The Independent Collector
JOHN WINDSOR'S GUIDE TO BUYING AFFORDABLE MODERN ART
Tuesday 16 June 1998
At first, it sounds like an attention-grabbing stunt. In a way, it is. Although the artist, Hai Shuet Yeung, has contributed more to the development of watercolour technique than any other contemporary artist, East or West, he has been cold-shouldered by the London art establishment. The scale of his project matches his indignation.
If Yeung were a twenty-something British conceptual artist living in Spitalfields, things might be different. Instead, he is a 62-year-old Chinese-born refugee living in Grimsby who paints realistic koi carp.
Those who view his masterwork at the London Contemporary Art and Design Show will marvel at his swirling underwater shoal; at his handling of light reflected in moving water - the way the colours of the fish respond to the dappling of brightness and shade - and the alternate sharpness and blur of their movement.
The painting, titled Culture 5000 because it will show 5,000 carp, one for each year of the past five millennia of civilisation, will be photographed, then cut into 100 pieces: 20 to be sold to private collectors and the rest to be offered to national museums from Beijing to London.
Meanwhile, Yeung works on the painting for up to 16 hours a day in the garage of his house. He is only 5ft 6in tall and cannot reach beyond the middle of the 1.5 metre wide roll. "My back hurts," he says, "and at the end of the day I have to have a hot bath and massage." He expects to finish it early next year.
Yeung taught chemistry in his native province of Guangdong until he circulated two caricatures of fellow high school teachers, accusing one of embezzlement, the other of making false denunciations, and was forced to flee to Hong Kong.
His knowledge of chemistry has come in handy. Whereas Western watercolourists still use wax to mask patches of paper they want to remain blank, Yeung has developed a host of chemical techniques, including the treatment of paper with wallpaper paste, which slows the spread of watercolour, and the use of neutral-pH soap, which resists some colours but absorbs others.
It is his very versatility that has so far denied him fame. During his 11 years in Hong Kong, he developed his own style, in which the detail and overall view complement one another rather like a hologram. He experimented using crumpled paper instead of a paintbrush. Some of his landscapes blend into abstraction.
In Grimsby, he painted Chinese-style oils of junks, which supplemented his wages as a waiter. In 1975, he opened his own art gallery above his Chinese restaurant in Grimsby, but it was not until 1982 that he found time to develop his watercolour techniques. But by then, the stigma of Chinese restaurant art was upon him. Local galleries denied him solo exhibitions, describing his landscapes as "competent", at the same time dismissing them for being "commercial" and "popular".
Last year, the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours rejected Yeung's application for membership. His name was not even placed on the candidates' list. He argued this decision by letter and telephone and in so doing blotted his copy book.
But in the past two years, two central London galleries, the Bankside and the Mall, have between them sold three of the swimming koi watercolours for pounds 1,000 each.
And he has been championed by Anne Farrer, curator of Chinese paintings and prints at the British Museum. The Museum has bought a dozen of his abstract landscapes. In a book about his work, Hai Shuet Yeung: Innovation in Abstraction, recently published by Saffron, Ms Farrer credits him with "the maturity and individuality of a master".
Fish paintings by Yeung are on sale, from pounds 500 to pounds 2,000, at the London Contemporary Art and Design Show, Kensington Town Hall, Hornton Street, London W8. Preview Thurs, entry pounds 8, then Fri, Sat and Sun, entry pounds 5. Inquiries: Penman Art Fairs, 01444 482514
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