Zoë Chan on Chinese Canadian artist Anna Wong
It is quite common for a Chinese painter to say, not that he is “painting a painting” but “writing a painting.”1 —T.C. LAI
[D]rawing is by definition in a state of flux—as close as it can be to the life of language.2
In Chinese visual culture, traditions of mark-making in calligraphy and brush painting are profoundly interconnected: 3 the written word embedded in art and art embedded in the written word. Indeed, Chinese calligraphy has been described as “China’s basic aesthetics” 4 and “the matrix of Chinese painting.” 5 As art historian Wen C. Fong suggests, at a fundamental level both image and script are “graphic signs (tuzai, pictorial carriers) that express meanings.” 6 Written Chinese can thus be understood as a series of pictures that function accumulatively. Chinese calligraphy and brush painting share more in common, including, for example, the use of a pliable, pointed brush; the compositional yin-yang relation- ship between positive and negative space; the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student; and the gesturality behind the creation of line, “[k]nown as ‘the trace of the brush’ (biji), an extension of the artist’s bodily presence.” 7
The notion of mark-making as an embodied mode for language and artistic expression alike resonates unexpectedly with perspectives on drawing expressed in a decidedly different cultural context—a conversation between British contemporary artist Avis Newman and Dutch curator and former director of The Drawing Center in New York, Catherine de Zegher. Describing drawing as a kind of embodied translation of the mind’s inner workings, Newman portrays the process as “the materialization of a continually mutable process, the movements, rhythms and partially comprehended ruminations of the mind: the operations of thought.” 8 De Zegher expands on Newman’s notion of drawing: “[Y]ou know that if you do not touch the page you will not participate in language, and if you do touch it, you will. And through partaking you come into being as you come into language.” 9 Within this contemporary Euro-American frame of reference, drawing is perceived as a concretization of thinking, writing, speaking—an act of individual authorship.
These intersections of art-making and writing— drawing and language—serve as illuminating points of entry into the underappreciated oeuvre of the Vancouver-born Anna Wong, an independent-minded Chinese-Canadian woman who emerged as an artist in the 1960s. 10 Her corpus displays an array of influences: her studies in Chinese brush painting in Hong Kong in the late 1950s, her post-secondary education at the Vancouver School of Art (VSA) in the 1960s, her time teaching printmaking at New York’s prestigious Pratt Graphics Center from 1967 to 1986 and her travels to China in the late 1970s and 1980s. A cursory survey of some of the books in her studio hints at the cosmopolitan nature of her interests: The Art of Chinese Landscape Painting, Jasper Johns: A Print Retrospective, Matisse: The Collection of the Museum of the Modern Art, The Great Statuary of China, The Drawings of Roy Lichtenstein, The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keefe, The Hokusai Sketchbooks, Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual, Art and History of Florence.
Expanding from curator Katherine Stout’s idea of drawing as “an exceptionally flexible tool for artists seeking to develop a new language,” 11 I will examine three examples from Wong’s oeuvre: her early brush painting studies (1957–1958), her abstract drawings (1966) and her prints of plant life (1980). Works from these three periods reveal significant moments of exploration and experimentation in Wong’s art practice, as she moves from representation to abstraction and back again, suggesting a persistent pursuit for an artistic language that can adequately express her evolving subjectivity as she changes social, cultural and geographic contexts and encounters fresh influences. In discussing her work, I use the term “drawing” as it has been defined since the 1960s, signifying mark-making in a broad sense: as Stout puts it, the creation of “an autonomous line, whatever the material” 12 and whatever the medium.
Wong took a hiatus from her work as a tailor in the family business to visit Hong Kong from 1957 to 1958. During this year abroad, she studied brush painting under the tutorship of the distinguished artist and teacher Zhao Shao’ang—a second-generation member of the Lingnan School of Painting.13 Judging from her paintings of this period, Wong was a talented student, despite coming relatively late to the practice at the age of twenty-seven. She was clearly skilled with her brush, rendering precise, fine lines and soft washes of colour. Featuring delicate close-ups of insects with flowers or flowering branches, her subject matter adheres to the nature-based repertoire of imagery conventionally found in Chinese brush painting. Wong’s studies are rendered predominantly in black ink with rich bursts of colour; compositionally, they embody the yin-yang dualism of light and dark. Never filling the entire sheet, minimal lines and clusters of colour appear to almost float on a white background. 14
At this early stage of her artistic development, Wong’s style of painting is shaped by the lessons of her teacher, revealing what historian Wen C. Fong identifies as the traditional transmission of teachings through an “ancient cultural paradigm of genealogy.” 15 Fong writes: “The style of a paradigmatic master may be considered a kind of DNA imprint—along with its genetic mutability—from which all subsequent idioms emerge.” 16 He argues that this paradigm leads to a “fractal, contextual personhood” 17—a concept he borrows from anthropologist Alfred Gell, 18 wherein the traces of a master’s teachings are enunciated in the work of his students, even generations later. In this way, present-day artists can reanimate teachings from the past through the lens of their practices.
On her return to Canada, Wong took evening and weekend classes at the VSA before committing to full-time studies from 1962 to 1966. Her professors included Roy Kiyooka, Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith—artists known for their interest in abstraction and experimentation with painting.19 Clearly influenced by her studies at VSA, 20 Wong’s approach to art-making shifts dramatically in two untitled series of ink drawings from 1966. In these works, she moves away from depicting details of the natural world toward experiments in abstraction. The desire to tap into one’s unconscious or to relinquish intellectual control as a way of generating work—a modus operandi famously undergirding the abstract expressionist movement—reverberates in a note jotted in one of Wong’s sketchbooks regarding her approach to art-making over the years:
Whatever I’ve used & whatever I’ve done, the method was always a collaboration with materials [rather] than any kind of conscious manipulation & control—a matter of just accepting whatever happens, accepting all the elements from the outside & then trying to work with them as a sort of free collaboration. 21
In one strikingly bold series, Wong reconceives the gesturality of Chinese brush painting to considerably different effect, calling to mind Paul Klee’s description of drawing as “taking a line for a walk.” Curving strokes and dots in black, orange and brown move vigorously across the page, generating a loose, whirling, even chaotic energy. Lighthearted and lyrical in tone, they suggest playful, even trippy reconfigurations of various language systems: Chinese characters and the Roman alphabet, musical notation and choreographic scores, punctuation and shorthand symbols, Morse code and Braille.
In a second series from 1966, Wong experiments with cross-hatching. This technique, which uses intersecting vertical and horizontal lines to create a sense of three-dimensionality and tonal variations between light and shadow, is often found in representational drawings, particularly in European printmaking—Dürer’s woodcuts are eminent examples. Wong takes this technique in a different direction, employing it to create a strong sense of texture in her abstract drawings. The layered drawings feature blocky cross-hatching as well as faint traces of grids overlaid onto swirling vortexes of curvilinear marks. At times, these softer lines are almost obliterated by repetitive cross-hatching. Obsessive in tone, the roughly rendered drawings loosely evoke Cubist paintings and topographical maps, undomesticated landscapes and weather charts.
Given Wong’s playful referencing of a wide range of communication systems and appropriation of artistic styles in these two series, it is illuminating to consider them through the lens of M.M. Bakhtin’s writings on language. He describes language as being inherently “heteroglot from top to bottom,” comprising contradictory elements from both the past and present, social spheres, schools of thought, contexts and so on. 22 Moreover, languages are “dialogical,” existing in relation to each other; that is to say they “do not exclude each other, but rather intersect with each other in many different ways.” 23 According to Bakhtin, language with its inherent diversity “becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention.” 24 Wong’s pleasure in exploring and integrating a dialogical diversity of aesthetic languages into her work is evident in these dynamic series.
She gleans from her varied education and interests to generate her own specific hybrid visual vernacular in these series. While her protean drawings from the 1960s can be linked to the abstract expressionist vein as articulated by such artists as Jasper Johns, Franz Kline, Henri Michaux, Joan Mitchell, Janet Sobel and Cy Twombly, 25 they extend equally from Chinese brush stroke painting conventions, particularly in terms of her gestural mark-making and experimentation with yin-yang dualities—light and dark, positive and negative space.
Her mutable hybrid style from this period moves far beyond the controlled compositions of her brush stroke paintings, and becomes audaciously instinctive in feeling. Rather than being constrained to a single work, the seriality of these drawings suggests a refusal to be contained; that is to say, each series could potentially continue to grow and be reconfigured an infinite number of times within stylistic visual parameters established by Wong. Locating this loose attitude toward drawing as a phenomenon dating back to the 1960s, curator Katharine Stout writes that “as completeness and the finished object became less of an imperative than process and the ephemeral, the provisional qualities of drawing were recognised as more positive assets.” 25 Wong’s drawings from this period can be seen as precursors to the rambling approaches of contemporary international and Canadian artists—Arturo Herrera, Julie Mehrutu, Lucie Chan, Jim Holyoak and Matt Shane, Kim Moodie, Avis Newman, Ed Pien and Éric Simon—who embrace drawing as a practice “unrestricted by the requirement to be finished,” as artist and curator Katie Belcher observes. 27
Wong continued to work in series throughout her career, specializing in printmaking from the 1960s onward. In 1980, she revisits the subject of nature in a series of lithographs featuring different types of foliage. Rather than drawing onto the etching surface, she places each plant directly upon it. 28 Echoing compositionally the play between positive and negative space of her early brush painting studies, as well as a Modernist focus on form (for example, Henri Matisse’s famous cut-outs), each print showcases the specificity of a particular type of leaf: soft yet spiky pine needles, circular forms of aspen leaves, jagged leaves of dandelions. Within Chinese brush painting conventions, the artist does not necessarily draw from nature directly, instead often borrowing from a pre-established repertoire—a cherry blossom branch for instance—chosen for its codified symbolic significance. In these lithographs, however, each plant stands squarely for itself, celebrated for its individual form rather than its cultural or social value; be they pine branches or weeds, Wong gives them the same formally economical treatment. With a warm palette of layered colours, these prints are spare and serene with none of the buzzing frenetic energy of her abstract drawings from the 1960s or the aestheticized ornamentality of her early brush painting studies. In their apparent straightforward simplicity, they speak without the mediating veil of Chinese brush painting conventions or abstraction. The stripped-down style of this series suggests Wong’s self-assuredness as an artist during this period; indeed, in an interview during the 1980s, she declared: “I’m confident that whatever I sign now is of a certain calibre.” 29
Over a long career, Wong’s practice continued to evolve. In later years, she worked in printmaking, but also in collage and textiles, often making direct reference in her work to her Chinese-Canadian upbringing, her family and her many trips to China in the post-Mao era. 30 This heterogeneity at different stages of her practice due to her continued experimentation with process, mark-making, style and medium—her commitment to the drawing of the “autonomous line,” as Katharine Stout might say— makes it challenging to pin Anna Wong’s practice to a single movement or aesthetic. Rather than settling into a comfortable stylistic stasis, Wong’s restless, fluctuating approach to drawing reflects her own openness to change and opportunity, as well as her own peripatetic life—including shifts in career and cultural context thanks to training and travel—where she moved from Vancouver to Hong Kong to New York and back again to British Columbia. In this light, it is useful to return to the notions of mark-making touched on at the beginning of this essay, where drawing is understood as the embodied processes of language and thought. Through some five decades of art-making, Wong revisited and recast lessons learned from Chinese brush painting traditions as well as iterations of abstraction, in her diverse efforts to think through and communicate her own specific subjectivity through the authorship of an ever-changing hybrid visual language.
1 T.C. Lai, Chinese Painting (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1992), 206-207.
2 Newman quoted in Catherine de Zegher, ed. The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act (London: Tate Publishing & New York: The Drawing Center, 2003), 71.
3 This intermingling of writing and painting, language and image is equally enunciated in other traditions, both past and present: Egyptian hiero- glyphics, Arabic calligraphy, medieval illuminated manuscripts, graffiti tags and so on.
4 Ch’en Chih-Mai, Chinese Calligraphers and their Art (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1966), 197.
5 Wen C. Fong, Art as History: Calligraphy and Painting as One (Princeton: P.Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Center for East Asian Art & Princeton University Press, 2014), 274.
6 Fong 34.
7 Fong 274.
8 Newman quoted in de Zegher 67.
9 De Zegher 237.
10 In the archival project Chinatown Modern (2003), artist Steven Tong examines “the lack of public recognition of Asian Canadian artists who emerged in Vancouver during the 1960s and 1970s.” Chinatown Modern identifies Anna Wong as an insufficiently recognized artist of the era. http://centrea.org/2002/07/chinatown-modern. Website consulted on February 10, 2018.
11 Katharine Stout, Contemporary Drawing from the 1960s to Now (London: Tate Publishing, 2014), 9.
12 Stout 14.
13 The Lingnan School of Painting first emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century in southern China; its influence later spread to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Known for revitalising brush painting of the era, the Lingnan School’s founding members drew from Japanese and European artistic techniques and aesthetics of the period and mixed these with Chinese artistic traditions. Its founding members shared a stylistic approach “characterized by “power, strength and ‘free splashing of the ink.’” Zhang Anzhi, A History of Chinese Painting, tr. Dun J. Li (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2002), 224. See also Barry Till, The Art of Chao Shao-an: A Lingnan Master (Victoria: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1988), n.p.
14 Chinese brush painting composition traditionally uses blank space to “enable the main subject matter to stand out and provide the viewer with leeway to imagine and wonder.” Anzhi, 5.
15 Fong 34.
17 Fong 36.
18 See Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).
19 See Dennis Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting, 2nd ed., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 284-289.
20 Wong’s work at this stage in her career shares, in particular, parallels with fellow Vancouver Art School alumna and well-known artist Ann Kipling, though their line-making is quite different in quality.
21 Excerpted quote from an undated sketchbook of Anna Wong’s. I have added minimal punctuation for legibility.
22 M.M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 291.
24 Bakhtin 293.
25 The appropriation of the aesthetics—composition, use of colour, gestural mark-making—of Asian visual cultures percolates through many avant- garde European and North American artistic movements: Impressionism, Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and so on. The Guggenheim Museum recently explored this phenomenon in The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860–1989 (2009).
26 Stout 13.
27 Katie Belcher, “Drawing in the Expanded Field,” Somewhere Along the Line (Halifax: MSVU Art Gallery, 2009), 7.
28 Though very different in subject matter and tone, they recall Betty Goodwin’s etchings of actual items of clothing from the late 1960s and 1970s. See Rosemarie L. Tovell, The Prints of Betty Goodwin (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2002).
29 “Profile. Anna Wong,” Chop 4, no. 8 (March 1988), 7.
30 See, for example, her serigraph series The Great Wall, c. 1982 (p. 75–77), not discussed here due to space constraints.