The gallery is extremely grateful to Clare Henry for this essay which is published below.
Colour, Movement, Expression. Hock-Aun Teh's paintings are a wild convulsion of energy, their explosive tropical hues animated, agitated, then disciplined by a final calligraphic stroke. His paintings are unmissable, distinctive, his bi-lingual, oriental form of abstract expressionism a language all his own.
I have been writing about Hock-Aun for almost 40 years, ever since he began exhibiting at Edinburgh's memorable 369 Gallery. In the early 1970s while he was studying at Glasgow School of Art, their first ever Chinese graduate, I was occupied by 2 small children. But very soon I could hardly fail to notice this wild dynamo, a whirling dervish in paint with his black belt karate and Tae Kwon Do, Tukido martial arts, a coiled spring of total commitment, energy and concentration, who soon made his name in Scotland, London and Chicago, selling out his work at the 1983 Chicago Art Fair. In 1986 I selected him for the seminal Edinburgh Festival Exhibition, SCOTTISH ART TODAY: ARTISTS AT WORK with 12 artists scattered all over the city. Hock Aun was located at Edinburgh College of Art where I took the late Sean Connery to meet him!
Since 2000 we have both travelled far, me to New York as art critic for the Financial Times, Hock-Aun to China, where he made a huge 17-metre-high, 21-ton sculpture at the Yidong Foundry for the City of Yantai. It's the biggest foundry in all China, he tells me, with 400 workers creating 100 pieces of public sculpture for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, including Hock Aun’s piece for the Birdnest Stadium!
Hock-Aun was there for 2 months. "I needed to supervise while they fabricated my piece, in order to check and to tweak it. I like to do big things, the higher the better, but I wanted to make it dance in the air," he explains, his hands alive with clear cut, intense impassioned gesture. Thirty-five years ago, I wrote, "Cheerful physical attack plays a large part in his raison d'etre both as a painter, a Black Belt Sixth Dan and as a person. Controlling this very physical aspect of his persona is the principle of Zen Buddhism." All as true today as back then.
His new works for this show at Patrick Davies Contemporary Art, six on paper, six on canvas, epitomise his favourite combination of colour, control and emotion. "Colour reveals the fundamental soul in my work, lines are my spirit and energy," he says. The exhibition title is Liu Liu: Six and Six. "In Chinese Liu Liu means the great flow of luck, (6 = luck, 8 = fortune, 9 = longevity) which we all need during this difficult time."
Hock-Aun's discipline comes from his childhood at home in his Malaysian village where he learned the tough but correct way to write Chinese characters i.e. with his whole arm, and was then apprenticed to a traditional Chinese art master who taught the rigorous classical Chinese technique of a brush loaded with ink pigment. All was in watercolour and Chinese ink on paper. “I had never seen oil or canvas before I came to Britain. I was amazed. I didn't know what to do with it!"
Combining this age-old expressive calligraphy with western colours and acrylic materials is the basis of his fast, very physical method. He paints in one session, as calligraphers do, to communicate the physical expression of feelings, essence, spirit, memories and thoughts onto his characteristic torn edged paper or canvas. "It's like a battle" he explains.
The power of positive thinking coupled with research has taken him on strenuous journeys across the Gobi Desert, through inner Mongolia, to the rainforest of Borneo, to India and the Bengal tigers, Cambodia, Java, Indonesia, the Golden Triangle of Northern Thailand, even the North Pole - but none could ever be as difficult as coming from the rural jungle of Malaysia to Glasgow, Scotland in 1970.
Why Glasgow? He had been offered a post-graduate place in Taiwan when the letter arrived from Glasgow. Needless to say the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh was well represented in Malaysian art libraries. Hock-Aun had even met a young Glaswegian soldier who praised Glasgow School of Art. Such are the twists of fate that four years later he graduated and settled down to live and work in Scotland. He recognises that it suits him. "If I had stayed in Malaysia I would be painting tight elegant oriental trees, reeds and flowers. I would never have had the opportunity to develop a contemporary style." So east meets west as he enjoys the best of both worlds between the UK and Malaysia - Covid permitting.
He told me, "Memories of travels and rituals have trumped the perilousness of Covid. Painting everyday has been a positive emotional release of energy. If you are a creative artist, you know how to tap the inner energy of your mind. Nothing in this wide world can constrain the creative mind of an artist or stop him working."
CLARE HENRY, FRSA
Clare is a British art critic, columnist, exhibition curator and printmaker based in Scotland and New York. She wrote for the Herald as chief art critic from 1980-2000 when she remarried, leaving Glasgow for New York where she reviewed for the Financial Times. In 1990 she curated Scotland at the Venice Biennale. Her 30 year archive of original drafts are at the Glasgow School of Art.