Russell West’s art – intensely colored, three-dimensional, paint-dripped labyrinths of layers and lines – is on show at a solo exhibition in the heart of London’s elegant Fitzrovia district.
Its inspiration could hardly be further away from that setting. In fact, it no longer exists. From 1949 until it fell victim to the wrecking ball in the 1990s, Hong Kong’s notorious Kowloon Walled City was essentially an ungoverned no-man’s land. It was an anomaly, one which neither the UK, Hong Kong’s then colonial ruler, nor the People’s Republic of China, would take responsibility for. Over the decades it became the most densely populated settlement on the planet and one of the world’s truly anarchic communities.
West lived and worked as an artist in Asia for most of the 1990s – in the Philippines, in India and in Hong Kong, where he was immediately drawn to this remarkable, dense and wild warren that was restricted, from the late 1980s, to little more than six soccer pitches in size, but nevertheless housed more than 30,000 people.
“I saw a magazine picture of the Walled City before I came to Hong Kong,” explains West. “So it’s just about the first thing I visited when I arrived.” That was in 1993, and demolition had just started. “I saw the wrecking ball swinging, which allowed me to see it in cross-section – the tiny apartments, the walls, doors, like a patchwork quilt or a messy bird’s nest. And I could only think, people lived there. That was home.”
West spends up to a year on each of his works, but his ingenious dripping paint technique, in which he adds layer upon layer onto wire, nails or metal frames, effectively does its own work.
“Once in place,” says West, “the paint continues to move, dribbling serendipitously downward until it dries. It amuses me to think that at the end of every day, after locking up my studio for the night, my paintings continue to build themselves on their own in the dark in full color, creating their desire lines.”
The scenes that this serendipitous process creates, the chaotic and complex honeycombs the paint leaves, are immediately reminiscent of Kowloon – both as it was in the Walled City’s heyday and as some of the area around where it stood remains today.
Kowloon’s Walled City was unique and, its own lawless way, ingenious. West’s works, which have now been shown in London, Paris, New York, Miami and Hong Kong, are the same.
Russell West is showing at Woolff Gallery, 89 Charlotte Street, London, W1, until May 12