“All the World’s A Stage”: Illustrating the Clown Era
By Qin Wang, Pamela Wong
With hideous expressions and clownish costumes, three figures gather for a plot in Luis Chan’s 1979 painting Coming on Stage. The figure in a hot pink suit with a monkey on his shoulder holds a black umbrella in his hand, while his companions, in gloomier outfits, examine the umbrella. The composition of the painting, together with the yellow-lit background and the red arch, evoke the stage setting seen in variety shows of the 1980s. Placed at the entrance of Chan’s latest exhibition, it speaks to the show’s Chinese title “歡樂今宵,” which referenced the television program that had largely shaped the pop culture in Hong Kong. This sense of theatricality continued throughout the rest of the show, which was titled “All the World’s a Stage” in English and guest curated by Joyce Wong. Organized into four thematic sections and spanning the two floors of Pao Galleries at Hong Kong Arts Centre, the exhibition showcased Chan’s whimsical paintings that illustrate the cultural scene and class struggles in the city.
The show began with “The Artist and the Critic,” which delved into Chan’s multiple roles and critical reflections of the art world. The painting Watermelon Eater (1984), divided into two parts by its warm and cool backgrounds, portrays an exhibition that spotlights a watermelon on a pedestal, which receives little attention. The visitors themselves appear to be more like displays, showing off their brightly colored gowns with exaggerated postures. The ladies on the right are instead admiring a hanging jade ring, which was painted, according to Chan, to raise the price of the painting. In the middle, a gentleman in a yellow suit—perhaps the artist—helplessly watches the commodification of his art. A self-mocking portrayal, the painting also highlights the overbearing ego carried by the showgoers and collectors in the art scene and eerily speaks to the viewers looking at the painting.
With their distorted faces and absurd gestures, Chan’s depiction of his figures often reveals the complicated nature of human relationships and the social dynamics at the time, as seen also in the section “Hong Kong Through the Looking Glass.” Pink Nude (1969), for example, illustrates a wildly disturbing scene in a nightclub, where a naked lady in pink exposes her breast to the voyeurs, while another woman in a dark, luxurious fur coat glances at her with disdain. In the corner, a sailor and the Chinese God of Fortune leer at a naked woman in green. Painted during the Vietnam War, when Hong Kong was a holiday destination for the American navy, the extravagant scene hints at the underlying tension between the local society, especially the exploited, working-class people, and foreign money.
Walking downstairs, the section “Luis in Artland” demonstrated both the artist’s dark humor and fantastical imagination through his ink paintings from the 1970s, a turn in his art career at the time. Upon close examination, the forest and rocks on the mountains in his 1.5-meter-long shanshui painting Vision of Devils (1975) comprise multiple monstrous faces, suggesting the idea of the primal evil in human nature. Similarly, Chan comments on humanity with Return of the Drowned Poet (1980), which shows a comical scene of rebirth, where the famed Chinese poet Qu Yuan comes back to life, wearing a toy crown and waving to people on the shore. Two boats carrying dirt and rocks approach him, as if the boatmen are trying to bury the supposedly dead man in the river. Although the poet is often mourned and remembered as a patriot, here he becomes a clown that people are trying to ignore. Through this absurd scene, Chan shows how a historical figure can be constructed and deified, yet easily destroyed by the indifferent self-amusing mass.
The exhibition, carefully curated by Wong, allowed the visitors to trace Chan’s transitions, which was important for an artist who had ventured into different styles throughout his career. Looking at Chan’s kaleidoscopic depictions of Hong Kong, I felt a sense of unease, wondering if the artist also secretly enjoyed watching these everyday dramas while defying them. “All the world’s a stage,” and Chan had painted it passionately, vividly, with a childlike heart that saw through the play of life.
Qin Wang is ArtAsiaPacific’s editorial intern; Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.
“All the World’s A Stage” is on view at Hong Kong Art Centre, through January 18, 2023.