George Chann

1913-1995

About The Artist

The contribution of Chinese-American artist George Chann (1913–1995) to the history of abstract painting was only recognized after his death. Chann, who sold little work in his lifetime, was born in Canton, China and immigrated to the United States in 1932. The following year, he began studying at the Otis Art Institute where he received an MFA in 1941. He later joined the faculty and worked there as a teacher. He was part of a wave of Asian-American artists whose practices were established in California, rather than the East Coast, such as George Miyasaki, Arthur Okamura and Yun Gee.

His early work from the 1930s and 1940s is characterized by its traditional, social realist style and conventional subject matter, such as portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. He was particularly acclaimed for his sensitive studies of children. He was a respected figure in the California art scene and was invited to present solo exhibitions at a number of major museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1942) and at the de Young Museum, San Francisco (1944). He spent the late 1940s traveling around China, before returning to the U.S. in 1950 where he took up the study of abstract painting.

His fascination with abstraction transformed his work which, from the 1950s on, took an increasingly experimental form. Citing Jackson Pollock as an inspiration in an interview, Chann began to forge his own interpretation of Abstract Expressionism. Operating from a culturally distinct standpoint to many of the more prominent names of his time, Chann distinguished himself by incorporating Chinese artifacts into his work. This included making rubbings with oracle bones and bronze vessels, to the collaging of calligraphic scripts. For these works Chann would soak sheets of calligraphy in water, tear them into pieces or trample them underfoot and then layer these fragments onto the canvas, creating intricate surfaces over which further paint or calligraphy would be applied. The resulting multi-layered works are dense, tonally varied and beautifully textured. Patterns which seem initially discernible soon disappear amidst the throng of line, shape and color.

Chann ran an art gallery shop for 40 years that displayed his own works, which he made in the back of the shop, as well as Chinese objects and jewelry. He donated 250 works to the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, where they are permanently displayed, though his work only received wider attention after his death. Today, Chann’s enduring legacy is the unique and fascinating blend that he created of text and image, abstract and figurative art, ancient Chinese culture and modern Western painting.

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