A decade ago, after a hiatus of almost 50 years, M – aka Michael Chow – returned to one of his first loves, painting. His works push at the boundaries of form, through processes such as collage, burning and hammering – with an inexhaustible spirit of inquiry.
As his restaurants flourished, with outposts everywhere from Beverly Hills to Seoul, M sat for some of the biggest names in post-war art: Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, David Hockney, Peter Blake, Keith Haring and Ed Ruscha. Now, M is out to demonstrate his own artistic prowess in inimitable manner, with a new exhibition of work at Sotheby’s in Dubai, from May 30 – July 1, 2022.
When you first returned to painting in 2012, were you in any way the same painter you had been in the 1950s and ’60s?
Oh yeah, I started where I left off. And particularly in terms of wanting to experiment with new techniques. That ambition is clear when I look back at my early works. Three of them survive, including a Burri-inspired collage painting, which was fairly successful, and a poured painting, which was something that nobody else did back then. I took household paint and poured it on to the horizontal canvas.
What prompted you to paint again?
I was encouraged by friends such as Jeffrey Deitch and Julian Schnabel. Jeffrey saw one of my old paintings and said, ‘Who did that?’ – and when he found out it was me, he said I shouldn’t have given up. When I saw his show, ‘The Painting Factory: Abstraction after Andy Warhol’, at MOCA in LA, I looked at all the work by Andy, Mark Grotjahn, even Urs Fischer and I thought – I’m very childish! – I can do better than that. So I started painting again.
How has your work evolved since then?
At first I was thinking about conceptual art in relation to painting. I wanted to use gold but it was too expensive, so I took blocks of sterling silver and melted them into sheets, which I oxidised so they became pink and blue – incredible colours. Then I marinaded those silver sheets with paint. Later I decided to include more collage – I’d seen this giant Scotch tape at the Polo Lounge at Beverly Hills hotel, and that inspired me – and the work became even more physical. Collage is an underrated medium. After that I added plastic and burnt it, which leaves residue like little dots of gravy, almost polka dots, and that started to introduce the idea of death. I never leave the techniques behind, I just add new things as I progress.
In Chinese culture, there’s the concept of ‘one breath’. It’s when all the power is gathered in a single moment… I want to get that back. I use the hammer as ‘one breath’.
You also make works on paper, with a single hammer blow that splashes a pool of paint across the paper. Is painting a liberating act?
In Chinese culture, whether that’s cooking, painting, martial arts, there’s the concept of ‘one breath’. It’s when all the power is gathered in a single moment. That was the way with performances by my father, Zhou Xinfang, who was a legendary figure in the Beijing Opera; the concentration of the moment was so powerful that, in the instant of one breath, you didn’t even know what day it was anymore. In Western art you can sense it in the work of my great hero, Francis Bacon. I want to get that back: I use the hammer as one breath.
Your paintings have drawn comparisons with all manner of post-war artists, from the Abstract Expressionists to Cy Twombly. Are you mindful of such examples as you work?
I want to include as much as possible in my paintings, and bring together everything that I know about the East and the West. I want my paintings to be international. The two cultures have never overlapped much before, but things are changing – I think I’m painting at the right time. I’ve always been in between East and West, ever since I was uprooted from Beijing to London when I was 12 or 13, an age when it’s difficult to adapt to a new culture. I’ve survived that loss but it will always be part of my art – and the more personal art is, the more universal.
You often crack eggs into your collage paintings. That’s quite unusual…
An egg is the most sensuous thing in the world. Visually it’s fantastic. Just look at how the art deco designer Jean Dunand used eggshell as an inlay. For one triptych, I threw an egg at the surface from ten feet away, and the yolk landed perfectly: I had to preserve it, so I mummified it with varnish.
Is it also a means of connecting painting and cooking?
Those are certainly similar processes. There’s a lot of careful preparation when you cook – buying the fresh ingredients, for example – and then there are intense moments, like when you put the shrimp in the wok and it cooks in a split second. While you’re painting, too, you have to make thousands of decisions as you work, sometimes slowly and sometimes at pace. When I make paint sheets, then select them, or choose the pieces for collage, those are slow processes. But I add my signature marks, the flowers in the paintings, very quickly.