Noel de Guzman, Hong Kong artist liberated by a hands-off approach

For his first solo show in seven years, Hong Kong Filipino moved on from painting with his bare hands to explore new materials and techniques. It was an itch he had to scratch, he says

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 3:37pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 September, 2015, 3:41pm

It’s been  seven years since Hong Kong-based artist Noel de Guzman  last had a solo exhibition and the creative bug is now biting hard. The  48-year-old, best known for painting with his bare hands, has been taking on corporate commissions in Hong Kong, Macau and Manila, but the commercial work appears not to have  dulled his artistic senses. If anything, it did quite the opposite.

“Despite the busy schedule, new ideas and concepts were sprouting like mushrooms,” says de Guzman. “I said to myself, I have to scratch this itch.”

So for his upcoming show “The Layers of Life”, to be held at  PubArt Gallery between  September 30 and October 31, the artist has abandoned his old practice  and experiments instead  with new materials,  media and methods. Instead of using his palms and fingers to create his abstract pieces, here he has employed fabrics and fibres with acrylic paints to produce multi-layered and heavily textured paintings.

He says the experience has been liberating: “The experimentation and discovery proved to be challenging and artistically thrilling for me. I was free. I felt like I was born again and I can do anything I want. It seems like I was learning a new language. Making a lot of mistakes, and not afraid of making them.

“I have purchased a [fire] torch and created artworks by burning  canvases. I also tried my hand  at nude digital art.”

The core material that de Guzman now uses in his art is  one that has a strong association with his childhood:  burlap cloth. His father used to run a textile store in the biggest market in Manila, he recalls, and as a boy, he had often seen burlap sacks being carried around.

“During weekends, we would help run the store. It was during these times when I would go around the market and satisfy my curiosity,” he says. “The joy of bringing home the burlap to my studio felt like a little boy with a new toy.”

How de Guzman applies the burlap – with pronounced texture and in vibrant colours – to both his paintings and sculptures can be seen  throughout The Layers of Life. One highlight is Balancing Rainbow,  a bicycle covered with acrylic-dipped fibres and strings. “Life is like riding a bicycle – we continue to pedal so we won’t fall down. And the rainbow colours represent the various states of our lives,” explains de Guzman.  Einstein’s Matter, another sculptural piece, is a reference to the brain, the grey matter.

“Since Einstein is considered one of the greatest geniuses of our times, I have depicted his brain in a multicoloured way,” the artist says.

After graduating in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in  fine arts   from the University of the Philippines, de Guzman  worked as an art director in a number of advertising agencies for five years before moving to Hong Kong in 1993, where he worked as a graphic artist and art director for various regional and international publications.  He was a consultant designer for the South China Morning Post between 2010 and 2011.

De Guzman says his new practice also reflects how he looks at life; how he is constantly developing and evolving not only as an artist but a person.

“During my discovery period, I would pick up and recycle old canvases and paint over  [them]. The burlaps juxtaposed one on top of the other made me associate it with life. We pick up something old and we make it new again. That’s life,” he says, adding that the layers of life pile up just as we gain more experience.

“They make us strong and it gives us character as the layers become richer. The difficulties I have experienced during childhood helped me become a better person,” the artist says.

His experiences – whether of him living in a garage and  working in a market as a child or, more recently, losing a project and some personal investments – all helped him to become a better person. His travels over the past seven years  also enriched his life.

“I went to see the manta rays in the Maldives, walked the streets of Delhi, watched the fireworks spring out of the Eiffel  Tower, smelled gasoline from the military parade in Moscow, tried the hamam [Turkish bath] in Istanbul, grasped snow on Mount Fuji,” says de Guzman.

“These experiences were transferred to the canvas. I can say my artworks today have more soul than, say, seven years ago. I can say this is an autobiographical show.”

The Layers of Life, Sept 30 to Oct 31, PubArt Gallery, G/F, 7B Chancery Lane, Central. Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 12pm to 7pm. Inquiries: 2840 1809