Former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch suggested during a REDCAT panel discussion Tuesday night that a new art star has been belatedly born: Michael Chow, who studied painting and architecture and acted in films as a young man in London before launching his first Mr. Chow restaurant there in 1968.
A short film shown before the discussion documented Chow's return to painting over the past two years. It depicted the 74-year-old restaurateur flinging paint, milk and melted metal onto canvases, mashing them with egg yolks, sticking on sponges and other materials, and coming up with something reminiscent of classic Jackson Pollock.
"You're allowing yourself to be radical and putting together things that shouldn't be put together," Deitch said. "If you followed a [conventional] line you would not get these exciting, unexpected results. This is what an artist might be able to accomplish, if they're very ambitious, in 10 years" rather than in a two-year splurge such as Chow's.
Chow is on the board of Eli Broad's downtown museum, and his wife, Eva Chow, servies on LACMA's board. He credited his interest in creating art partly to his artistic bloodlines. His father, Zhou Xinfang, who died in 1975, was China's most famous performer in the theatrical form known as Beijing Opera until his long career was undone by Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
In the early 1950s, Zhou and his wife had packed their 13-year-old son off to London for an education -- and to remove him from the horrors that would soon unfold in Mao's China.
Michael Chow said that a "broken education" in which he'd never learned the correct way of doing things had freed him to improvise an unencumbered creative and entrepreneurial life.
Chow spoke at length on the importance of not getting bogged down by too much formal artistic training.
"This is all making me a little nervous," host Steven Lavine, president of California Institute of the Arts, quipped. Annual tuition at CalArts is $39,976, according to the Valencia school's website.
Part of the discussion focused on Deitch and the others' opinion that L.A. hasn't developed the kind of freewheeling, informal meeting places for creative cross-pollination that Deitch said Mr. Chow became in late-1960s London and in the early 1980s in New York, when he recalled mixing with luminaries such as Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Manhattan Mr. Chow that opened in 1979. The restaurant's Beverly Hills edition, open since 1974, is known for its Hollywood clientele rather than for visual artists and rock musicians.
"The most exciting periods in our culture are periods when it all converges -- fashion, art, film, they all interrelate and one form makes the other more interesting," Deitch said during the discussion. "We were hoping to have that energy here [in L.A.]. It hasn't totally converged yet, but there's great potential for it."
The theme of L.A. somehow not having reached a level of visual art convergence was not tempered during the discussion by any mention of the blossoming of the Southern California art scene that was documented by the "Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980" region-wide exhibition initiative of 2011.
That flowering sprang largely from educational institutions that attracted and fostered brilliant students who stayed in L.A. to launch their careers – among them CalArts and its precursor, the Chouinard Art Institute, UCLA, Otis College of Art and Design and UC Irvine.
The late Mike Kelley, who trained at CalArts, and UC Irvine alumnus Chris Burden are the subjects of current major retrospectives at Manhattan museums.