Looking back on the contemporary art market before 2008, when the economy was buoyant, all kinds of art had their market. During that time artworks containing newer and bolder ideas could always find their buyers even though they were less aesthetic or lack of skills. However, after the financial tsunami, such a booming time in art market inevitably ended, when most art collectors became calmer and more discreet in choosing artworks.
When selecting a “right” artist to patronize, most galleries care more about the artist’s unique style, irreplaceably superb techniques, as well as his or her personal character and accomplishment. As for me, I usually judge artists not only from their personal style, but from their internal and external performance. Their internal performance can help us determine whether they will become good artists. And their external performance lies in the way how they transmit feelings to the viewers through their works. As I often said, “There are also ‘wu zi deng ke’ or ‘five fortunes’ in the art market—idea, background, inside, face, and place,” these five fortunes are exactly an artist’s overall performance. (Note: “Wu zi deng ke” is a traditional Chinese saying which means five fortunes everyone dreams of. If one can get five of them, his or her life is regarded fulfilled.)
To define a good artist, we have to observe the following facets as a whole: concept, philosophy, technology, aesthetics and materials. First of all, an artist’s style is important while a distinctive style is a surely sign of artistic maturity. Nevertheless, uniqueness doesn’t qualify any artist to enter the artistic sanctuary unless his or her style is strong enough to change the concept of a whole generation and reverse people’s views to appreciate art.
In other words, the profundity of the artist’s concept and philosophy is eventually the reflection of the artist’s talent.
When I first saw Low Kim Chit’s works, I was impressed by the rich literati spirit that had filled his paintings. Rather than copying from the ancient traditional ink works, he created a new style to express what he had wanted to explore. By doing so, he’s like an inventor—surmounting himself without following others’ steps. His ideas mainly come from his talent and make him generate new concepts, which is a kind of creativity. On one hand, Low’s concept is clear and complies with the trend of the times. On the other hand, although his concept tends to be minimal, a delicate and complicated feeling is hidden in it. Feeling itself is not only a sort of experience, but also reflects traditional literati’s personality, culture, taste and discipline. And in Low’s creation he is attempting to express ancient literati’s feeling when they were pursuing better selves in then situation.
Take two of his paintings—Insight and Value of bamboo–for example. Low hoped to use “bamboo” to express his feelings toward the ancient literati, but he was reluctant to adopt the traditional way to illustrate bamboos. To compromise, he drew shadow of bamboos, thus creating some realistic but abstract sense. Besides, he added a few bamboo leaves in deep gray, some of which were tinted with red, blue, and green. By using such a complex color background, Low attempted to reproduce the “rusty and mottled texture” of antique bronze mirrors in the Han Dynasty. While red, green and blue were combined with ink, they worked together perfectly and made the experience of ancient literati recur on Low’s pictures. Also, such combination of colors showed the artist’s taste and further reflected the dexterous performance in his concepts and philosophy.
Moreover, by looking at Low’s other two paintings—Dream of the Tang Dynasty and Code of conduct from the Song Dynasty, we can find how Low drew nutrients from the ancient times to generate new ideas. As in Code of conduct from the Song Dynasty, the artist believed that the concept of “justice” or “righteousness” originated in the Song Dynasty. Therefore, on the painting he wrote something resembling the Chinese character “zhong” (justice). And in the shadow above the character, Low filled it with continuously written calligraphy, creating a sense of engravings or steles. Nevertheless, Low’s calligraphy aims to record the feeling of that moment, not to preserve a historical record as seen in the traditional epigraph. The “justice”, which Low has been trying to reproduce, has been also one of the noblest characters that literati had pursued since the Song Dynasty. That is why Low used the color of the Song porcelain as the background. As for Dream of the Tang Dynasty, the artist drew an antique inkstone from the Tang Dynasty as a symbol. In the middle of the shaded part of the inkstone, Low also wrote down a long series of text to present his feelings of that moment. Once again, Low conveyed profound philosophy on a minimal picture.
In addition, a good artist must have a few superb techniques that no one else can replace. First, he or she must have excellent modeling ability. Take Reminiscence for instance. Low used the shadow of the feathers to perfectly express a sense of lightness before they landed, in order to echo with Bada Shanren’s bird on the top right of the picture. Second, he or she must have the composition ability. Low had been rather particular over the composition and he had valued the sense of balance on the picture, as shown in Triplet blessing. Low got the title from Qi Baishi’s same name painting, in which Qi drew three bamboo (zhu) leaves. Instead of using bamboos, Low drew mangosteens (shan zhu), a kind of Southeast Asian fruit, and also named this work Triplet blessing. Interestingly, the arrangement of the three mangosteens has some implications: the stalk of the mangosteen on the right pointing to the upper left of the sky aimed to present the composition of a traditional landscape; the mangosteen leave pointing to another mangosteen was designed to redirect viewers’ sight toward the lower left; and while Low adopted ink wash, realistic way, as well as engraving way at the same time to interpret mangosteens, and extended the mangosteen leaves to balance both the ink wash mangosteen on the top left and the engraved mangosteen on the left, he was reproducing the joy of inscription that literati used to pursue.
The ancients usually used homonyms as puns to express auspicious words. For example, a bat (bian fu) and a coin (tong qian) in a painting mean that a blessing (fu) is ahead (qian). As in Low’s Year II and Shadow, both paintings emphasized the simultaneous use of ink wash and inscription, which were two arts that ancient literati had valued in creation. What Low tried to imply was that literati should know how to compose, read, paint, and inscribe, regardless of the fact that fewer and fewer literati nowadays know how to inscribe or compose. In these two works, Low was likely to express his discontent in such a trend.
The third technique a good artist must have is the coloring talent. As for Low, he tends to use simple and elegant colors, and often spontaneously reflects his present state of mind with colors. Whenever he feels like paying regards to the Song Dynasty scholars, he would choose the color of the Song porcelain and later add some ink to make the color of the Song porcelain richer and deeper. Thus, the taste of literati could be recurred in the melody of color. Coloring is an innate talent that can be hardly acquired through trainings. Take Pinecone for instance. Complex colors in this painting are like precious jade long soaked in high mountains for over a thousand years. Such an elegant melody of color is the timeless beauty that every artist is pursuing. To sum up, in each of Low’s creation, he acts like a composer, transforming his own mind to a beautiful melody of color.
Finally, let’s talk about Low’s practical techniques. First, Low would take a piece of canvas, rub the ink on the engraving, and then print the ink painting on rice paper over and over again. By repetitiously doing so step by step as an old craftsman did in the ancient printmaking workshop, Low tries to create a sense of mottle and history on the picture. Besides, Low intends to overthrow the long-mistaken belief on the art market that oil paintings are more easily preserved than ink wash paintings.
When viewing Low’s paintings, we’d better employ our intuition to perceive the complex philosophy behind the minimalist form. Low not only borrows the techniques of Chinese ink wash to create a sense of western painting, but tries to describe the complexity of ink wash material on tranquil pictures. Furthermore, while creating metaphors to convey messages from the ancients to his contemporary, Low’s minimalist style and elegant taste are so distinctive and unique that one can hardly forget.
As Low has been stressing that a gentleman must be genuine and elegant, his paintings are also genuine. By weaving his virtue, personality, sense of color and composition in his creation, he creates a beautiful melody as a composer does and proves highly coordinated functions among his eyes, brain, heart and hands. And that is why his paintings always contain high-level taste, which has come from his life experience and certainly will go far beyond it.