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For ever since he could recall, Zhou Yinghua – born in 1939 in Shanghai – dreamed of becoming the fourth generation of his family to grace the stage of the Beijing Opera. His father, Zhou Xinfang, was grandmaster, revered far and wide as a national treasure.
When Yinghua turned 13 however, his dreams would get caught up in the shifting political tides of 1950s China. To escape the coming upheaval, the boy was sent to London. He would see his mother only one other time, during a fleeting visit to London, but his father would abruptly disappear before the boy could ever see him again. Yinghua – now known by the adopted name of “Michael” – channeled his confusion and grief into art, his second love after the theatre. In 1956, Michael enrolled at St Martins to study painting, then later studied architecture, before embarking on a career as a professional artist. Michael would have multiple gallery shows across London, producing paintings that would seem perfectly at ease besides Lucio Fontana and Cy Twombly. In 1968, he set aside his burgeoning art star-status to chase another passion, opening a restaurant in Knightbridge. He called it by the surname he was given when he first came to London: Mr. Chow.
Yes, that Mr. Chow. Since those humble beginnings, Zhou Yinghua – now better known as celebrity restaurateur Michael Chow – has been feeding the art world elites family-style portions of Beijing Duck and Cantonese classics. In the heyday of the 80s, Mr Chow’s New York location was the hangout for Andy Warhol, Jean Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel, and the connection with art continues to this day in cities around the world: Mr Chow Beverly Hills is Larry Gagosian’s go-to for exhibition-opening afterparties, while the Miami outpost is a staple during Art Basel Miami Beach, where the likes of Diddy and Jimmy Iovine can be seen digging into noodles after a long day at the fair.
If Chow’s story already sound cinematic, he added a twist this past week with a homecoming not just to his beginnings in painting, but also to the country of his birth. On January 13, art world A-listers like Jeffrey Deitch, Vito Schnabel, Amalia Dayan and Silas Chou descended on Hong Kong, where the Pearl Lam Gallery was feting the opening of a solo exhibition of Chow’s paintings called, fittingly enough, “Recipe for a Painter.”
“I typically don’t like giving speeches at these things,” Lam announced to the crowd. “But today we are not just celebrating a show, we are celebrating this wonderful story: after 50 years, Michael Chow has returned to painting.” The room broke into rapturous applause. “I admit, I was a little worried about taking on a ‘celebrity painter,’ ” Lam continued, “but then I saw the work. I think you’ll agree with me, it’s very poetic.”
The massive paintings bring together a wide range of unlikely materials, bubble wrap, black latex gloves, and ziploc bags full of two-dollar bills. “Money is sexy,” the artist shrugged, grinning. “I made my first painting with $100 bills, but then decided that I liked the two-dollar bill better, because it’s associated with con artists. And it’s cheaper.”
Punctuating one canvas was a perfect round egg yolk, held in place by a thick glaze of lacquer. “It will stay like that forever, ” Chow explained, obviously proud. Quipped Deitch: “Just like one of those thousand year old eggs?”
For all of their complex surfaces, the paintings exemplify what Chow refers to, in a nod to Chinese calligraphy, as the “one breath” technique. Nothing seems too labored, nor too forced; everything just flows naturally, calling to mind Chinese landscapes almost as easily as European modernism. Chow’s famous sense of humor is evident in his titles: “Diptych is Twice as Good,” “God Bless Christie’s,” and “God bless Christie’s Again.”
At the lavish dinner following the show, Chow stood up to say a few words about his arts patroness wife Eva (a LACMA board member), attributing his return to painting to her. “Some of you might know I used silver in my paintings, but don’t know why. Well, this week we’ll have been married 25 years. That’s what you get for 25 years — silver right?” He paused, then added. “I don’t know what happens when we get to gold or platinum.” Offered someone in the crowd: “We won’t be able to afford your paintings!”
Chow also credited fellow artist Urs Fischer for stepping off a plane and immediately re-hanging the show. “I just weeded it out a little,” the Swiss artist protested, “the works needed more space to be appreciated for all that they are.”
Among those appreciating the work was Philip Tinari, director of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, a private institution that has shown the likes of Olafur Eliasson, Erwin Wurm, Liu Wei, Lawrence Weiner and Kehinde Wiley. Next year, Chow will add his name to this list, with his own solo at the prestigious museum. This means Chow won’t have much time to rest before he needs to get back to painting. “It’s such an addiction,” the artist laughed. “I’ve been here eight days, and already I’m aching to get back to my studio to paint more.”
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