Graham Kuo: reflected in one dewdrop
Edgar Degas once famously observed “Anyone can have talent when he is five-and-twenty; the thing is to have talent when you are fifty.”
Graham Kuo has now turned sixty and after having exhibited nationally and internationally for over thirty years demonstrates that he has lost none of the power, dynamism, intensity and conviction which characterised his early work.
Graham Kuo arrived in Australia as a fourteen year old from Canton in his native China and by the time he had turned twenty he was studying at an arts school in Sydney. It was while he was at art school that he struck up a life-long friendship with the artist Syd Ball and they shared an admiration for Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell, as well as for the amazing colourists, especially Henri Matisse. When he first started to exhibit in Australia in the mid-1970s, American style Abstraction Expressionism was still in vogue and his loosely structured floating colourful abstractions found a ready audience.
What is significant is that while Kuo embraced the general stylistic language of Abstract Expressionism, he arrived at his own language in art not through imitating a detail from a Willem de Kooning painting encountered in a glossy magazine, as was the case with a number of his peers, but through a personal journey which has a greater debt to Chinese Zen Buddhism and the tradition of calligraphic brush painting, than to the New York School and the European tachistes. The great Dōgen Zenji once wrote:
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
Many of Kuo’s paintings have that distilled quality of seeing the world from the inside, an internal reflection of a microcosm, while being swept by an inner energy, with loose calligraphic marks articulating their own space while they enclose suspended blocks of colour which are rich in texture. There is a great sense of breathing space and lyricism which is expressed with a sense of floating ease. A few years ago Kuo commented “My work has, for some time now, reflected a preoccupation with effecting an aesthetic reconciliation between a Western abstract sensibility with a uniquely Chinese form of calligraphic mark-making, through a visual language of gestural, lyrical abstraction, with colour and form assuming dominance over figuration or representation”.
In this most recent body of work, the bold and dynamic calligraphic brush marks, frequently in black laced with trace elements of other colours to suggest body, are suspended within an ambiguous space and contrast with areas of chromatic brilliance. It is as if the Buddhist idea of infinity, which is also an expression of the highest form of harmony, tranquillity and totality, is brought together with a more literal and externalised world of Western art. Space is a critical quality in this new work as we seem to float freely amongst different levels of possible perception. In a sense there is a complete confidence in Kuo’s mark making – intuitive, instinctive, but conscious of a huge cultural heritage of two cosmologies which he effortlessly attempts to bring together.
Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA
The Sir William Dobell Professor of Art History
Australian National University