Large as life
Wilson Shieh Ka-ho usually spends Monday to Saturday drawing or painting in his Fo Tan studio. Since the end of January, however, he's taken up residency at Central's Osage gallery for 'Wilson Shieh Live in SoHo'.
At one end of the gallery he's set up a table with art supplies, put up a painted calendar detailing his activities for the year and made a chart of works in progress. The space is meticulously organised and tidy, much like his studio. There's also a stereo hidden under a drawing of a tape deck (a paper replica of the one that he owned when he was 13); The Queen is Dead by The Smiths is playing.
Shieh is dressed in what he says are pyjamas, with a blue patterned apron on top. He's wearing flip-flops and looks more casual and relaxed than he does during a private view.
The result is part performance art, part exhibition.
'I've done two shows here at Osage,' says Shieh, who studied fine art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for his bachelor's and master's degrees. 'So this time I wanted to conceive of something different - the other two shows were primarily paintings and drawings. Aside from changing the theme, I decided I would stay here and work. Then people can see me work and I can interact with visitors.'
His previous solo exhibitions were 'Mortal Coil' (2011), which featured drawings of former Hong Kong governors and the late Bruce Lee, and 'Chow Yun-fat's Fitting Room' (2009), a tribute to the actor.
In many of his older works, his subjects' clothes are extremely detailed. This time, the artist is pushing his practice further by experimenting with different materials and themes.
'I like narrative and illustrative items - storytelling,' says Shieh, who studied the traditional gongbi style, which is notable for its fine brushwork. 'I like using colour, different forms and text. All the visual elements have to come together to tell a story. For storytelling, the best way to go about this is to use a figure. Now I've discovered different ways of telling a story, but at the beginning [I used] people to do this.
'This show is a breakthrough. This year, I've embarked on new projects,' the artist explains. 'Before, I focused mainly on figures, using ink painting and drawing. I wanted to expand on my previous practice. Now I'm exploring new themes and formats - the scale is different. I wanted to try this during the residency.'
One departure is an artist statement painted on a large piece of cardboard. 'Artist statements are usually done as computer printouts, but I wanted to have a live feeling. Usually I make really small pieces. I envy artists who do graffiti, but I don't have the nerve to do graffiti and get busted by the cops. I'm not suited to making that kind of work,' he says. 'But I love the idea of having the freedom to write on a wall.'
To achieve this, Shieh has been posting panels of cardboard and sheets of paper on the wall in the gallery and painting on these.
His themes have indeed expanded, but his trademark playfulness still shine through despite addressing more serious topics. 'There are three areas I'm covering in my work during this exhibition: personal, political and issues related to art,' Shieh says.
'I usually make personal work in my studio and this is supposed to reflect what I do there, so I want there to be a range of work on display. I don't consider this show to be a show, so I'm not too concerned with having a very focused concept. It's almost as if I'm living here.
'Before, I had a lot of themes that had to do with Hong Kong, but a lot of the time it had to do with pop culture or social issues or history. During the past few years, Hong Kong has undergone many changes. Even though people now know about our studios in Fo Tan, open studios are only for a few days during the year. Most of the time we're secluded in our studios, then we exhibit our works. But we're not there,' he says.
'We have few opportunities to meet people outside the art circle, except during openings, but even then we just see our friends, art professionals and collectors. ... So why not work where I can connect with other people?'
He's had a studio in Fo Tan for four years. 'The first artists ... moved in about 10 years ago. A lot of my artist friends moved in around 2003, when rents were at their lowest. But at the time I had just married and was living in Sai Wan. I couldn't afford a studio so I worked at home. After a few years I wanted to expand the scale of my work, and I was able to afford a studio, so I rented one in 2008.
'At home, I worked at a very small table and even though I had ideas I was unable to expand my work,' he says.
The change of location had a real impact on his practice; he began doing larger canvases. He also left his first gallery, Grotto Fine Art, for Osage.
Above all, it seems Shieh's main reason for doing 'Live in SoHo' is to reach out to people who may not be in the habit of going to see art. 'Previously, I mostly showed in galleries and art spaces and the audiences who come and go are often the same people. But I want to transform [these] platforms.
'For instance, this time I've transformed the gallery into a studio. People walking by can see someone is working and wonder what I'm doing. I'm doing different work. In the future maybe I can find a non-art venue to do projects and meet new people.'
Wilson Shieh Live in SoHo, Osage SoHo, Shop 1-2, LG/F, 45 Caine Rd, Central, until Wednesday. The exhibition of the completed works will run at the venue from Mar 2 to Mar 11