Four young Hong Kong artists who buck current art trends by painting in oils

In the age of multimedia and conceptual art, taking up brushes and easel is a radical step. We look at four up-and-coming artists who’ve returned to a traditional medium to express themselves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2016, 12:32pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 5:28pm

Painting wasn’t dead in 1839 when an artist called Paul Delaroche declared it had been swiftly dispatched by the new daguerreotype. Painting still isn’t dead in 2016 when conceptual art and mixed-media installations are de rigueur. Just look at Zeng Fanzhi and Luc Tuymans, two of the biggest names in today’s art world, who still find plenty left to say through figurative paintings.

But in Hong Kong, young artists who pin their career on an old-fashioned easel are, ironically, the radical ones. Local conceptual artists have won international accolades and are often picked to represent the city at the Venice Biennale.

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By comparison, few painters have had the same level of success. There are exceptions such as Chow Chun-fai, whose oil and acrylic recreations of film scenes are widely collected, but Hong Kong simply isn’t known for artists working in this most traditional of media.

Yet, this summer sees no fewer than four young oil painters exhibiting. Who are they and why have they picked such an unfashionable career path?

Hilarie Hon Hang-lam

Hilarie Hon Hang-lam, 21, has just graduated from Baptist University’s Academy of Visual Arts and is thrilled to be included in Gallery Exit’s summer group show. “I never thought my work would appeal to a commercial gallery but to my surprise, Gallery Exit got in touch after seeing my work at our graduation exhibition,” she says.

The Hong Kong artists depicting modern themes using traditional fine-brush technique

This lucky break vindicates her decision to major in painting. Out of about 100 students in her year, only 10 were painters. “Painting simply isn’t trendy. In fact, the teachers urged me to experiment with new media installation, but I have been painting since the age of three and it is how I express myself best,” she says.

The gallery is showing 11 of her poignant, surreal scenes inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In Hoc Est Simplicissimus, a haloed, ghostly presence with a green trickle coming out of his mouth stands against a blazing, orange sky. That’s José Arcadio Buendía, bound to a tree, spewing forth his incomprehensible Latin.

“I enjoy the ability to create a discrete, independent world within a picture frame. Painting also gives me the most control over the use of colours, which I feel very strongly about,” she says.

Ashlee Ip Wai-ting

Ashlee Ip Wai-ting, 28, graduated in 2012 from the same Bachelor of Art in Visual Arts programme that Hilarie Hon has just completed. She was fortunate to have a tutor who pointed her in the right direction. “Everyone kept going on about concepts. But I was struggling with the concept-first approach to art. Then my tutor pointed out I was an intuitive painter and suggested I should just paint what I saw and what I was thinking, and it felt right,” she says.

It took three more years for her to find her own groove, however. Her first job as an artist’s assistant made her so nervous about replicating her employer’s style that she simple stopped painting for a while. Taking on purely commercial projects, like doing murals at Ocean Park, was the reset button she needed.

“I needed a clean break. When I finished Jim2 in 2015, I knew I was ready. I had broken away from other people’s influences,” she says. Jim2, one of her works on show at Gallery Exit, is a mesmerising composition reminiscent of the inside barrel of a wave, with eddies of grey, blue and white defying the pull of gravity. The title refers to the first name of her first employer and also, the Cantonese Romanisation of the word for nightmare, one which she finally manages to shake off.

Yiu Chi-leung

Yiu Chi-leung dabbled in drawing comics and Chinese painting as a child but never took proper art classes. Then, somewhere along the way, a friend introduced him to oil painting.

“I just fell in love with it and really wanted to learn about it. So I enrolled in the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts after secondary school and became quite adept at realistic portraits,” he says.

He has kept some of them in his Kowloon studio and they look nothing like his recent work. “I sold some portraits but I had no idea what art was about,” he says. It was when he was studying for a degree programme offered by RMIT University and the Hong Kong Art School, which he completed this year, that he finally discovered why he painted.

“At first, I thought I could make serious art by reading a lot and channelling those thoughts on to the canvas. But I realised visual art simply isn’t the best way to express complex concepts sometimes. Instead, art is, to me, a way to find out about myself,” says the 33-year-old.

Seeker I (2016) features a figure wearing a decontamination suit who is going through documents abandoned at a car junkyard. Like his other paintings of urban wastelands, the faceless, solitary character combs through the detritus of modern society in search of elusive answers. “That person is me. I have always felt empty and alienated. Painting is cathartic and gives me spiritual fulfilment, and allows me to express thoughts about society and the environment,” he says.

Cheung Sze-lit

Cheung Sze-lit is preparing for a new solo exhibition in Taipei next year. “The gallery owner was surprised to see my work. He said: ‘I thought Hong Kong artists don’t paint any more. I thought they all want to be the next Lee Kit’,” says the 28-year-old.

Cheung is aware of the popularity of installation artist but he is determined to find his own path, much like he did when he moved to Hong Kong at the age of 10. “My home town is in Guangdong Province, only two hours away by car. But Hong Kong people thought new immigrants, like myself, were aliens from a different planet. It took some getting used to,” he says.

At Hong Kong Art School, he focused on oil painting for his degree course. “I love the classical nature of oil. I love the texture of oil. I am also interested in how you overcome the historical baggage of such a traditional medium,” he says.

For the Gallery Exit show, he has produced a series of quiet studies of mundane objects. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…... No. 3 shows a smattering of Styrofoam balls on a wooden surface. “It is about order, or our need for order. It is also just a composition that I find pleasing. What is art, after all, if it is not a reflection of the artist himself?”

You can see the works by Ashlee Ip, Hilarie Hon and Cheung Sze-lit at Gallery Exit, 3/F, 25 Hing Wo Street, Tin Wan, until August 27. The Hong Kong Art School’s graduation exhibition, featuring Yiu Chi-leung’s paintings, will be held at the “Fresh Trend 2016 Graduates Joint Exhibition” at the Exhibition Hall of Hong Kong City Hall from August 30 to September 9.