By Bianca Guillen
Patrons filed into the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater at REDCAT in Los Angeles, all Muffled hushes filled with speculation- Is Jeffrey Deitch going to directly address his resignation from MOCA? Will Michael Chow recount some epic 1980’s debaucheries at Mr. Chow? As everyone settled in moderator and CalArts President Steven D. Lavine proceeded with the required boilerplate greeting. Transitioning though, President Levine remarked, “Over the last several years the subject of creativity is everywhere… we are interested in how creative activity in one realm can lead to creative activity in another realm.” Ultimately, this statement would be the precipice of the forthcoming discussion.
Exploration and connectivity between and within “realms” continues to be the professional (and further venturing- lifelong) pursuit, of these prolific art culture figures. Guest panel speakers Michael Chow and Jeffrey Deitch candidly shared their personal feelings toward the intangible, guttural subjectivity that is creation and experience of art. Consequently, this highly evolved intuition is not mutually exclusive from many of their business decisions. A connective thread that Chow and Deitch share are not just their personal successes in volatile and competitive industries; But, how each of their pursuits established them as unique identities and professional authorities within their respective, niche markets. Outlined in a memoir fashion, this discussion was captivating due to its honesty- no heady language or ulterior motives.
Following three short films and a pseudo laundry list of achievements, Chow and Deitch were introduced with raucous applause. In a pensive tone and well-considered words Michael Chow addressed the crowd first, “I wanted to be the greatest. Greatest what? Greatest anything. This has motivated my career,” A desire to ascend expectations as a young man in London, was a formidability created by the dominant, yet absent, presence of Chow’s father. Chow, born in Shanghai during the height of the “Bamboo Curtain,” is the son of the late, Zhou Xinfang. Xinfang rose to prominence as a revolutionary figure of the Peking Opera. As illustrated in first film, original footage captured the grace and authority with which Xinfang contorted his body and fluctuated his vocal cords. Chow’s father remains a Chinese “national treasure,” his fame and worshipped notoriety casting a long shadow and lasting impact on Chow.
Leaving China at the age eleven for boarding school in London, Chow- “failed all subjects except Chinese, because I spoke it. And, of course drawing.” His artistic capabilities landed him at St Martins, studying design and architecture. After schooling Chow’s attentions turned to painting. Despite obvious talent, there was struggle to be recognized. Positioned at a pivotal point, he questioned what was really important to him, personally. According to Chow, the “God-like figure” that was his father continued to have an emotional implication on his outlook. Wishing to introduce his Chinese heritage to the Western world he now occupied, Chow opened Mr. Chow’s restaurant, in Knightsbridge district of London, 1968. According to Chow, opening night welcomed: The Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, David Hockney and a slew of characters that shaped the cultural front of its time. Finally, the creative community of all disciplines could converge in one place. Jeffrey Deitch likened Mr. Chow’s of the 1960’s London and later 1980’s New York location to the Cedar Tavern of the Abstract Expressionist period. As Deitch Stated, “Artists had a place to connect (at Cedar Tavern)…there was fighting at Mr. Chow’s but not as physical as at the Cedar Tavern.”
Now, Michael Chow has marked his return to painting in a documentary style short. In the second film of the evening, a series of shots illustrating Chow’s painting style are woven together: blow torches liquefying metals, fluid brush strokes, staple gunning, hurried mixing, splattering, tossing and breaking of eggs (some on the canvas, some in the paint). This sounds contrived, but the results are startlingly beautiful. Each canvas achieves the look of a topographic map, dotted with metal and color. After what is described as a “four decade epic sabbatical,” an official exhibition is slated for January 2014 in Hong Kong. In a joking aside Chow stated, “If you need the address just text me.” Deitch, ever the observer pointed out, “that only a person that could orchestrate a restaurant of three-hundred patrons a night, can organize a canvas that well.”
“People are hungry for artistic inspiration and stimulation,” although generalized, this statement shared by Jeffrey Deitch in the final film screened for the evening, “Reinventing the Experience of Art,” echoes truth. In this short, Jesse Dylan interviews Jeffrey Deitch on his viewpoint of art, the “controversy (as Deitch put it)” and the necessary, impending evolution of museums and other formal establishments (“the audience is no longer differentiating between someone like John Baldessari and Michel Gondry”). Dylan’s film was such a succinct introduction that the ensuing discussion focused on illuminating particulars of Deitch’s viewpoint. Fortunately, the audience and President Levine alike were alleviated of harping on MOCA-related “controversy.” This proved to be a good thing as Deitch was free to share what led to the opening his first gallery, anecdotes on artists and his next endeavor.
Many may know the characteristically circular bespectacled, pinstriped suited Deitch as an American art dealer, curator and most notoriously the former head of Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Decades before this shadow preceded him, Deitch began his career while still attending Wesleyan University. In 1972 he opened his first gallery, setting out to sell overstock of copper pots, a business his family owned. Appropriately this first venture was titled, “Copper Artisans Gallery.” Through the years Deitch has been a member of an art advisory board for Citibank, a consultant for collectors and curators alike, an authenticator for Jean Michel Basquiat Estate and founder of Deitch Projects.
With each advance in his career considered, Deitch’s legacy will remain the early championing of skateboard, graffiti and street art culture. As President Levine mentioned, Deitch’s attention turned toward skateboarding and street art during the late 1980’s in San Francisco- perhaps as a collector. Deitch himself, was immersed in Lower East Side New York of the early 1980’s, Perhaps his predilection toward graffiti culture, could be pinpointed here? Either way, Deitch Projects mounted shows that exhibited artistic aspects that were not considered quite as important as it is now, a little over a decade later. In December 2002, Deitch Projects presented “Session the Bowl.” This show coupled graffiti art with skateboarding. The skateboarders, in unintentional performance art manner, shredded through a skateboard bowl constructed within the gallery (a viewing pleasure that altered how President Levine viewed art in a gallery context). Indeed, this particular show at Deitch Projects was a precursor to the wildly successful, ambitious survey of graffiti and street art, in MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” of 2011. Next month, Deitch will be curating a show about Area, the short lived, thematically “new” nightclub in New York, 1980. According to Deitch, “the promotional poster is a photo of a group of people at Mr. Chow’s during this time.”
When prompted for a closing remark, Michael Chow simply stated, “be true to your time.” The life’s work of Michael Chow and Jeffrey Deitch are direct products of this. Both individuals navigated through decades past with creativity toward business and a hindsight vision in the present tense. Chow didn’t rehash much of the eighties, nor did Deitch go too deeply into the MOCA fiasco, perhaps for the best. The nature of their work requires a consideration of history, but it is the persistence toward the future which may allow these individuals, in their own way, to continuously connect “creative realms.”
For more information on this panel discussion visit REDCAT, Los Angeles.
-Contributed by Bianca Guillen