heading article1s autonomy of colour

Professor Hermann-Josef Kuhna has impressed me as a colour constructivist of tremendous discipline. In Kuhna’s paintings, colour structure formed the nucleus of pictorial organisation. The pictorial order was created by tiny colour dots or patches which evolved and expanded endlessly in all his paintings. Manfred Schneckenburger has made remarks on Kuhna’s paintings that "coIour-botch is an artistic archetype that precedes all meaning, illusion, composition". I personally find the colour dots or patches in Kuhna’s paintings manifest ideas, meanings, imaginations and orders.

During the year 1999, I was invited by Kuhna to stay in his apartment cum studio for a few days. During that short stay, I have gained an in-depth understanding of his works as well as having the opportunity to see how he worked in studio. Last October, he visited Malaysia again mainly to paint and organise his one-man show at the National Art Gallery. I had the opportunity to see how he began with landscape or scenery and worked towards pure colour abstraction. He showed me dozens of sketches in ink, pencil and watercolour ranging from representational, analytical to abstract compositions all based on landscapes. I was impressed by his indulgence in such a process of refining his final abstract compositions.

He began with sketches in representation and worked through the process of simplification and reduction. He transformed all visual elements of shapes, forms, colours and lines into an ocean of colour dots and patches. All the dots or patches were neatly laid and remained intact. He systematically (and affectionally) distributed on the blank canvas these colour dots or patches a layer at a time, batch after batch through juxtaposition, and then superimposing or overlappping until the entire painting was constructed. When this process was completed, a new visual reality emerged like a galaxy of colours - colours assert their strength miraculously.

The colour dots or patches moving swiftly as the spectators' eyes travelling around his paintings. Visual vibration begins to occur when the spectators focused on a certain spot or area. The configuration become kinetic and full of visual impact.Kuhna’s works are fascintating as his colours radiate and shine. The colour dots interacting with one another have produced a shimmering effect of optical illusion. This phenomenon prevails in his paintings which often led people to associate with the works of Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely. But Kuhna’s paintings stand out distinctively as they derived from different sources, manifested different meanings and provided different visual sensation.

There exist tremendous visual movements in Kuhna’s paintings. Such movements activate mood and sensation as the viewer’s eyes travel horizontally, vertically or any direction on his works. One tends to float and surfing momentarily in the colour field. This thrill is often possible in Kuhna’s works. His works confirmed the status of colour autonomy. It would not be inappropriate to refer Kuhna’s works as colour field paintings and linked with the colour field paintings of the 70’s. However, many colour field painters have in-corporated brush marks, strokes, staining and even accidental effects into their works fortuitously (H. Frankenthaler, J. Olitski). However, some of them have gone to the extent of devoiding action and brush marks from their works (B. Newman, A. Reinhardt). Kuhna’s works are neither romantic,expressive or devoid of action. He has done beyond such limitations to allow every single dot or patch of colour to remain intact without staining, mixing or messing on the canvas. His colours have been meticulously mixed or modulated on his palette before precisely laid on the canvas. As such, the depth of space is achieved by structuring the colour dots or patches, layers by layers. He does not permit any accidental effects in his works. That is the reason I referred him as a colour constructivist. However, there is also ambiguous quality in his works which is derived from appropriate structuring of colours rather than the usual approaches adopted by some of the colour field painters or abstract expressionists.

Kuhna’s frequent visits to Malaysia has led him to produce a series of new paintings based on his Malaysian experiences and impressions. He is particularly impressed by the green foliage of tropical plants in the gardens, parks and forests, the golden sand beaches, the brilliant colours in nature andthe life styles of Malaysians.

"Penang II"
was inspired by the setting sun, drifting clouds and golden sands on the beach. All the elements in nature have been transformed into a pool of colour dots to give an atmospheric sensation.The dots interact with each other to create a sense of kinetic movement and dynamic energy.

"Sand Watch (Sand Uhr)" is an extension of "Penang II". In addition to all the qualities embodies in "Penang ll", there is ambiguous "area division" visible like the shape of a "V", a high leg wine glass or perceived as a pair of thighs.According to Kuhna, the hidden message is his sentiment about life. He feels that life is like a glass of martini, flashing light or the sands on the sea beach. Visually, one may even respond erotically due to the illusion of the thighs! However, the work remained as a field of colours providing only aesthetic experience.

kuhna"Blue Hour (Heure Bleu)" was inspired by the aerial view of palm trees viewed from the window of his favourite Flamingo Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. The viewer is able to feel the movement of breeze,the temperature of colours and the fragrant of the tropic during the twilight hours.

windowIn "Window", the colours radiate from the central area of the painting. The combination of mostly oblique or diagonal neat colour strokes or patches has created immense visual depth in this painting. The colour strokes and patches of different direction and hue intensity have further generated a pool of energy and kinetic movements. Seemingly one may perceive the travelling clouds, twinkling lights, flying insects and tropical colours from a window.

was inspired by his experience in Jakarta where he was impressed by the tropical greenery again. Moving strokes, dancing dots, flickering lights and pulsating space are the noticeable features of this work. Families of greens and blue hues complementing the shades of orange, yellow and violet have created the strong waves of visual vibratlon. It looked like tens of thousand of things or beings are surfing in the sea of colour dots, a cosmos where one could wander endlessly.

was inspired by the Chilean sea beach similar to "Penang II". He enjoyed the seasides, bright sun, pacific ocean breeze and the seafood as well! This brilliant yellow colour dominated work reflects the tropical sunshine and atmosphere. The idea of "Landscape" (schwabische) was originated from the fragments of fossils which Kuhna himself has studied and researched in the past years. This work connotates the death of all living beings. All these remains from the old ages have been transformed into visual elements to generate visual energy, vibrations and aesthetic pleasure. The under statement is rather sentimental and nostalgic.

steinbruch 1999In "Quarry" ambigous forms and shapes are discernible. According to Kuhna, history is just like scenes on a stage, events after events. During ancient Greek time, the people built their amphitheatres with slabs of stones. Centuries later, people were seen removing stone slabs from the ruined amphitheatres to build their houses. Nowadays, people get their supplies of stones from the quarries. He relates these changes as nice intellectual games. He expresses his response to these events in pure visual means. The sense of visual order is well balanced with meanings in this work. There are only basic elements and well calculated structures to serve as memory or nostalgia which is also a form of aesthetic pleasure.

The above observations are not intended to provide the story aspects of Kuhna's paintings as they are in themselves clear visual statements. Instead, it is meant to give references as how Kuhna arrived at his colour structures, a well disciplined process which l personally admire much. These abstract colour configurations have in fact provided the "Psychical Distance" to allow the viewers to engage in his paintings independently. It is because of such alleination effect that the viewers could enjoy the aesthetic experience when come into contact with his works. During the last three decades, artists like Georg Baselitz and Sigmar Polke had injected new dimensions into paintings by employing different approaches and methods of treatments. Kuhna on the other hand operates along the evolution of art history and his works seemed to akin with Seurat and Signac. But he has gone beyond the pointilist tradition by offering a new visual order to paintings with revitalised sensory experience and aesthetic pleasure.

Choong Kam Kow
President, Malaysian Institute of Art,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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drchoong kam kow
Dr. Choong Kam Kow is a well known
senior contemporary artist,
a leading art & design educationist and
an independent curator in Malaysia