Jacky Tsai wants the world to stop asking him about his connection to fashion designer Alexander McQueen. For the Shanghai born artist, it was a short period in his life that has been used too frequently to define his evolving career.
For those who do not know the story, Tsai interned at Alexander McQueen’s fashion house for three months before returning to his studies at Central Saint Martins College of Art. That was when, at 23, he created one of the fashion world’s most iconic images – McQueen’s floral skull. Tsai tells Localiiz that he didn’t even know his design made it to market until a year after finishing his internship when a friend congratulated him on making it store shelves.
Now at 30, Tsai says the skulls that he created to replace fear with beauty and has spent the past seven years perfecting, are nearing their end. He is embracing new media and a new message, one of contemporizing the traditional and courting imitation to preserve artistic skills that are dying out with the loss of China’s ageing masters.
I sat down with Tsai last week while he was in town for his new exhibition; one of the dozens of satellite shows surrounding this weekend’s Art Basel event. His new work centers on traditional craftsmanship, designed by him and executed by masters of porcelain, lacquer woodcarvings, cloisonne, and embroidery.
By modernizing these classic artistic methods, Tsai says he hopes to foster an interest among artists to copy these mediums without directly lifting his style or designs. “I realized that if they pass away this technique just dies.”
In my conversation with Tsai, his own past is very relevant as he looks to find his place in the art world. As a child, his family never identified any creativity in their son. He describes his childhood personality as shy and “very low key”, following around his more clever and creative cousin. He was urged to find stable work in Shanghai, a reason behind his enrolling in a graphic design course at the China Academy of Art.
Being an artist was never a consideration for Tsai during his early studies. “It is very, very difficult if you want to be a full time artist. I discovered my talent very late, when going to London and having a master course there.”
That’s the moment Tsai was “discovered” as he puts it, plucked out of his classes at St. Martins for an internship for McQueen because the scouts “quite liked my floral skull things”.
But that was then. Tsai says he is not a “fashion person” or a “designer” though he has left his mark in both worlds. He prefers to say that he is “practicing art” and remains reluctant to even define himself as an artist, pointing to his own creative evolution and casting off the labels that help us writers put him in a box.
Even as Tsai winds down his examination of skulls, producing only one or two pieces a year, he remains torn between public perception and personal interest. “I don’t want to hide my special feeling for skulls.”
The use of traditional methods and mediums is not hampering Tsai’s creative juices though. He is once again looking to his childhood, this time focusing on comic heroes, to inspire his works. He began nearly two years ago when a friend’s wedding brought him from his London base to China and closer to ancient crafts.
“Good craft is dying. How am I going to change that situation?”
Tsai admits he is not a master, relying instead on the aging artists in their 70s and 80s to bring his designs to life, closely monitoring every step of the process and occasionally causing waves amongst his elderly staff. These confrontations stem from the reluctance of the masters to put super heroes in their woodcarvings and Tsai who realizes that if he does not modernize traditional art it may be lost forever. This is a doubly bad proposition according to Tsai since the contemporary art coming out of China is “ugly”, represented by imitators of the works of artists like Yue Minjun, mass-producing those broad smiles across canvases sold around the world.
“I want to visually please people. We are living in a very tough world. In Chinese contemporary art, there is too much ugly art. All my work is therefore visually beautiful.”
Tsai understands where that art comes from and the money that flows towards imitators who are struggling to sell their work, but he feels that the future of modern art lies in the past.
“I can understand those artists. They had just experienced the Cultural Revolution. So if you want to do well in China you have to copy that trend. You have to do that smiley face. I am [Western trained] so I can break the mold. I don’t have to do the smiley face. I can do beautiful art work.”[masterslider id=48]
Jacky Tsai East West Exhibit
Running through April 11
The Cat Street Gallery
222 Hollywood Road