By AMY QIN
BEIJING — Outside China, he is best known as the man behind Mr. Chow — the high-end Chinese restaurants and longtime watering holes for artists and celebrities in London, New York, Beverly Hills, Miami Beach and Malibu.
In his native China, however, Michael Chow is better known to many as the son of the venerated Zhou Xinfang — a grand master of Beijing opera and founder of the Qi performance style who was tortured during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. He died in 1975 after years of house arrest.
Now Mr. Zhou, who was politically exonerated after his death, is revered by the official cultural establishment. And as China celebrates what would have been his 120th birthday, his son has put together a more personal tribute here, in the form of the exhibition “Voice for My Father.”
It is the first exhibition in mainland China by Mr. Chow, who was sent to England in 1952 at the age of 12, leaving behind a pampered life of servants and chauffeured cars in Shanghai. In England, he attended boarding school and later trained as an artist at Central St. Martins in London. After struggling to succeed as an artist, he turned to an endeavor that had a much more receptive clientele in London: Chinese cuisine. About three years ago, Mr. Chow, now 75, returned to making art after a 50-year hiatus, painting under his Chinese name, Zhou Yinghua.
In addition to Mr. Chow’s own paintings, the show features portraits of him from his wide-ranging personal collection, including works by Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Also on display is a selection of archival images of Mr. Zhou, who wrote more than 200 operas and performed about 600 characters during an illustrious 60-year career.
“For me personally, this exhibition is very much so filling a void,” Mr. Chow said in an interview at the exhibition’s opening reception. “A long time ago, when I was 12, I arrived in England. I lost everything. I literally lost everything. I never saw my father again, and I never communicated with him again. I didn’t even know about his tragic death during the Cultural Revolution.”
Just minutes before, the exhibition space had been filled with the warbling voice of Mr. Chow as he put on an impromptu Beijing opera performance, with the help of the prominent performers Sun Ping and Ye Jinsen.
Onlookers gathered to take in the performance by Mr. Chow, who had ditched his signature, a perfectly tailored Hermès suit, in favor of paint-splattered jeans and a black shirt. China Chow — the artist’s daughter with his second wife, Tina Chow — nudged her way to the front of the crowd to capture the moment with her camera phone.
Michael Chow, the restaurateur, with a sculpture of himself by Urs Fischer at the opening of “Voice for My Father” in Beijing. CreditZhenyu Mao/Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
Also in attendance were other family members, including the artist’s wife, Eva, as well as friends including Simon de Pury, the Swiss art auctioneer and collector, and Jeffrey Deitch, the New York-based art dealer and former director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, whom Mr. Chow credited with helping him decide to return to the canvas.
Mr. Deitch said he began encouraging Mr. Chow to return to the studio several years ago after seeing a small painting that the artist had made in the 1960s. It was leaning against a wall near the kitchen in Mr. Chow’s home in Los Angeles.
“I knew that he came from an artistic background, but I didn’t know that he was a very serious painter,” Mr. Deitch said. “There is this energy and drive of a young artist, but also this
Mr. Chow's "Beyond White Poles"CreditCourtesy of Michael Chow and Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
Created with a combination of techniques, including thrown paint and collaging, the works are an exercise in what Mr. Chow calls “controlled accident.”
Only on closer inspection do the details emerge: egg yolks preserved in resin; a piece of gold worth $14,000; antique nails; sheets of gold and silver foil; a pair of the artist’s shorts; and even a $100 bill in a plastic bag encased in dried paint. (Cash is a feature in all of his paintings “because I love money,” Mr. Chow said.)
The collaging technique was a natural choice, Mr. Chow said. “In collaging, you can put things together that shouldn’t be together, and that’s my life,” he said.
Mr. Chow's paintings. CreditEric Powell/Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
As an art patron and avid collector, Mr. Chow commissioned numerous portraits of himself from his friends for his personal collection and for his restaurants. But it is also clear that Mr. Chow, as an artist, drew insights over decades of conversations and experiences — an influence that some say is apparent in his recent work.
“Younger artists work in a very conscientious way, in that they try to make works that pre-position themselves in some sort of art-historical narrative,” said Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. “For him, it comes from a more real place. He absorbed a lot of influences, and he spent so much time around them.”
“I think now to come to this later phase in life and have this new outlet — for him, it’s totally liberating,” Mr. Tinari added.
On the morning after the opening reception, Mr. Chow, standing before his paintings in the same paint-splattered pants, admitted he was tired. He had been in China for about two weeks, including a week in Shanghai to attend celebrations organized by the local government in honor of his father.
But the feeling of being able to bring these paintings back to China during what he called the “third act — or rather midthird act” of his life, Mr. Chow said, was incomparable.
“I want to call it closure,” he said. “I have come home, to my parents, to China.”