Irene Chou

1924Shanghai, China | 2011Brisbane, Australia
Irene Chou — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Irene Chou in her home studio, Victory Avenue, Kowloon, Hong-Kong, c. 1990, Courtesy of Catherine Maudsley

Chinese painter.

A key figure emerging from the New Ink Art movement in Hong Kong, Irene Chou forged new possibilities for Chinese ink painting with her dynamic abstract style. She broke away from traditional landscape metaphors and codified brushwork to create a personal idiom based on calligraphic lines and biomorphic forms. Her unique visual language explored subject matters unrepresented in traditional Chinese painting, such as the biological experiences of women, the complexity of human psychology, and the sublimity of the cosmos. These thematic concerns speaking to the human condition beyond cultural specificity mark I. Chou as an important voice and one of the leading woman artists reinventing Chinese ink painting through abstraction in the twentieth century.

Like many escaping the political upheavals in mainland China, I. Chou relocated to Hong Kong in 1949 as the city under British colonial rule was becoming a postwar hub of vibrant cultural development mingling the East and the West. She acquired a foundation in Lingnan School painting, a regional style of flora and fauna in ink and colour, and later became exposed to Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Western art theories through foreign publications. This convergence of cultures became I.  Chou’s source of creative energy as she sought to express her personal experiences informed by an upbringing in the foreign concessions of Shanghai, wartime migration, marriage, and motherhood. When she discovered the abstract potential of ink painting in the 1960s under the mentorship of New Ink pioneer Lui Shou-Kwan (1919–75), I. Chou started to push the possibilities of the line to convey rhythm and movement. This manifested in fluid biomorphic forms that evoke the processes of sex, pregnancy, childbirth, and introspection. The sphere became I. Chou’s most significant motif, representing her psychological universe.

A devastating stroke in 1991 nearly ended I. Chou’s career, but she managed to recover through practising qigong, an ancient Chinese exercise that circulates the body’s energy. Engaging in extended meditation as part of her exercise inspired her new interest in cosmic creation and metaphysical Chinese philosophies. Relocating to Australia, I. Chou revived her practice with large-scale works featuring vigorous circular brushstrokes and uninhibited ink play using her self-invented “impact structural stroke” – a cathartic splash-ink technique that introduced the element of chance into her work. Anchored in the versatility of Chinese ink and brush, I. Chou’s mature “universe paintings” embraced gestural abstraction balancing structure and spontaneity in the search for spiritual harmony between her subjectivity and the macrocosm of life.

Joyce Hei-ting Wong

As published in Women in Abstraction © 2021 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

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