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Kim Wan in front of a wall of canvases being primed for new work. Photograph by Erica Smith

Kim Wan: no blank canvas

It’s over eight years since HOT last interviewed Kim Wan. In the meantime his practice has developed and paint has merged with pixels. 2021 ended with the award of a Grand Prize at Scope Art Fair, Art Basel, Miami Beach. Erica Smith decided it was time to catch up and see what’s new.

‘Untitled (Self-Portrait)’, 2019, was the Exposure 2021 Grand Prize Winner for Painting, Drawing, and Mixed Media. The work is clearly digital, yet grounded in conventional oil painting.

When I last interviewed Kim Wan in August 2014, NFT meant the National Film Theatre. Non Fungible Tokens had been around for less than four months and crypto-currencies were definitely part of the sub-culture. Wan is an artist who has never been afraid to explore boundaries, but back then he was doing it by staring in the mirror and pushing paint around canvases.

Since then, Wan has moved on. Physically, he’s left his seafront home and studio for a flat further inland. We talked about how St Leonards has changed since we last met. Wan’s move was forced by the agents of gentrification. The distressed mansion which housed his top-floor rented flat was sold for re-development. He found himself another distressed top-floor flat in Silverhill – this time with views of eastern skies.

Digital print pushing Wan’s original oil painting into a new dimension.

Artistically, he’s moved into the world of the NFT – scanning his paintings and working into the images digitally. He also paints portraits on canvases the size of an iPad – sometimes using his fingers in the oil paint as if the canvas was an iPad. Wan no longer sees an oil painting as the final artwork. Paintings are scanned and become elements of digital art – and sometimes paint is added to digital prints.

The work is new and exciting but you can still see references to his earlier paintings. He re-works digital versions of self-portraits and his work as a street artist is clearly visible – spray-cans now hurled aside in preference for playing with pixels. I’ve always thought of Wan as an artist grounded in traditional media, so I was surprised to see how confidently he has embraced the NFT market.

Detail of works in Wan’s studio – a small canvas painted in oils is laid on top of a pile of digital prints which include elements of his paintings – pixels stretched to make digital blends. His fascination with self-portraits, masks and graffiti have been translated into a new medium.

Wan’s tiny canvases are as bright as a screen-based image

It’s no surprise that he has developed a North American market for his artwork. I ask him if he knows who buys his art. He smiles and gives me a couple of examples of his buyers. One is an Afro-American academic who has more than one Wan in his private collection. His art is also popular with members of inner-city street gangs – they probably pick up on his street art style. Wan’s work can be beautiful and colourful, but his is a rough-around-the-edges aesthetic.

Wan in front of an old palette – “Technically, it’s a ready-made.”

Whilst Wan’s portraits have a hint of Francis Bacon about them, his studio neatly combines his digital work station and a traditional table of oil paints and brushes. Downstairs, he has hung one of his oil palettes on the wall. I ask him if it is a painting and he says “Technically, it’s a ready-made”.

It’s ironic that Wan’s artwork has been having a ball at art fairs across the Atlantic whilst he’s been leading a fairly solitary existence since lockdown. His partner caught Covid early in 2020. Wan is very aware that it is a disease which cruelly impacts on the lives of BAME communities far more than those with privileged white heritage.

The benefit of the pandemic is that Wan’s sole focus has been on creating his artwork. Whilst physical movement was restricted by lockdown, it’s exciting to see how the work of this unusual artist has developed. 2022 promises to be a year where Kim Wan steps back out into the international art world.

Wan is careful about how often he shows work in his hometown, so you might need to travel to see some of his work in the flesh. But in the meantime, you can catch up on the 2014 interview with Kim Wan here. Kim Wan’ website and instagram will keep you up to date with his artwork. He is represented in the USA by See|Me.

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Posted 21:51 Wednesday, Feb 9, 2022 In: Arts News

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