In my work I am primarily concerned with the evocation and expression of relationships, creating mysterious environments populated with combinations of stylized human and humanoid beings, animals and other creatures, as well as plants, the elements, and enigmatic phenomena. My work is about beauty, enchantment, and mystery, and is guided by the belief that art should transcend the mundane.
Major themes in my work include stillness and tranquility, and an exploration of what in the Judeo-Christian West is often identified as spirituality, but which I call austere mystery. I’ve written extensively about this subject as it relates to my work in Essay 3 (Contemplation and Spirituality). For now, suffice to say that Western interpretations and methods—including Westernized interpretations of aboriginal rituals and beliefs—are inadequate to accurately describe my approach. I see my process as a kind of crafting of worlds rather than the documentation of mystic visions, sights seen on otherworldly travels, metaphysical experiences, shamanic journeys, or drug-induced hallucinations. Rather, my work in many ways is more strongly related to secular aesthetics of East Asia. Key to my work are the landscape, human-like figures, evocation, and an expressionistic use of imagery and colour. I use landscape because I believe my images need to be set somewhere, and humanoid figures because I believe my environments must be inhabited.
The beings in my work—and often their surroundings—are undergoing transformation and transition or experiencing interaction. They have aspects that are familiar but that have been given new meaning and resonance through stylization and change of context. But unlike a great deal of what we see in art today, my worlds are not intended to be distopian. The way I shift and distort reality is to create twists, but my worlds are rarely twisted in the way we find with horror and the macabre. Rather than interpreting my experience of the world to see all the failings of our culture, I want to show that there is beauty in the world, even with the constant change around us.
It can be said that Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher created architectures of puzzlement, eliciting a response from the logical part of the brain. The Surrealists used imagery inspired by dreams, engaging the subconscious. I want to create works that recall—or if I’m lucky, allow us to experience—a sense of the ineffable.1 This feeling is evoked in different people by different things, many of which are found outside the realm of art. For some people it’s natural beauty—a sunset, a beautiful vista, even sitting on a tree stump contemplating the poetic blackness of the soul2—for others it’s religious ritual or sacred architecture. Others are moved by music, and some athletes experience this feeling during or after peak physical activity. These are all experiences or events that invite a visceral, nonverbal response. But the word “visceral” may connote intestines, entrails, and the messiness of bodies cut open or the gut reactions that are characteristic of people trying to subdue their intellect or justify their suspicion of expert knowledge. I don’t mean it in either of these senses. What I mean is visceral in the sense of “relating to deep inward feelings rather than to the intellect.” (Dictionary)
During the twentieth century, the Western approach to the ineffable in art—usually associated with the spiritual—is characterized by talk about art’s function beyond words, a function that serves to quiet the intellect. This is demonstrated time and again in Roger Lipsey’s 1988 book An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art. When talking about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, Lipsey posits that “The burden of art, at its best, is to still words by bringing other kinds of perception to the center of awareness.” (Lipsey 1988, 308) Elsewhere he talks about the motivations behind a cubist painting by Georges Braque, saying that “Images, like words, are vehicles of consciousness; they allow us to think silently.” (Lipsey 1988, 52) And in the context of contemporary painting, he refers to “what Coomaraswamy called ‘the art of thinking in images,’ which can make ‘the verbal logic of philosophy’ seem pale.” (Lipsey 1988, 429)
My work is intended to be evocative. Much as abstract artists of the twentieth-century moved away from depiction, I avoid realistic representation. As well, I believe that to attempt to create a pictorial space such as can be achieved through photography would be to contradict my evocative intention in the work, or at least sidetrack the viewer with displays of technical proficiency. But to completely turn my back on illusory space would also be a failure. I am not interested in depicting literal things in a literal way. My images don’t have to look strictly like the objects they depict, and the materials don’t need to pretend that they’re something they’re not.
While there are strong traditions of non-literal representation in Western art, they have often been associated with religious doctrines that I don’t strongly identify with. For example, one of the main historical Western influences on my use of pictorial spaces is medieval manuscript illuminations. These almost exclusively religious texts and images were grounded in a philosophy which split the sacred world from the secular and placed mortal gatekeepers between them. But despite my skepticism of the world view that created these manuscripts, I find value in some of their artistic techniques.
Medieval art has a compositional framework in which the pictorially larger meant more important, and pictorially smaller, less so. Major figures were big, and minor ones small, in descending importance. Another key influence on my use of pictorial space is classical Chinese watercolour painting.3 Like medieval art, this tradition contains specific meanings in its structure and does not pretend to be a pictorially accurate representation of the outside world. Perspective is achieved by vertical position, with items at the top of the picture plane being represented as most distant, and those at the bottom closest. But where medieval illuminations made the most important figures the largest, some Chinese scrolls show humans—or human activity as represented by dwellings and other human-built structures—as tiny compared to the giant landscape. Part of the rationale for this in Chinese painting is to show how insignificant we are compared to nature. Although I don’t always adhere strictly to either set of rules, both are systems that make interpretation easier within each tradition because its conventions were universally understood by their practitioners and viewers.
Medieval art invited the viewer to look at the picture in order to learn the didactic narrative or understand the morals depicted in these allegorical illustrations of Christian doctrine. In contrast, classical Chinese watercolours ask the viewer to look into the painting and use it as a window through which to engage in contemplation or meditation, and reach a greater understanding of an aspect of the world or of the self.
Western artists from the medieval period onward tried to disguise the process of painting, hiding any type of painterly marks. Some art historians have argued that there was a natural progression from these traditions through various phases of abstracted representation. They believe that twentieth-century modernist abstraction—a form of painting which was purely about these painterly marks writ large on giant canvases—should be considered to be the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Painting became about nothing but those marks which previous generations had taken great pains to eliminate from their work.
In contrast to both of these Western approaches—the disguising of paint, and paintings that were exclusively about paint—traditional Chinese paintings are composed of visible marks that are naked artifacts of the painting process. There is no attempt to convince the viewer that on one level they are anything other than marks on a surface. And while these marks are valued in their tradition for the same reasons that we value them in modern art—gesture, form, compositional weight—they simultaneously define represented subjects and objects. The fact of painting is celebrated, but the formal beauty coexists within the greater function of the piece, which is to engage the viewer with a picture of something, a picture intended to invite the viewer into contemplation. It is this formalism with and within function that I am attracted to, and which resonates with my own working processes.
Beyond the pictorial strategies I’ve outlined here, East Asian art and philosophy have been influential on my work in other ways. I discuss some of these in the “Traditional Asian Influences” section of Essay 12 (Inspirations and Influences).
Iconography and Symbolism
Though much of my methodology involves creating stylized representations of recognizable images, I no longer think of this as the creation of a personal iconography. This idea of a personal iconography is entwined with issues relating to individualism, cults of personality, and the decline of underlying common experiences and goals in society. These are issues I touch on in Essay 13 (Why I Make Art).
If I look at my work in terms of repeated or reused figures and symbols, then yes, I suppose that I do create an iconography of sorts. Especially if I take a literal interpretation of the dictionary definition, which describes iconography as “the visual images, symbols, or modes of representation collectively associated with a person, cult, or movement.” (Dictionary) Yes, my figures and the worlds they inhabit, as well as the other components—plants, animals, weather, the elements, celestial bodies, and so on—could be interpreted as icons because I use them so frequently.
But if I use a narrower definition of iconography, and look at each recurring symbol as having a specific meaning within the greater cosmology of the worlds I depict in my work, then I’d have to say that the images are definitely not icons. Unlike the work of some artists, where specific images, items, or icons have specific meanings across their oeuvres, my images often have such different functions from one piece to the next—or are used simply for their ability to occupy pictorial space rather than for their interpretive potential—that to give a definitive reading to any one of them would be close to impossible. I see my repeated components more often as parts of a compositional whole—solutions to formal problems in the work—than as always symbolically significant.
Although I’ve attempted to do so in the past, at this point I don’t intend to create a dictionary or guide to the individual compositional elements and symbols in my work. The few times I began to document the meanings of my symbolic language, the words started to become prescriptive rather than descriptive. My usage of a particular symbol started to change depending on what I had written about it. I didn’t find this formulaic approach to be very productive nor was I satisfied with the work that resulted from it so I abandoned these attempts to codify my imagery.
Perhaps imbuing symbols with personal meaning and/or using recurring images in a way that seems to give them their own mythology is a practice of creating an iconography. Though I assemble symbols into what in past artist statements I used to call “an iconic visual language,” for me it’s an evolving visual language. I find that my process is not a conscious effort to create an iconography, nor to always give specific meanings to specific images. Rather, the iconography is a byproduct of the process, and the meanings are variable. I see the interpretation of my work as similar in some ways to verbal language. Words—which are their own class of symbol—often have many readings. Some of these readings are so powerful that they stand in the foreground to the other meanings, and without a context for interpretation the writer’s intent can be misunderstood. So too with pictorial images. I find that common visual symbols are open to frequent misinterpretation, or else their own meanings are so strong that they overpower any message in the piece that they are a part of. I have been creating my own vocabulary through the repeated use of less common images to facilitate a move away from loaded symbols in my work. And while using symbolic visual language may cause misinterpretation, I value it for its ability to enable open-ended readings of my work. I discuss some approaches to interpreting my work in Essay 5 (From the Nonverbal to the Verbal: Titles as Translation and Interpretation).
I think of my work as something that is in and of this world, but also in some ways otherworldly. But the term “otherworldly” is a misnomer, as it implies a negation or denigration of the world we live in. I’m interested in showing the commonplace events and interactions of an uncommon world. I’m not sure what or where this world is but it’s analogous to our own world. I used to write about it in terms of medieval Christian philosophy and how the world we live in is only a poor reflection of the divine world—a view based in Platonic dualism—but I’ve come to believe otherwise. Part of this worldview was simply an adaptation of ideas common in the Christian West, which was the basis of much of my academic study. More recently I’ve come to realize that the observable world is already rich in mystery, strangeness, and things that we are unable to comprehend. Given this richness, contemplating the existence of an alternate, “higher” reality is more a distraction than a productive use of my time or energy. As well, belief in a dualistic universe creates in us a certain abdication of responsibility for our own actions. But these ideas are wandering into territory that borders—depending who you talk to—on heresy, philosophy, metaphysics, and all sorts of fields that are dangerously outside of my expertise. They are also for the most part tangential to the question of what the main subjects and concepts of my work are.
Despite the distortions and transformations I put it through, the human figure is an important motif in my work. I find the figure important as subject matter because one of the underlying themes of a great deal of my work is the concept of relationships. This includes relationships between people; between a person and the environment, the world, or the landscape; as well as a host of other permutations. Additionally, we all have bodies and my use of the figure gives viewers—including me—something to relate to beyond purely formal concerns. The worlds I create would seem empty and lacking something without a human or humanoid presence. Without inhabitants, the landscapes are mere decoration and have no bearing on relationships. I suppose that because the landscapes are somewhat fantastical, I could populate them with fantastical creatures. But my work is not science fiction or fantasy, and to make it look like such would be to place the work in a context that would give my work reduced meaning to a great deal of my audience. On the other hand, I find that the daily grind is already well-represented enough in other art and media. In my own practice I don’t find it necessary to create more simulacra and thereby add to the glut of documentary media that we’re constantly bombarded with.4 I talk about my approach to what I call “semi-representational” imagery in greater detail in Essay 2: (Between Abstraction and Representation).
My figures are humanoid enough to be seen as sentient, but inhuman enough to appear aloof, distant, uninvolved. They owe a debt to Henry Moore’s figurative sculptures in their aura of detachment. Many years ago I used to spend hours in the Henry Moore room at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where there is a large collection of his work. Lipsey sums up the character of Moore’s work better than I can:
Work of the late 1930s, such as Reclining Figure blends a sinuous, organic language of form with something of the bare presence of a boulder or a cliff. The humanity of the figure—its personality and human verve—is eclipsed by a massive physicality, as if human consciousness is thin and volatile in comparison with the more fundamental fact of “being there.” The consciousness of Moore’s figures from the 1930s on often seems buried and immobilized; they look on without registering involvement. Yet this trait need not strike the viewer as inhumane or pathetic; on the contrary, it imposes itself as a sign of perseverance, of the will to endure. Something in these figures has resorted to hibernation; it is as if their thoughts have slowed. (Lipsey 1988, 287-288) [Lipsey’s emphasis]
However, my approach to representing the figure is only partially due to Moore’s influence. Another influence which predates my contact with Moore’s work is the Chinese devotional sculpture my father collected. I can’t pretend to be especially knowledgeable about this field but the statues do not appear to have a direct gaze. They have eyes, but their focus is rarely on any object that can be seen in the everyday world. So too with my figures, who are not necessarily deities, but neither are they completely mundane.
Colour, Mood, and Tone
Some people have described me as a colourist. I only agree in the sense that I’m interested in colour, and it’s an extremely important part of my work. But my pieces don’t live and die by nuances of colour. I think that a true colourist has to be so sensitive to colour that it is integral to the work to such an extent that the work breaks down in reproduction in alternate media such as photographs, prints, books, or even digital media. In general, my own works translate well into alternate media. Colour images continue to work when poor presentation or low-quality reproduction cause degradation or colour shifts, and most black and white reproductions continue to hold together visually. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy working with colour, but my work is not dependent on me tying myself to a single medium or material approach to the practice. In many ways this brings up questions about the material aspects of works of art, questions which I address in Essay 6 (Materiality and Nonmateriality: Defining the Work of Art in the Digital Age). Suffice to say that despite all evidence to the contrary, I don’t consider myself to to be a colourist.
With my recent digital pieces—Encounters (2005-2006)—I wanted the work to have a darker, mysterious, more foreboding, almost sinister aura. This is in contrast to what I thought of as the metaphysical serenity of much of my previous work. I wanted to evoke darker emotions than previously, while working with the same visual language of previous work. I also wanted to use a more limited colour palette in these works. Whereas I had previously made liberal use of bright, intense, high key colours, I wanted to get closer to a monochromatic palette within individual pieces, and make a body of work in which each piece had a much more muted colour range.
H.R. Giger, famous for his grotesque paintings of machine-mediated humanity, as well as his costume and set designs for the film Alien, was one of my influences for this work. Not in the sense that I wanted to mimic his work, but more as a goal in terms of the look and feel of the work. I wanted a greater sense of visual density, darkness, and moodiness than I had tried to achieve in previous work. I found that working with Giger in mind helped me create more depth, greater visual complexity, and stronger moods.
Quotation and Reference
In the process of creating a work I will sometimes use a visual reference to something from the real world of my lived experience. This can be a photograph I’ve taken, a painting or other image, a scene from a film. My use of a reference is rarely the sole inspiration for the piece or the primary subject matter. The inclusion of a quotation or reference usually begins with an intuitive act of connecting the work-in-progress to the included element or idea, and rather than serving as a framework from which to create a piece, stays only if I find that it adds another dimension to the work. The viewer’s awareness of the underlying references adds depth and nuance to their reading of the piece, but this knowledge is not mandatory as it might be in some artists’ work. Coming to the work without knowing any of the background will still give a rich experience. Writer Neil Gaiman, addressed the issue quite succinctly when he said that
I think that the references to other things in stories are a bonus — they can add texture and resonance and sometimes humour and magic. But I also tend to believe that stories should work as stories for someone coming to them perfectly cold knowing nothing — (well, maybe not completely nothing).
And for that matter, if people come back to the stories later, knowing more than they did the first time, sometimes they’ll find that the stories have changed and grown while they were away. (Gaiman 2006) [Gaiman’s emphasis]
Because my work is non-literal, I find that the use of quotation and reference is a minor aspect of my work. Having looked through my latest body of digital pieces, I could only find a small handful of examples of quotation among the forty-eight pieces. This does not take into account the fact that many of the underlying images in this series are from drawings I did as long as ten or fourteen years ago. It’s very likely that there are specific references to specific things in those source drawings, but I made them so long ago that I’ve probably forgotten what they were. Whether viewers will make any of these connections—connections that I no longer see—is open to speculation. What is not open to speculation is that people interpret my work in ways I never imagined they would, but to date have rarely done so in ways that I would take issue with. As noted earlier, I discuss approaches to interpreting my work in Essay 5 (From the Nonverbal to the Verbal: Titles as Translation and Interpretation).
- Ineffable is defined as “too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words.” Synonyms include “indescribable, inexpressible, beyond words, beyond description.” (Dictionary) ^
- This is a reference to one of Matt Groening’s early comics, Life in Hell, in which he pokes fun at the brooding nature of some poets. ^
- My use of Chinese concepts may elicit complaints of Orientalism and cultural appropriation. I address these and other related issues in Essay 11 (Hybrid Identity and Postcolonial Buttheads). For now, suffice to say that these issues are rarely in the foreground of my art practice, and I feel little if any postcolonial guilt when I make or write about my art work. ^
- Simulacra is the plural of simulacrum, which has its own meanings within certain streams of postmodernist discourse. In more general usage, simulacrum is defined as “an image or representation of someone or something… an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute.” (Dictionary) My use of the term as it applies to art encompasses works which attempt to create through non-photographic means a photorealistic or near-photorealistic depiction of realia—objects and material from everyday life—and the observed world. More generally, I also include the following when I refer to simulacra: documentary and news media, realist literature, as well as reality television and other approaches that celebrate the rendering or presentation of the observable world in microscopic detail. ^