A local abstract artist fuelled by curiosity and sharing the joy of art

Bifocal (2009)
Net of Pyramid (1992)
The Story of Eyes (1996)
Red Green Blades (1992)
7 to the Nth Power (1995)
Never End gallery view
Never End: The Art and Life of Gaylord Chan
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Hong Kong World War II

Gaylord Chan was just seventeen when Hong Kong experienced first-hand the ravishes of World War II. He rarely talked about those years of lost teenage innocence. Instead, he chose to embrace joy through his life’s hardships. This played out in his successful first career as a telecommunication engineer and his second career as an artist and educator.

Cable & Wireless

Chan came from a humble family and began working at Cable & Wireless as soon as he was old enough. In 1968, at the age of forty-two, he had a midlife crisis triggered by his former wife’s battle with thyroid cancer. To manage the crises, Chan enrolled in an extramural art and design certificate course at the University of Hong Kong. There, he received practical training and an appreciation for art history. One of his professors, architect Tao Ho (1936-2019), recognised his talent and provided mentorship. By 1973, his artwork was accomplished enough to earn a solo exhibition. He actively participated in the emerging art community and co-founded the Hong Kong Visual Arts Society in 1974.    

Love & Skills

However, artistic recognition did not lead to financial stability, and like most of his friends, Chan could not earn a living by selling his art. So, he continued his career with Cable & Wireless (the predecessor of PCCW) before retiring in 1989. Retirement from his first career allowed him to focus on creating art and teaching. He co-founded the Culture Corner Art Academy with fellow painter Josephine Chow Suk Fan and began sharing his love and skills with the next generation of artists. 

Chan persevered through a series of health challenges that would have left most people debilitated. This included a serious car accident, heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and a series of operations to treat those ailments. Yet he remained committed to teaching and creating art. An operation to treat lung cancer in 2001 required the removal of twenty-five per cent of his lungs, effectively preventing the physical exertion needed to paint with acrylic. Ever the optimist and always willing to experiment, Chan taught himself to create art using Microsoft Paint, a tool he continued to master until his passing in 2020 at the age of ninety-five. 

Art is Intuitive

Filled with childlike wonder, Chan’s art is more intuitive than scholarly. His artworks are simplistic and direct. They echo the characteristics of naive art, favouring flat compositions and vibrant, saturated colours over complex perspectives or depth. This focus on immediacy allows emotions to take centre stage. Prioritising feeling over realistic depiction, Chan’s art invites viewers to connect with a message that goes beyond the literal. The exhibition curators write that Chan thought there was a limit to what a painting could say, and each of his pictures sought to express a few choice words in the most eloquent visual grammar.

Like the Spanish artist Joan Miro, Chan invented his own iconography of glyphs and symbols to convey meaning. All Questions Answered (1995) is a playful example of this. In it are three small squares of unintelligible glyphs. It resembles an Egyptian archaeological find with the promise of all answers. But without the Rosetta Stone, it playfully proposes that life poses more questions than answers. Similarly, Net of Pyramid (1992) considers the mystery of the afterlife with childlike curiosity. Does a pyramid need a net to contain the souls of pharaohs? Or are these souls floating above it with their golden robes? The chosen colours seem to convey a calming reply to both questions. 

Cantonese Slang for Penis

The themes in Chan’s artwork range from schoolboy humour to deep philosophy. The title 7 to the Nth Power (1995) is Cantonese slang for the word penis, depictions of which can be seen without too much imagination.

In contrast, Bifocal (2009), with the two characters sharing an eye, contemplates interconnectivity and the nature of a shared point of view.

Gaylord Chan’s life and art testify to the power of approaching each day with childlike wonder. He faced war and health challenges with contemplative humour, which he shared generously with his students.     

Gaylord Chan’s life and art testify to the power of approaching each day with childlike wonder

Through his unique visual language, playful symbols and vibrant colours, Chan invites viewers to connect with the deeper emotional truths of the human experience – from the mysteries of life and death to the simple joys of daily existence. His art, filled with a sense of naivete and immediacy, transcends the literal to speak directly to the heart.

Never End: The Art and Life of Gaylord Chan is showing at Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

Text Martin Wray / Photos Cammy Yiu