British artist tells story of China vs. ‘The West’ in series of paintings

Society & Culture

A series of six paintings from British artist William Balthazar Rose creates a novel artistic commentary on China's relationship with the world.

"Angry Chinese Cook," by British artist William Balthazar Rose

In one painting, a Chinese cook clad in red trousers, a white tunic, and a triangular hat, with cleaver in hand, chases a chef dressed in classic Western chef garb. In another, a Western man is force-fed by two Western chefs while authorities in the background gaze off to the east. In yet another, chefs engaged in a dispute stand over a red table, on which is a cupcake — a symbol of consumerism.

These are part of a series of paintings, six in total, called West to East, by British artist William Balthazar Rose, which seeks to comment on the connection — and tension — between the East and West.

Rose explains this series as “little stage sets in which scenarios are acted out” that dramatize the divergence of worlds. But funny enough, the theme of his work didn’t materialize until he had a chat with his neighbor, Richard Cordock.

“William did not consciously set out to paint a series called West to East,” Cordock says. “William painted pictures he wanted to paint…I was able to come up with a consistent narrative which tied [all his paintings] together.

“I saw key themes emerge, such as: Alibaba vs. Amazon. Tencent vs. Facebook. Baidu vs. Google. The East rising at the expense of the West. The West’s over-reliance on the East. The East waiting to take the big prize. The paintings talk about big themes of the shift in global trade and consumerism. My background is more in business and I offer a different lens for William’s art.”

“Force Fed”

After earning his Master’s degree in the U.S. in the 1980s, Rose set up shop in San Francisco, where Chinese culture melded with American culture. Rose was drawn to cooks as a subject matter for his art because of their irascible nature, raw energy, and relatability. “We all have to cook, after all,” Rose quips. He painted his first cook in 1991, at age 30, when he lived in the Mexican/Hispanic community of Watsonville near Santa Cruz, California. He has since gone on to paint hundreds of cooks, and first gained fame with the painting “The Red Shoe,” which was purchased by a two-star Michelin chef, Michel Roux, Jr., who now exhibits Rose’s art in his London restaurant.

West to East marks Rose’s first series of “Cooks” paintings.

“The Red Table”

In 1995, Rose vacationed in China, which was in the midst of remarkable economic growth, even though many were still commuting by bicycle. “My worldview was more or less shaped in America surrounded by consumerism,” Rose says, and his trip to China gave him a foundational understanding of the U.S.-China economic relationship.

Philosophical in nature, with a penchant for meandering introspection, Rose best taps into his reflections on the world when the brush hits the canvas. Cordock — who Rose met last year when Netflix was filming the series Bridgerton in their town — serves doggedly as a translator of his works, guiding them into an articulable narrative.

“Rose is always looking for inspiration from art, photography, news, media, culture, life, and everyday events for scenarios to put the cooks into,” Cordock says. “The ‘China’ theme has been brewing for some time.”

“The Go-Between”

Taken together as a commentary on China’s rise, Rose’s collection presents no singular narrative on China, which appears alternately aggressive, latent, patient, and dominant. But that is what makes the collection work. By tapping into his id, Rose conveys all the narratives that populate China discourse and their associated incoherence. His collection is a reminder to dig beyond initial representations of China and discern the veritable from the visceral.

“The Death of Cooking”
“The Presentation”

The West to East collection is for sale on William Balthazar Rose’s website, where further explanation of each painting can be found.