. Derived from the ‘splashed ink’ technique of Chinese ink, combined with Zen and philosophical theories, her new iconic technique led to a wholly different style – one that is characterised by bold, dynamic strokes of ink splashed onto the wet xuan paper and exudes a heightened sense of vigour. As her children have migrated abroad, she was living alone and hence turned her house into a studio, where she threw herself entirely into painting, indulging in a realm free of complex relations and ongoing affairs. Breaking away from the melancholy of the 1970s, colours returned to her works.
After a stroke in 1991, Chou was moved to Brisbane, Australia. Chou began to regain some movement in 1993, but the atrophy of her cerebellum worsened with time. Despite being unable to move freely and facing difficulties with daily tasks, she created a series of large-scale works, some of which were permanently collected in public spaces in Malaysia, Singapore and Brisbane. Her 1990s works were otherworldly; the galaxies she created exclude a mystical charm beyond self-realisation. Imbued in them were multitudes of transcendental narratives waiting to be discovered. In 2007, she continued to paint smaller works due to space constraints during her stay in a nursing home. Chou aged with grace and passed away in 2011.
Chou’s works are collected widely by important private collectors, reputable public and private institutions, including the British Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Museum of Art, University Museum and Art Gallery of The University of Hong Kong (formerly known as Fung Ping Shan Museum), National Art Gallery (Manila), National Museum of History (Taipei), Queensland Art Gallery and Melbourne Raya Gallery (Australia).
BUTCHER, Lorena Sun, “I am My Art; My Paintings are Me”: An Exploration of the Relationship Between the Art and Life of Irene Chou”, Ph.D dissertation, Griffith University, 2013.
BUTCHER, Lorena Sun, CHENG, Grace, YEUNG, Kowk Fan, Margaret, CHAN, Kwan Lap, LEE, Chun Yi, eds. The Universe is My Heart, My Heart is The Universe: The Art of Irene Chou. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Centre, 2003.
Chinese Painting by Irene Chou. Hong Kong: Fung Ping Shan Museum, The University of Hong Kong, 1986.
Life is a many Splendoured thing — Irene Chou. Brisbane: Sacred Heart Centre, 2007.
MAUDSLEY, Catherine, ed. Collectors’ Choice: The Cosmic Vision of Zhou Luyun. Hong Kong: Casey Company Limited, 1995.
Paintings of Irene Chou Exhibition Catalogue. Hong Kong: Hanart TZ Gallery, 1989.
PANG, Yeewan Tina, ed. Universe of the Mind: Zhou Luyun (Irene Chou) a retrospective exhibition. Hong Kong: University Museum and Art Gallery – The University of Hong Kong, 2006.
PUN, Alicia and LU, Rose. The Biography of Irene Zhou Lu Yun. Brisbane: Bridge U & Co. Pty. Ltd, 2001.
The Universe is My Mind – Irene Chou. Hong Kong: Hanart TZ Gallery, 2000.
WONG, Joyce Heiting. A World Within: The Art and Inspiration of Irene Chou. Hong Kong: Asia Society Hong Kong Center, 2019.