Michael Chow shines as artist and as son at The Warhol Museum


Michael Chow at Warhol Museum

Michael Chow fits the contemporary designation “creative type”: artist, restaurateur, designer, entrepreneur, arts patron, actor, successful businessman. So it’s in character that for the exhibition “Michael Chow aka Zhou Yinghua: Voice for My Father” he devised a new art form that befits the complexity of its impetus. The Andy Warhol Museum is its first U.S. venue.

Born Zhou Yinghua in 1939 Shanghai, Mr. Chow lives in Los Angeles. His father, Zhou Xinfang, was a revered grand master of Beijing opera. When he was 12, Michael was sent to London to study, and while there China’s Cultural Revolution closed off his access to home. He never saw his father again.

The exhibition is an homage to Mr. Chow’s father, but it is also a meditation upon the meaning of family, home and identity that is particularly pertinent in a period of rapidly increasing globalization. The new art form is the exhibition in its entirety, a visual novella comprising archival materials, contemporary portraiture, abstract painting, a film, a screenplay and various media to make a statement that is both aesthetic and cultural.

In the galleries are black and white photographs from the first half of the 20th century of Zhou Xinfang in theatrical costume; portraits of Mr. Chow by contemporary art luminaries (including Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Julian Schnabel); and Mr. Chow’s wall-sized, tactile, label-defying paintings, most made for this show.

A 1937 film, “Murder in the Oratory,” featuring Zhou Xinfang, is screened at 2 p.m. daily at the museum. A DVD of the film comes with the illustrated exhibition catalog ($55), which includes several informative essays and Mr. Chow’s screenplay, a poignant family history that blends fact and conjecture. It moves from the harsh conditions of an actor’s life in his grandfather’s era to his father’s success, denouncement during the revolution and death. Zhou Xinfang has been restored as a cultural treasure in China. This exhibition premiered in Beijing and stopped in Shanghai on the 120th anniversary of his birth.

Walking through the exhibition in February, Mr. Chow said he was “driven by this desire to make the injustice justice.” That injustice includes the suffering his family endured during the Cultural Revolution, and more tacitly the racism he experienced in England.

“My DNA is very good for an artist,” he said, explaining that his father attained fame in a profession that had been considered “lower than low,” and that his mother was “treated badly” because she was genetically one-quarter Western.

Sickly with asthma as a child, he didn’t attend school. “I was spoiled and entitled. Then I lost everything. I lost my parents, my culture, my diet. In England I was looked down upon. I was armed with this injustice, dealing with suffering and death. So I had the right ingredients to make an artist.”

Having studied painting in London, he began his professional life as an artist, but in 1968 he applied his creativity elsewhere and opened the first MR CHOW restaurant. “I treated the restaurant career as theater,” he said, presenting Chinese cuisine in elaborately designed venues that attract society and celebrity clientele. There are now seven MR CHOW restaurants from London to Malibu, Calif.

While the restaurants afford him financial security, Mr. Chow’s passion for painting was evident as he walked among his recent works. Surfaces are layered, built, given dimension with crumpled sheets of silver and found objects – a mix of precious and banal, their valuation turned topsy-turvy and called into question, somewhat as cultural norms may be.

He’s pleased with the direction his expression is taking but also aware that time to make a mark in this arena is closing.

“I paint to heal, to help myself. It gets very violent …. These are very physical paintings. Do it quickly. Do it spontaneously. Do it internally.”

But then the painting takes control. “The painting never lies. I have an ego, but when you’re painting you have to be the humblest human being because of the nature of the beast.”

He noted that great artists like Rembrandt, Goya and Monet created masterpieces in their later years. “I’m at the end of my life — I have a chance,” he said with a grin.

One of the more enigmatic objects that Mr. Chow incorporates into his canvases is a raw egg, the golden yolk pulsing like a plump setting sun. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west beyond the windows of Mr. Chow’s California home. When he follows its glow he is looking West. But he is also looking East.

The exhibition continues through May 8 at 117 Sandusky St., North Side. Admission is $20; students and children ages 3-18, $10; half-price 5-10 p.m. Fridays. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and until 10 p.m. Friday. Information: 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org.


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