Better known as “Frog King”, Hong Kong artist Kwok Mang Ho celebrates his 70th birthday with a retrospective.
Covering his oeuvre from the 1970s to the present, “Frog King Turns 70” looks at his explorations with ink art. Art Radar profiles the artist as the exhibition comes to a close on 25 November 2017 at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery.
My life, together with daily life and artistic creation, is one continuous art form. I have to continue to find some material/Frog king motif. Art is life and life is art. Continuum. Art is “just do it”; I have been saying the phrase since 1995 to now. Heal the world, bring into it harmony and happiness and also introduce Frogtopia. Happy new dimension. — Frog King
With about 50 works on show, “Frog King Turns 70: Experiments in Ink since the 1970s” offers a panoramic insight into Hong Kong artist Frog King‘s practice in ink. Running until 25 November at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Hong Kong, the exhibition brings together Frog King’s calligraphic paintings, executed over the years. Known as one of the pioneer figures of contemporary conceptual art in Hong Kong, Frog King’s artistic practice spans mixed media installations, graffiti and street art, performance and ink.
He is, perhaps, best known internationally for his exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale (2011), where the Hong Kong Pavilion held a solo exhibition of his work entitled “Frogtopia-Hongkorucopia”, which transformed the space of the Hong Kong pavilion into a visual extravaganza of curious installations made out of vernacular, found objects. A vertiable jumble consisting of calligraphy, graffiti, video work and other interactive art elements, the installations were also accompanied by a digital slideshow of images of performances by Japanese-American choreographer and artist Eiko Otake.
Often hailed for his inventiveness in creating visual languages that connect both Eastern and Western art philosophies, the beginnings of Frog King actually lay in traditional ink painting. He began painting under the tutelage of Hong Kong ink master Lui Shou-Kwan in the 1960s; eventually, he enrolled in the Fine Art programmes in the Institute of Education in Hong Kong. In what was eventually hailed as a significant crossover period for his art, he joined the Art Students League of New York. Meeting artists such as Nam June Paik, John Cage and other members of the Fluxus Movement reportedly allowed him to push the boundaries of artistic practice further – in 1995, he returned to Hong Kong, where he has continued to experiment with his chosen media of installation, ink and performance art.
“Frog King Turns 70” shines the focus firmly on the roots of Kwok Mang Ho’s artistic journey: ink. The artist makes no bones about the impression that his first teacher, Lui Shou-Kwan, made upon him. In many ways, Lui’s philosophy shaped a new generation of ink painters; he was known as one of the founding figures of the New Ink Painting Movement, which combined the use of calligraphic ink with broad strokes, large swathes of colour, and an abstract visual language. For Kwow Mang Ho, Lui is credited with imbuing an open-mindedness to different cultures and artistic traditions, whilst still retaining a rootedness in Chinese art and its approaches. The ink art of Frog King is somewhat divergent from that of his master, though no different in spirit: taking reference from graffiti art, the works on view are comprised of jagged, wild calligraphic characters, renditions of landscape-like images, interspersed with English slogans scrawled across the canvas. In many ways, the influence of New York’s street culture shines through in his work: there are some visual parallels with that of contemporary street and neo-Expressionist artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Earlier works on show consist of a series entitled Fire Painting. Executed on canvases made up of layers of Chinese lantern paper, kite paper, burnt paper and lacquer, the Fire Paintings focus on singular Mandarin terms written over their surfaces. The strokes are bold and strong, bringing a heightened sense of energy to the works. Perhaps one of the most enigmatic works from the series is that of Fire Painting, Honesty (1978); the Mandarin character for “honesty” is scribbled over the canvas, a stark statement standing out against the brown of the burnt paper. Fire Painting, Red Spring (1976) is an interesting experiment in colour and calligraphic drawing. With half of the character for “spring” done in red, framed against soft brushes of ink, the picture combines the characteristic dynamism of his works with a certain delicacy.
The majority of the exhibition focuses on the 1990s, and recent works done by Frog King. Interestingly, the later works in the exhibition are characterised by a starker, more abstract approach to calligraphy. A large number of the works within this period appear to favour a particular colour palette of red and black, with other colours appearing at sparse intervals. Stronger references to street art, as well as the “Frog King” persona also begin to emerge in the ink works – Frog on Lilies (1999), for example, depicts a rather abstract rendition of a smiling frog face, perched atop what appear to be red-and-black lily pads.
In the same vein, Heavenly Spring (1999) re-use the same characteristic visual references to his depictions of frogs’ eyes, coupling them with Mandarin characters executed in a harsher style. Although the affinity to Mandarin remains, the stylistic development of his calligraphy and pictorial representation is evident; incorporating writing and imagery together in a certain doodle-like fashion, the art of Frog King found its place in a certain cosmopolitanism that emerged out of his education in New York City. Interestingly, some of the works also begin to carry a red stamp with the emblem “H.K. Museum of Art KWOK” – an interesting look into the self-archiving and branding processes of the artist himself.
Art is Frog (2015) continues to carry much of the visual vocabulary that Frog King developed in the 1990s; the idiosyncratic Frog King emblem (with its two eyes and smiling mouth) is peppered across the canvas, swimming in a midst of scrawl-like doodles, English slogans and Mandarin characters. Indeed, the recent paintings of Frog King retain much of the iconography seen in the paintings of the 1990s; however, the works now become more rambunctious, with the same doodle-like etchings spreading across the whole of the surface. Art Born in Pain (2017) consists of black, gold and grey ink strokes spread across the paper in a pattern not unlike that of Mondrian’s early tree works. The painting resembles a wild forest, filled with thorns and brambles that form an insurmountable barrier.
“Frog King Turns 70” is a celebration of the avant-garde creativity that comes through in the pioneering style of the artist. Marrying different styles, references and his own personal brand in his art, the ink experiments of the artist are a telling look into the burgeoning avant-garde movement in Hong Kong that tried to find its footing during the early 1960s. Promoting a spirit of experimentation, innovation and creativity, the exhibition provides an interesting look into the art of one of Hong Kong’s pioneering contemporary artists. On speaking about what will come next for Frog King, the artist stated that he would be
working on the Frog King Museum with Frog Queen. It will take time to find the location, concept, ideas. The museum can take certain conceptual directions; it could be a creative mobile museum, or it can be site specific, Organising projects and documenting and archiving works, it is open to “Yum dimension” and nothing is impossible.
“Frog King Turns 70, Experiments in Ink Since the 1970s” is on view from 25 September to 25 November 2017 at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, G/F, 10 Chancery Lane, SoHo, Central, Hong Kong.
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