My artistic practice embodies the influences, tensions and contradictions that define the postmodern world. At once, my works exhibit the paradoxical tendency to be irreverent, frivolous, and playful, as well as thoroughly engaged in critical reflection. Admittedly, my aesthetic is driven by a hedonistic engagement with visual culture, yet I remain apprehensive about the all-encompassing diversions of contemporary society. Although my works are non-functional, I often employ vessel forms, or otherwise allude to incongruous functionality (for example, “wiring” of non-electronic parts). These apparent tensions may be particularly salient to my chosen field of ceramics, a medium interested in the notion of art versus craft.
It is perhaps due to my sense of belonging in the remix generation (as evidenced by electronic music and its "mash-ups"), that I tend to borrow and reconfigure ideas and influences to create works that I find both visually and intellectually compelling. I liken aspects of my artistic practice to channel surfing, where I absorb, interpret and bank a great deal of visual information to inform my personal aesthetic. Always interested in refined forms, I draw inspiration from such diverse realms as contemporary pop culture (e.g., plastic toys and Japanese comics), art history (e.g., in the form of Chinese Ming dynasty vessels and 18th century French rococo), and historical and contemporary practices in self-portraiture. Drawing on such rich cultural symbology, I abstract and configure images, forms and colors within a narrative. Humour is an essential communication device in my work; I find this is an especially effective means of viewer engagement when addressing sensitive subject areas (e.g., war, climate change, geo-politics).
As evidenced in my reconfiguration of historical art traditions and my use of mixed media, I am intrigued by cultural appropriation and hybridity. Undoubtedly, these predominant themes in my work are a reflection of my own ambiguous cultural identity. Although I am considered Asian Canadian within the dominant culture’s framing, my family has lost even vestiges of connectivity to Asia through several generations of intercontinental migration and ethnic intermarriage. I have used self-portraiture to explore issues of race, class and sexual identity in greater depth.
While my aesthetic is driven by a seemingly manic consumption of visual culture, my work is labour intensive and detail oriented. I place high value on craftsmanship, as refinement allows me to reference art history, and notions of class and value. I employ hand painting, gold luster, airbrushing, hand-modeled filigree, and photo-based decals, among other means, to create alluring pieces. Working primarily in clay, I exploit its ability to convincingly emulate other materials, such as “robotic” prosthetics. Undeniably, working in clay offers not only satisfying technical challenges, but also vital kinesthetic connectivity to my artistic practice.
Through my approach to art making, I work as a visual ethnographer – documenting and interpreting contemporary culture through my own assumptions, preferences, values and personal history. My aim is to create work that serves as a portal for reflection and dialogue.
Manga Ormolu enters the dialogue on contemporary culture, technology, and globalization through a fabricated relationship between ceramic tradition (using the form of Chinese Ming dynasty vessels) and techno-Pop Art. The futuristic update of the Ming vessels in this series recalls 18th century French gilded ormolu, where historic Chinese vessels were transformed into curiosity pieces for aristocrats. But here, robotic prosthetics inspired by anime (Japanese animation) and manga (the beloved comics and picture novels of Japan) subvert elitism with the accessibility of popular culture.
Working with Asian cultural elements highlights the evolving Western experience of the “Orient.” This narrative is personal: the hybridization of cultures mirrors my identity as an ethnically-mixed Asian Canadian. My family history is one of successive generations shedding the markers of ethnic identity in order to succeed in an adopted country – within a few generations this cultural filtration has spanned China, India, Trinidad, Ireland and Canada.
While Manga Ormolu offers multiple points of entry into sociocultural dialogue, manga, by nature, doesn’t take itself too seriously. The futuristic ornamentation can be excessive, self-aggrandizing, even ridiculous. This is a fitting reflection of our human need to envision and translate fantastic ideas into reality; in fact, striving for transcendence is a unifying feature of human cultural history. This characteristic is reflected in the unassuming, yet utterly transformable material of clay. Manga Ormolu, through content, form and material, vividly demonstrates the conflicting and complementary forces that shape our perceptions of Ourselves and the Other.
This is a collection of works that infiltrate and exploit beauty – a notion intimately connected to the decorative arts. The works are indeed beautiful; inspired by 18th century French porcelains (Sevres and Meissen) and ceramic ormolu, these meticulously crafted, richly ornamented vessels lure and please the viewer. The grandiosity of the excessive ornamentation – including gilded leaf, scrafito, painting and decal ornament – is amplified by wall decoration and dramatic lighting. If it is possible to be too rich, perhaps these vessels are.
But with further examination, the distanced elitism suggested by this ornate display is undermined. The showcase of bombastic ornament offers a means to critique formalism, utopianism and social detachment. Adding to the historic forms and decoration, I have incorporated personal images, elements of technology (including sound and video), and a variety of non-traditional materials. This interplay relates the work to the contemporary social context, while drawing on archetypes of wealth, opulence and fabricated beauty to inform the overall narrative. The resultant tension between the decorative arts and nontraditional elements invokes layered reactions from the viewer: attraction, surprise, confusion, and reflection.
Humour is also central to the works in Through the Gilded Looking Glass. Humour is apparent in the titling of the works (e.g., Just What is it that Makes Asian Men so Appealing?), self-deprecating humour (e.g., Royal with Cheese) and ridiculous ornamental elements (e.g., swaying plastic flowers in Passenger’s Paradise). By employing satire, I create a point of access. As in the statement, “many a truth was said in jest,” humour offers the viewer is a portal to a further reading of the works.
The subject matter for Through the Gilded Looking Glass spans self-identity, power relationships, citizen apathy and engagement, and consumerism. While seemingly diverse, these works are thematically unified. Visually, the exorbitant decoration is common to the series. Conceptually, the works demonstrate tension between beauty, and its close proximity to the ‘Other’ – the un-beautiful. The vessels, then, mirror our everyday lives, and our inability to shut out the uncomfortable and tragic elements of life – no amount of decoration can mask this. Through the Gilded Looking Glass is an ornamented reflection of human existence.
The feeling of culture shock is a familiar experience for many. The term “a fish out water” is an analogy often used to describe these mixed emotions. The Swimmers drawing series plays with the idea that we are the fish that are always finding our way through our greater culture.
For this collection of drawings, I have appropriated and altered various blue and white ceramic patterns so that they appear to be a watery, pool-like surface. My choosing of the blue and white pattern is two fold: firstly it is a pattern that I have been working with and developing into my own visual vocabulary, and secondly, it is a pattern that has appeared around the world. From the Ming Dynasty (China) to Spode (UK) to Delft (Netherlands) to Iznik (Turkey), this ceramic meme has had a far reach, making it an excellent signifier for a culture and tradition.
In this rippling pattern I have also placed two wading figures that appear to be oblivious to the complexity around them. The reason for representing groups of figures, as opposed to a sole figure, is based in my feeling that we learn traditions and cultural practices from one another; these things are not hard wired. Furthering that notion, my groupings are usually parental figures with children or peers splashing about.
It is my hope that the work discusses the daily navigation of the cultures that surround us.
A collaboration between Alex McLeod and Brendan Tang that will blow your mind!!! (more soon)
Residue: Tracing the Lore, a collaboration between Brendan Tang and Diyan Achjadi, explores the ways that ornamental motifs can reveal or reflect histories of migration. Through imprinting fragments of images onto their own skin as well as those of close relatives’, this project asks how familial lore and traditions are transmitted, and the residues that they leave upon us.
The process of the making the imprint is intimate and fleeting: a tile is chosen, then strapped on to the body. When the strap is loosened and the tile removed revealing the image, the body immediately readjusts and the skin begins to regain its original shape. The imprints are ephemeral and in flux, lasting mere minutes. They are documented before the pattern loses its crispness. The resulting photographs focus closely on the embossed skin and its imperfections: hair, pores and moles intermingling ornamental fragments.
The works in Residue reflect multiple transferences of imagery, from drawing to object to print to photograph. A series of relief tiles are translated from sketches into 3D-printed tiles that are then blind-embossed into skin. The resulting impression is documented through photography, and digitally-printed onto paper. Through exploration of these processes, Residue: Tracing The Lore is an investigation into the language of printmaking's material possibilities, as well as its function as a means for the transference of ideas and images.