Mandate with destiny

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2005, 12:00am

ART, LIKE ALL businesses, is brand and image obsessed. It's especially true in this part of the world, where the lure of the booming contemporary Chinese art market has sent everyone - dealers, critics, consultants and curators - looking for the next star. And if an impoverished artist finds fame and fortune with one image, that's what he's going to be encouraged to stick to.

These market conditions mean that any artist who dares to diversify is seen as a marketing no-no. But Norm Yip - who does big, colourful abstract paintings, meticulous pencil illustrations, blurry art photography, homo-erotic portraiture, celebrity portraits of the likes of Ricky Martin and innumerable other things - is past all those labels.

When the Canada native first moved to Hong Kong in 1994, he had it all: a well-paid architecture job and the posh lifestyle that went with it. But he gave it all up five years later to develop a bewildering mix of art styles. Today, he works and lives on the top floor of an old laundry-covered Sheung Wan building that smells of incense and Chinese medicine. He has one assistant, a giant 14-year-old Maine Coon cat, and a collection of paintings, illustrations and photos so varied they look as if they could be from three or four different artists.

'I was working for an international architecture firm, and it was constant drama,' Yip says of his old life. 'I was working all the time, but I couldn't let go. I fell into the trappings of that lifestyle. Hong Kong is very image and prestige conscious. I was so lost that I went for a tarot card reading at the New Age Shop and the fortune teller said, 'You have to stop whatever you are doing right now.' So I stopped: the partying, the spending, the insane work hours. When you're inside that bubble, you don't know what it looks like outside. Once you break out, you realise it all doesn't matter that much.'

In 1999, Yip, Betty Cheung and Wilson Chik opened alternative art space Meli-Melo. 'That was a good catalyst for me artistically,' says Yip. 'It gave me the freedom to experiment in any way I wanted, either through photography, painting or drawing.'

Yip calls 1999 his year of transition. It was when he began to produce art. 'I remember starting with plain paper and plain pencils: the cheapest, easiest medium. First, I drew a circle. Then another circle. Then a square. Then a cross. Then another square. I was starting from the very beginning again and was very happy. I didn't have to care about what other people thought.'

In 2000, Yip and friends took Meli-Melo a step further with Art Jam, which is now a lucrative enterprise used for everything from Veuve Clicquot cocktail parties to Harvard alumni gatherings. It certainly wasn't the case when it started. 'Betty [Cheung] had this idea to do painting sessions, where anyone could come and paint with freedom,' says Yip. 'It was definitely not a money-making venture. We made the canvases by hand, and I still remembered how my hand hurt from all the stapling. We started at midnight and charged a nominal amount, which included free-flowing alcohol. People got drunk and painted on each other, but everyone had an original art piece to take home. It becomes a social activity that released the tension that comes with painting alone.'

To Yip's surprise, he sold his Art Jam painting on the spot. 'It was the first art work I'd ever sold,' he says. 'And a sign that I was getting on my path.'

Soon after, he held his First Level exhibition, which featured his pencil drawings. These small, quiet pieces - some not unlike Mondrian's in shades of grey - reflect the influence of his architecture background. 'For me, geometric forms are symbols, iconography, that are universally recognised regardless of someone's culture of background.'

Yip's favourite work in the series is the deeply meditative One, which looks like ripples on a pond or rings in a chopped tree trunk, only set in a square frame. 'It's one of the subtlest works I've ever done,' he says. 'This was the one I didn't want to part with, so I priced it the highest, with the stupid idea that nobody would buy it because it was more expensive.

'In the end, it was purchased by a lawyer in a suit who ran crying from the room when he saw it, with me frantically following him with a box of Kleenex. The picture made him think of something from his past, I still don't know what. He said he was leaving Hong Kong but had an apartment in New York, where he had one room dedicated to meditation. He was looking for one artwork to put in that room.'

Although Yip is probably better known for his graphite drawings, he continues to work on his painting, which has come a long way since the first Art Jam. Older works - with their big, bright, clashing angles and thick layers - are stacked in the corner. His newer pieces are more sophisticated, with a more refined palette and a sense of translucency.

Still, Yip's most important work is his photography, which he started while growing up in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, a town of 4,000 on the Canadian prairies. 'My older brother did photography. When I saw him take black and white photos, I immediately knew what I wanted to do,' says Yip. 'We shared the Ricoh manual camera that my family had, and my brother gave me two basic lessons. The first was on how to use the camera: set the aperture, set the speed, and make sure the light meter is in the centre. Then he taught me darkroom. For me, it was magic. You watch a plain white piece of paper turn into the image you took before your eyes.'

Yip is still moved by that magic and, despite having a pile of equipment at home, does little work with digital cameras. Most of his pieces are shot with a Nikon F100 and Kodak TMAX 400.

A recurring theme is the male body. In his Light Shadow series, Yip plays with two blurry moving bodies. In other works, he shoots close-ups so tightly cropped that the body parts - the curve of an armpit or the swell of a calf - become reduced to pure lines, shades and shapes.

Yip's most marketable photography, slick shots of nude or near-nude gym-perfected men, has now become part of his latest venture: book publishing. This month, he'll launch the first volume of a planned series, The Asian Male.

'I didn't want to work with an agent, a publisher and an editor, who would try to change what I do,' he says. 'I wanted to do something myself. So, I got my butt in gear and started Studio Eight Publishing. It's been a big learning curve. I've had to teach myself about paper stock, proofreading, everything.'

The book is a collection of five years' work, which Yip says is more artistic than erotic. 'I'm looking for something that pleases the eye, not just the body, but the compositions of shapes, of light and shadow, of a certain look in the face or the eyes,' says Yip. 'Herb Ritts is my idol, and I want to capture the essence of a person through photography the way he did.'

In typical fashion, Yip already has other books planned. 'Next, I want to do guys and girls. And I want to start publishing books with other people's works, not just mine,' he says. 'As usual, I don't want to adhere to any one plan.'

The Asian Male: Photography by Norm Yip, launch party, Feb 24, 7pm-9pm, Studio 8, 8B Kamcourt Building, 60-62 Bonham Strand East, Sheung Wan. Inquiries: 2540 6267 or go to