MS Paint is no more. Microsoft announced this month that the simple computer drawing software will no longer be included with future Windows computers. This news was met with tongue-in-cheek outpourings of love for the once ubiquitous program. Coincidentally, an exhibit of Hong Kong artist Gaylord Chan opened its doors around the same time, showcasing the works of the 92-year-old local artist, who turned to the program more than a decade ago, after a stroke left him unable to paint standing up. Before then, his paintings had accrued attention for their esoteric, whimsical and highly symbolic forms.
The synergy between a seasoned oil painter and the simple computer tool worked surprisingly well. Though an accomplished artist, Chan evidently was never hindered by the kind of snobbery that prevents some artists from exploring the realms of less high-brow forms of art. Computer art — even (or perhaps especially) in its most rudimentary form — delighted Chan, who put to screen over 400 digital paintings, some of which are displayed in Hanart TZ Gallery’s retrospective of his work.
These works of computer-generated images share a similar visual language as the painted works that preceded them, but they also have the curious textures particular to MS Paint. Walking through the exhibit, one notices a difference in size between the bold oil paintings and those made on computer. This speaks to one of the many limitations of the clunky software: printing them out too big produces unrecognisably pixelated works, MS Paint’s pixel range being so small compared to contemporary illustration software. But these setbacks don’t seem to bother Chan all that much. What excites him about the medium is how quickly and effortlessly he can work.
The now quaint software was released with the very first version of Windows 1.0 in 1985. Since then, it has generated countless drawings and doodles with an instantly identifiable look. This aesthetic — which, like anything computer-related, has quickly dated – make MS Paint drawings ripe for the sort of whimsical reference-specific nostalgia the internet world of memes and esoteric in-jokes takes such glee in.
Curiously, this meme-like approach to processing the stimuli of life seems to chime nicely with Chan’s own. Described by friends and colleagues alike as a fun but vigorous artist, his art is fuelled both by a levity and joy in self-expression while also containing murky, complex subtexts. This parallels the modern world of internet memes, which can be silly, simplistic and self-absorbed but also highly-referential, symbolic and complex.
Born in Hong Kong in 1925, Chan worked as an engineer specialising in airwaves and frequencies before he took up painting when he was 42. In the late 1960s, he underwent training in visual arts at Hong Kong University, and from that period onwards devoted his life to art. Lately, his health has been faltering, and he was confined to his hospital bed on the day of his vernissage. But friends say that his enthusiasm for his work remains as strong and as unwavering as always. “He has a strong will, a real will to survive,” says art critic Ian Findlay Brown, who has been captivated by Chan’s work through his career. “He is passionate about living.”
That will to survive is a quality Brown attributes to Chan’s teenage years during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, a painful period in the city’s history that is still rarely discussed. Chan doesn’t like to dwell on the past, says Brown, but his demons find expression in his pieces that exist somewhere between the abstract and the figurative. This reading of his works is particularly striking when one observes the painting “Seven Teeth,” which shows a haunting three-legged beast marked by an evil eye, with jagged teeth and what looks like a prehistoric fish at his feet. A rather sinister creature, it feels both primordial and nightmarish, reflecting an imagination stalked by beasts of the subconscious.
These primeval beasts might well confer a layer of identity forged in particularly trying times in which the orderly and civilised values that make us human fall by the wayside in favour of a moral code more befitting the animals from which we descended. Chan has said in previous conversations that he often dreams, and that these dreams inspire his paintings. This lends weight to the interpretation that his work mines a painful past for problematic emotions and identities buried in the unconscious mind. Other symbols that reoccur throughout his work, besides the monstrous beasts, are themes of flight and transcendence. Among them, a black and white butterfly is one striking symbol, as is the beautifully angular image “Golden Nucleus,” which would not look out of place among sci-fi imagery.
Brown notes that Chan’s compositions have a floating aspect to them. Objects tend not to be grounded, with many of the forms giving a sense of moving in an upwards direction. This composition, which involves a sort of balancing act between the sinister subterranean the luminously transcendent, also manifests itself in Chan’s computer works. One piece in particular, “Colorgon,” shows a simple, fun dragon-like shape with streaks of primary colours for wings. This playful piece from 2014 is apparently named after a Pokemon, reflecting a curiosity in the narratives and symbols of generations much younger than his, while also staying true to this fixation on flight, fantasy and imagery of the monstrous.
That he is drawing his own interpretations from a piece of pop culture speaks to a limitless rather childlike artistic curiosity. This is the same character trait in an individual that would fall in love with the possibilities of a program like MS Paint for producing art, and who would, despite the challenge of illness, find ways to carry on making art, responding to the world around him with joy, imagination and unceasing play.
What makes Chan’s work so powerful is the way he explores the human spirit while also finding glee in the ways we can use art to become more than the sum of our struggles. It’s a pursuit that is just as possible with the click of a button as it is with dab of a paintbrush.
Gaylord Chan: Painting at 90 runs until September 2, 2017 at Hanart TZ Gallery, Unit 401, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central. For more details click here.