Feb 28 2014

A Recipe for Success: Michael Chow aka Zhou Yinghua

by Ming Lin

Michael Chow, assuming his Chinese name Zhou Yinghua, presents his debut exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong.

When Michael Chow enters a room, he commands an audience. With his sweeping gestures and boisterous tones, he speaks in overtures; it doesn’t matter what he is about to present so much as the presentation itself. This performative nature has served him well throughout the years—Chow has managed a successful restaurant business, which currently boasts six locations worldwide, and has brushed elbows with the cultural elite—he counts the late Jean-Michel Basquiat as having been one of his closest friends. Now, at the age of 75, the notorious Mr. Chow has turned his attention to art. How will his expertise in fine dining translate onto the canvas?

His debut exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong marks the conclusion of a lifelong project. Born to one of the most illustrious of Beijing Opera singers, Zhou Xinfang, and the daughter of a tea merchant, Chow left China in 1951 at the onset of the Cultural Revolution. After a stint in London, during which he attended the Royal College of Art to study architecture, Chow moved to the United States, where he laid the groundwork for his chain establishment. Though he would never return to China, throughout his career he has maintained a commitment to his homeland, seeking to elevate the status of Chinese culture by celebrating its rich history.

MICHAEL CHOW aka ZHOU YINGHUASweet Tongue, 2013, mixed media: household paint with precious metals and trash, 183 × 243.8 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong.

Indeed, with his embrace of lavish settings and fusion fare, Chow is credited by some as having single-handedly redefined expectations of Chinese food in the West. Serving regional dishes on a silver platter, he proved that the country’s cuisine could be more than a pile of greasy noodles eaten from a carton. Perhaps in a similar manner, the abstract artworks displayed in “Recipe For a Painter” confound expectations, offering an antithesis to the monolithic and manufactured schemes of much contemporary Chinese art. Contrary to the monumental and market-driven, Chow’s compositions, laden in silver, his preferred medium, offer a unique and deeply personal narrative, a coming of age story that weaves East, West and the history of art all into one.

Chow describes the layering of precious metals, trash and household paint in his work as “post-Pollock,” a reference to the great American Abstract Expressionist. Like the action painter, his process is a messy affair that requires getting down on his hands and knees in his studio, which sits just a stone’s throw away from the complex he shares with his wife, the designer Eva Chun, in Los Angeles. But, true to his flamboyant nature, Chow has developed a few tricks of his own. On several of the canvases, including Sweet Tongue and Vertical Lips (both 2013), for example, an oozing egg yolk has been cast among the silver and debris. Coated in resin, this organic medium will, according to the artist, last at least 200 years. After that “something will happen to it,” Chow explains, continuing, “but I don’t care, I don’t want to be around by then.”

MICHAEL CHOW aka ZHOU YINGHUAVertical Lips, 2013, mixed media: household paint with precious metals and trash, 183 × 243.8 cm. Courtesy Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong.

These “controlled accidents,” as Chow calls them, provide an astute glance into Chow’s life philosophy, a taking-the-bull-by-the-horns attitude that requires an unyielding indifference to what people think. Gesturing toward one of his paintings, Chow notes “Silver has its own chi . . . its own charisma, its own energy,” adding flippantly “it’s very expensive . . . if you don’t like it, you can melt it down and sell it for 100 dollars!” Placing precious materials side-by-side with refuse, Chow questions notions of value; in a smattering of textures, colors and shapes, materials are granted an equal playing field.

Reclaiming his Chinese name, Zhou Yinghua, on the occasion of his first exhibition in Asia, Chow feels that he has finally “come home.” “When I was young, there was no art, especially not in China,” he says, marveling at the fact that today the nation’s young artists have the opportunity to thrive. While the works on display may seem slightly anachronistic, they are testaments to a generation who, witnessing a turbulent period of unprecedented change, found inspiration and beauty within it. 

Michael Chow aka Zhou Yinghua’s “Recipe For a Painter” is on view at Pearl Lam Galleries through March 8, 2014.

Ming Lin is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.