The paintings of Hong Kong artist, Chris Huen Sin Kan, give lyrical form to the trivial moments of everyday life. Delicately executed, his large-scale canvases seem to breathe with life: depicting his wife and son, their pet dogs and pot plants in and around their home.
Huen explains his style of painting as being a contemporary version of en plein air — but one that is usually conducted indoors. Each painting depicts a moment in time: Huen works in stages on each canvas, layering his brush strokes until a point where he feels a synthesis of feeling between the painting and the moment it seeks to represent. Painting only what he sees, Huen explains that “the essence of existence should not be constructed nor constricted by conventions that are the result of a collective cognition.” To capture the true nature of life, he avoids painting scenes of history, religion, or politics — offering instead a personal and idiosyncratic worldview from his home in Hong Kong. In the interview that follows, we spoke to Huen about his observational practice and the intimacy that necessitates it.
“The essence of existence should not be constructed nor constricted by conventions that are the result of a collective cognition.”
You create your paintings without prior sketches; could you explain this process, and the reason behind it?
Usually, I will start with a few brush strokes on a blank canvas with a very rough idea of some experiences that come to my life repeatedly, and then I will force myself to stop and just look at the strokes I have made. After looking at the stroke, I will add more strokes according to the outcome of my previous decision. I repeat this process until the image appears to be closer to the experience I once had. By doing that, the creation process becomes a real-time observation, almost like the experience of revisiting the moment I was in. Because the nature of this process takes time, I will allow myself to put in different changes of thought between each stop, so it also corresponds to the idea of our constantly changing surroundings. I want my paintings to finally show to me, and also to the audience, that it was never the scenery itself but our understanding of the scenery, and the way we perceive it.
To me, a painting represents not a scene, or an object itself, but the experience of looking at it. When I’m doing a painting, I’m actually looking into the picture and trying to find a combination which represents the sensation of looking at things in real life. Working without prior sketches allows me to react to real-time occurrences — not a process of constructing a representation of a carefully planned conclusion.
Your work seems intensely observational, you paint moments from your life that revolve around a small cast of characters: your wife, your son, and your dogs. How do you decide which moments to paint?
I think part of it is about intimacy. Only the characters and places that surround me the entire time allow me to observe deeply the different little things and the qualityin them. And sooner or later they become a most comfortable access point for me to understand how I perceive the things I see.
Do you ever want to depict the things that you don’t see?
It is a really tricky idea in my point of view. I think painting is directly related to our sight. And I also emphasize the imagery part over the material part of painting in my practice. A drawing or a painting reflects one’s understanding of things. So, theoretically, anything we can draw must be something we have seen. It might just appear differently, depending on different types of understanding. And if we are talking about drawing something imaginary, I also believe it comes from a mixture of something we have seen before.
Your home features greatly in your work, how does where you live influence the art that you create?
I think it is my environment and my routine that influence my practice. My work is heavily dependent on observation. I have noticed that an external change of space will affect my art. Also, my routine changes create an internal change in my art. For example, I have moved to a new home recently, so I don’t work and live in the same place anymore. Usually, I will work in the daytime and come home after dark. I noticed that most of my time observing my life was at night in this period. And I have more desire to depict things at night as well. And my idea of how to present the experience of seeing light also slowly changed.
“My work is heavily dependent on observation. I have noticed that an external change of space will affect my art.”
All images © Chris Huen Sin Kan