Ho Tam

TITLE: Provocative Pleasures: The Art OF Ho Tam




One of the most striking exhibitions in Toronto last year was Ho Tam’s installation at YYZ. Although the show spanned three separate bodies of work, strong visual and conceptual continuities made it extremely cohesive.


The bold graphic nature of Ho Tam’s work created an accumulative visual statement that used the fish-bowl street-level aspects of the YYZ site very effectively. In this way, Ho Tam has learned the lessons that Pop Art took from the commercial culture of billboards and other advertising. I had the occasion to pass by the gallery in a taxi cab at the night several times during the exhibition and was always astonished at how well the paintings read from a moving vehicle.


This is not to say, however, that the works are not also seductive under more intimate scrutiny. The paint handling is accomplished in all of these pieces and the colours are carefully orchestrated. The untitled early ‘food’ series (1993-94) is a curious blend of containment and expressiveness. In this group of fairly large-scaled works, Ho Tam juxtaposes nude young Asian males to familiar logos and packaging of “Chinese” products (China Lily, Lucky Fish Sauce, etc.) While the figures and typography are tightly rendered with assertive defining contour lines, there are many areas of the canvases that revel in pure painterly delight.


A formal shift takes place in the two newer series, Greetings (1995) and Matinee Idols (1995). They are more programmatic, therefore more dependent on being exhibited with a large accumulation in order to convey meaning. The paintings are smaller and the paint application is more homogenous. This is reinforced by a high-gloss varnish finish on the paintings that is reminiscent of the beautiful surfaces of Chinese lacquered screens and art objects. The brushwork is more subtle than in the earlier ones, still the sensuous strokes are intrinsic to the power of these works.


The two series are also similar in their representational strategies. In Greetings, fifteen panels of figurative details focusing on sexual anatomy (cocks, balls, and butts -- the images seeming to have their source in gay skin magazines) are paired with panels sporting logos of emotionally resonant product names, like Cheer, Glad, Ensure and Excel. Matinee Idols takes painted portraits of Asian film heartthrobs (from Hong Kong movie magazines) and couples them with the famous brand-names that are also the names of men, such as Calvin (Klein, of course), Walt (Disney), and Ray (Bans). They are also rendered in the typography that we associate with the product line. The “frisson” in both series comes from the pairing of ubiquitous affects of commodity culture with the culturally specificity of being gay and Asian.


Ho Tam’s next major series was a set of thirty portraits of Chinese business men, titled The Salary Men (1995). The frontal portraits are rendered in a simplified and stylized manner with an extremely restricted palette; all the suits are black (as are the hair and the eyeglasses), all the shirts are white, all the backgrounds are an identical grey, and all the complexions are an invariable shade of yellow-orange. Perhaps because of the inherent reference to market capitalism, he has not paired these portraits with commodity logos.


More recently, Ho Tam has continued the representational strategies of Greetings and Matinee Idols but brought them into a more personal realm. In his new series, Secret Garden, the models are friends rather than anonymous figures from magazines. This is immediately apparent, although it is hard to pinpoint what signals this. Certainly there is a wider age spectrum, and the body types are more varied than one would find in boy magazines, but the intimacy of the relationship between artist and subject is reflected more through illusive details: a casualness of gesture, the gaze of the sitter, etc. In Secret Garden the portraits are now paired with brand names that are flowers: Carnations, Chrysanthemum, China Lily, etc. Ho Tam has also relaxed the rigid format that was so important to the affect of the previous varied, keyed to the personalities of sitters and the figures break from the previously imposed frontality.


In all these bodies of work there is an ironic referencing of Warhol. The reliance on serial imagery, the obsession with consumer culture, the skillful graphic talent, the cool campiness of the imagery; unmistakably the Pop pioneer is given his homage in these series. However, Warhol never betrayed his Central European roots in his work. His art reveled in the ecstasy of unrootednes that is part of American mythology: the possibility of reinventing oneself in the melting pot. Ho Tam has flipped this detachment by asserting that roots do matter – that we cannot escape our pasts or the stereotypes that are projected on us.


Painting is definitely Ho Tam’s primary medium, but he hasn’t allowed himself to be restricted by it. Other areas that he has explored include drawing and ceramic installations, printmaking book-works and video. Particularly video and book-works have given him a chance to apply his notable graphic talents and more aggressively tackle issues like racial stereotyping, cultural clichés and sexual orientation with a great deal of wit.


Formally, if one was to try to name a painter whose work is referenced by Ho Tam’s it would be the highly stylized work of Alex Katz, particularly his early portraits of notable dancers and choreographers. This is both surprising and significant, considering the vast difference in their approach to their subject matter. While Katz chronicles the lives of a certain strata of Manhattan social life, his foremost intention always seems to be to indulge the enormous appetite for the visual pleasures of his viewers. Ho Tam on the other hand deals with many crucial and sobering issues of representation but never with a callous disregard of his audience. His work inevitably partakes in a sly humour that he openly shares with his viewers and he always makes room for his visual pleasure. Increasingly, his precisely executed paintings sparkle like polished jewels dazzling the eyes. Even so they also challenge the mind.


(September 1996)