Prior to leaving for Tokyo, I had finished a body of work that would be shown at the Independent art fair that March in New York. The largest painting titled I’ll turn back the tides of time in which the figure is wearing a surgical facemask that is all too common now. In addition to prophetic paintings, I also do astrological investment advice!
Just kidding, the mask was among a number of ways to play with identity while allowing my love for pattern, color, and textile to prevail. I assumed that people would read it in relation to the masks worn during the protests in Hong Kong, which were in full swing back then. A week after the art fair, however, New York would begin to lock down and the symbolism of the mask would completely change.
Eventually, we learned to accept the uncertainty and just work. New ideas flowed and formed the basis for the work that I made during the summer after returning to New York. I arrived back right before the protests started. I’m glad I could be there then. My most recent show was the culmination of that work and I think that bound within it is the complex and charged energy during that time. It’s definitely not over yet, more to come.
In this way, the two modes of seeing or experiencing are often at odds in our mind and in the world become bound and integrated as it were; one acting upon the other to create something new and whole. I think that’s where the uncanniness comes from when these seemingly oppositional forces find a stable, coherent, and integrated state.
The anthropomorphic aspect of your work evokes questions, it challenges our imagination. It goes beyond the logical mind, which also gives the work its poetic character. It plants a seed in our heads, and we have the reigns to fill in the gap. Living in the digital age, the truth often gets obscured or twisted, making us question our perception of reality. You play with this duality of our understanding through creating these illusions and we become unsure of what is true or false. What’s your perception of authenticity in your work? Is it important?
Indeed, how we perceive and think of authenticity has changed drastically. I sometimes think about how our notion of representing the truth or nature has evolved through a progression of different knowledge spaces. One way of seeing our current reality is a multi-layered space where the ground is like a passive or propositional space in which we try to describe or represent nature, then an active or procedural space where we modify or reproduce nature in new ways, and finally the virtual space, a new nature or new reality that can feel less and less connected to the physical.
The virtual space has made my work possible without a doubt. From a desire to see what can’t be seen, to build what can’t be built, or experience what can’t be anticipated or imagined, I turned to the virtual. Probably, the biggest clue is, why make paintings at all? I have a lot of friends that use similar tools but work entirely in the ephemeral realm of the web or VR. It may be generational in part but in my view, that’s incredibly bold and dedicated.
There’s no instantaneous feedback or gratification of ‘message read’ that we’ve come to expect. Instead, a letter can take weeks to arrive and because of that delay, the things that you say and how you say them are completely different. They are a different kind of truth. Perhaps paintings are like letters in that way?
For me, the use of Russian Cyrillic or Chinese Han characters allowed me to enjoy their formal beauty without being able to read them easily. That experience would of course be inverted for people on the other side. I incorporated texts by poets in their native scripts, which I was fond of through the translation of work by people like Anna Akhmatova and Li Qingzhao.
I also included my own writing from time to time. The text banners also had a historical origin. Looking at cloth banners of late 19th early 20th-century political campaigns and protests was inspiring. They were hand-painted like all signage then. I loved the typefaces used on abolitionist and suffrage banners among others. There was something about how the messages could become distorted, often unreadable by the draping or windblown fabric. There is still a lot there that I want to explore. Writing is an important part of my practice too, publishing not so much, so this use of text has found a way for that to come through I guess.
Even in traditional media such as paint, relatively simple innovations like synthetic pigments and factory-made paint tubes were in part what enabled the impressionists to do what they did. A generation later and many painters no longer knew how to make their own paint and became reliant on a manufacturer whose interests might not be aligned.
Nowadays, we are all at the mercy of software and programming gatekeepers. That played a big part in my desire to learn how to code. I don’t write code as much as I used to, but having that fluency is important to me.
If it’s just a matter of convenience I often try to do without technology. Making good work can be a complex undertaking, but the process or tools used need not be complicated. Again, with historical processes, I guess I see it as an evolutionary process where the origin is never completely lost. Make new friends but keep the old?
Contemporary works created with ancient, cultural techniques make us conscious of the malleability of the arts. Cultural appropriation is a very pressing notion in our current debate. What are your views on this? As you incorporate these ancient Japanese techniques in your paintings, do you feel the need to justify yourself in using these techniques? Is it important for you to look at your work critically, to have a dialogue regarding ethical questions?
Instead, it’s a type of cultural insensitivity that can cause a great deal of pain. On top of the insensitivity, there’s usually a claim of power which implies an idealized directionality of cultural flow, but how that hierarchy is defined or maintained gets murky quickly, so it’s not as easy as we might like.
Exactly, it has to do with a certain hierarchy that has been imposed from Western cultures to non-Western ones. What else do you have to say about this?
I also believe that we make use of the resources we are afforded and within the constraints of our environment. If I hadn’t been in Japan, I would have found a different way forward with different tools most likely.
There are different ways of seeing culture. You can see it as a ‘what,’ but I tend to see it as a ‘how’ as well. There are artifacts, but what makes them sacred or valuable is nothing intrinsic to them but everything else that surrounds them; the tradition, the ritual, the context, etc. In truth, it’s the irreducible interplay between the ‘what’ and the ‘how,’ between the artifact and the ritual that forms a reciprocal and hopefully sustainable pattern across time.
So, when thinking about appropriation, it helps to keep those aspects of culture in mind. Functional appropriation can be a positive force in sustaining that cultural pattern because it establishes precedent and extension. Maybe there’s a fear that too much can cause displacement, but I think it’s probably more complicated than that. Global economic and political forces are also factors. It’s all connected as usual.
As an aside on critical thinking, it can be an incredibly useful tool but it’s important to keep in mind that it is but one way of seeing, not ‘the’ way of seeing. It can help us to see how something is built but it may not always reveal why or how something works. Making the implicit explicit can be a destructive act at times.
How has your process been when getting to paint these shrouded subjects? What did you paint before and how did it develop towards where you are today?
After art school, I moved to New York and began working on paintings of underwater swimming pool scenes. I was struggling with them when a friend who had been working on video games suggested 3D modeling the pools before painting them. At first, I thought that it sounded like way too much work but with his encouragement I did.
I immediately realized how powerful it was to be able to have that virtual space as an intermediary between concept and physical painting. It allowed for possibilities that I couldn’t have anticipated. Since then, the tools I’ve used to create my work have continued to parallel those used for video game development. Eventually, I began using real-time physics simulation, character modeling and animation. Lately, I’ve been designing and making the patterns for all the clothing in my recent paintings and I love it. Thematically though, the human body and human experience, especially in relation to technology, remains central.
For the time being, my studio in Japan is much smaller than in New York so I work differently but my ideas flow differently as well. A striking difference is also how I see color. The colors in Japan are totally different for me. The trains actually work in Tokyo which is very nice, but then sometimes I can strangely find myself longing for the dysfunction, chaos, and decay of NYC. We love to complain about our subway but love it too.
There is beauty in both, inefficiency in both places. I think the simplest way to describe it is through intentionality, where the diversity in NYC tends to stumble its way to being a great city while a more homogenous Tokyo takes a more measured pace. I love both.
I turned to my wife and said “People and Animals, that’s what we do.” because that’s what I was making in my studio at that moment too. So, at that moment I really did feel part of something both epically grand and so simple. That said there are also times that I feel like an alien, operating on an entirely different timeline and there is incredible freedom in that too.