Essay 12: Inspirations and Influences

It is often very difficult for artists to either describe what their work looks like, or else to explain what the work is about. Related to this difficulty is the fact that it’s often easier for people to relate to verbal statements about works of art than for them to actually look at or try to understand art on a visual level. I think the former difficulties stem from the fact that so much artistic practice is nonverbal, and the latter from the fact that in contrast to the visual visual art, there is so much contemporary work based on theories and concepts that only specialists can follow. One way to deal with these difficulties is to ask the artist for a list of influences. This serves to give a sense of artistic pedigree and to put the work in context, especially when a comparison is made to a familiar artist’s work. In my case this is a challenge. The problem is that not only is my work unlike that of anyone I know of, name dropping assumes that people will know who I’m talking about. On the other hand, the strategy of talking about how my work is made or what it is made of is difficult as well. My media choices shift with the work—a factor I describe at length in Essay 6 (Materiality and Nonmateriality: Defining the Work of Art in the Digital Age)—so talking about materials and techniques is bathed in complexity. To truly talk about my work requires a deeper level of knowledge than comparison with other artists and their techniques.

When asked about my work, it’s a challenge for me to remember, let alone speak the following description, taken from my artist statement in 8 Bodies in 12 Years:

I use surrealist-inspired methods to create evocative populated landscapes that explore relationships by fusing iconic imagery—imagery that recalls Chagall in its playfulness and medieval manuscript illumination in its use of pictorial space—with the visual density and moodiness of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or Giger’s dystopian paintings. These landscapes, though taking cues from macabre styles of art, are serene, echoing the intention of classical Chinese painters to invite the viewer to look into rather than at the work of art and thereby be transported to an awareness that is best described using the Japanese aesthetic concept of yuugen, or profound grace. My imagery—which often serves as a foil upon which to engage formal issues such as composition, texture, and colour—comes from all aspects of my lived experience and includes stylized representations of figures in landscapes, accompanied by elemental forms, humanoid and anthropomorphic beings and plants, buildings and ruins, and enigmatic phenomena. In addition to finding inspiration from historical artists, I integrate aspects of popular culture—among them film, music, and cartoons—into the work.

After struggling with the words for awhile, I dig around in my pockets or bag to see if I can find a few pictures of my work. This solves most of the problems, as the work is intended to be about visual communication, not about writing verbal statements to describe it. Upon seeing the images, formerly glazed-over eyes clear up and I’m given a reaction that usually goes along the lines of “Oh yes, now I understand what you’re talking about…”

Visual Inspiration

For visual inspiration, everything becomes grist for the mill. When it appears in my work, it is usually vastly changed after having been absorbed, assimilated, and then integrated into my art practice. I look at my process as selectively mining my experience—ideas, cultures, methods from past and present—in a kind of artistic multiculturalism. This is more analogous to panning for precious minerals in multiple streams than digging an open pit mine at a fixed location to extract a single specific ore that needs chemical refinement. Once I’ve accumulated enough usable material, I can start to shape it. My visual and intellectual stimuli come from everything around me, not just the fenced-off area we call “high culture.” Some notable areas include:

  • high culture, including art, music, design, typography, fine craft
  • pop culture, including movies (mostly B- and arthouse), anime, manga, and comics
  • popular fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy
  • pop (and other) music
  • Eastern and Western philosophy
  • medieval manuscripts, especially bestiaries and illustrations of the apocalypse
  • mysticism
  • strange and wonderful esoteric things
  • industrial design
  • nonfiction, including scientific books and illustrated guides to natural phenomena

For example, I often look through books of plants, animals, and architecture, as well as various genres of photography. But there is a marked difference between things that inspire me and reference images that serve as research material for works. I don’t necessarily pick up these books simply to mine them for ideas. Instead, they often contain illustrations related to things I want to depict in my work, and in the absence of access to the real thing, I use them as reference material to take a closer look.

Traditional Asian Influences

I’ve recently started reading about classical Chinese aesthetics, and discovered that many of the ideas within that philosophical tradition are very similar to ideas that I explore in my work, that have influenced my working processes, or that are related to how I have recognized and assimilated learning from earlier artists. This reading has made me feel much more grounded in my practice because until now, I’ve felt somewhat out of step with the West, or felt that Western aesthetics and critical theory were at best inadequate to the task of describing my work, and at worst directly opposed to many of my ideas.

To a certain extent I think that I’ve subconsciously tried to suppress or ignore these Asian influences in my work, partly because of the influence of postcolonial theory, the most dominant form of which assumes that any use of nonwestern ideas by Westerners is an act of exploitation. But I’ve written at length about this in Essay 11 (Hybrid Identity and Postcolonial Buttheads). Another reason for the lack of recognition of my Asian influences might be the fact that my training was dominated by European traditions in art and philosophy. I’m still in the early stages of my study of Chinese and Japanese philosophy—especially their aesthetics—and I don’t have a very solid hold on many of the concepts. But I’ve found many of my innate beliefs have a resonance with those few concepts from these philosophical traditions that I do understand. I think this is a return to the surface of things that were part of my upbringing. Growing up in a mostly secular multicultural Canadian immigrant household, I was immersed in Chinese art—sculptures, scrolls of calligraphy, paintings of animals, plants, landscapes and sages—as well as Western art. I was raised in a hybrid environment that owed as much to traditional Chinese values as to Western ones, though neither was followed with a strong orthodoxy. Ideas of Taoist philosophy were also prevalent given that this was one of the main areas of scholarly interest for my father, who was a Western-trained university professor of European descent who specialized in Chinese religions.

There are other areas of Asian influence in my work, and Asian ideas that resonate with my own. Foremost among them is Eastern mysticism, and the attitude in East Asian cultures that meditative/spiritual practices are a given, and not necessarily a renunciation of societal norms. This is especially seen in philosophical schools such as the aforementioned Taoism, as well as other movements which reinforce certain traditions while poking fun at the shortcomings of others. My views about Eastern mysticism may be a romanticization, especially given the communist anti-intellectualism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but admitting that my understanding is incomplete does not negate its influence.

Related to the concept of art as a meditative practice is the Japanese attitude toward craft and craftsmanship, where it is understood that what is worth doing is worth doing well. And finally, the focus in traditional Chinese painting on the emotion or atmosphere of nature is something that I’ve unconsciously strived for in my work for many years. These are concepts I discuss in detail in Essay 3 (Contemplation and Spirituality).

Looking to the Past

I’m not interested in completely breaking free from the past in the way that is common with so many of the avant-garde art movements of the last hundred-or-so years. I find that the past helps us know who we are. At the same time, I’m also not interested in simply rehashing what others have done unless it still has relevance. This ties in with my critique of what I’ve written about in Essay 8 as “The Cult of the New.” Rather than becoming famous as an innovator whose actual works are unknown, I’d prefer to have my work remembered and looked at for its continuing relevance and aesthetic appeal.

The artists I most admire from the twentieth century—including Dalí, Magritte, Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall—did not abandon representational art. They certainly warped it, but they worked from a strong grounding in traditional skills, towards a new and greater understanding of pictorial representation necessitated by the advent of the camera as the tool of mimetic representation.

I used to be interested in finding inspiration from the art and writings of the early modernists. After many years I’m becoming reacquainted with their ideas and writings, and realizing just how much influence they had on my development as an artist. Among these are the Dadaists, Surrealists, and Der Blaue Reiter. Marc Chagall was an early inspiration for me. I found that his combination of whimsical colours with strange beasts, and images that looked like illustrations for folktales had a strong appeal. I especially looked up to Miro because his process seemed so similar to mine. And the idea of a recurring image, characterized by Max Ernst’s “Loplop” figure, seems to have caught my imagination and come along for the ride. And I must include in this list Picasso for his myriad contributions to art, and Van Gogh because he was also such a great painter. In these last two, I also admire the sheer quantity of their output.

I’m not discounting the influence of the abstractionists or the non-art artists of the 1960s and 1970s. But much of their work, while sometimes moving, sometimes merely interesting, and often boring, bears more resemblance to lab experimentation than something I want to emulate any more than I did in my formative years, or to repeatedly look at on aesthetic grounds. These movements may have pushed the boundaries of what can be accomplished with materials and ideas, or how we define exactly what art is, but as I’ve written elsewhere, my interests are not focussed on these as primary activities for my own studio practice.

I give credit to the Pop Art movement for the introduction of mass-production to high art, and a media savvy commercialization of the industry. I’m not interested in the crass commercial superficiality, shallowness, or the cults of celebrity and fame that were Warhol’s hallmark and legacy. Nor am I convinced that this was a healthy turn for artists. For me, the most significant influence of Pop Art was the way the artists in this movement broke down barriers between what is considered high culture versus low culture, and its resultant impact on what is acceptable subject matter in a visual arts practice.

When I was in art school, I used to tell people that one of my biggest influences was Robert Bateman, a Canadian naturalist who painted realistic portraits of animals in nature. He would have lithographic reproductions made from his paintings and market them as limited edition prints. At the time he was looked down on by the high art printmaking elite as someone who gave printmaking a bad name. Not only was his imagery considered “kitsch” and devoid of artistic merit, his “prints” were in fact photo lithographic reproductions of paintings, using none of the techniques that “real” fine art printmakers use to create an image. This was said to have given the fine art printmaking community no end of problems in marketing their own work. Similarly, Bateman was ignored by the fine art establishment as a producer of banal, kitschy wall ornament for people who wanted the cachet of exclusivity implied by the term “limited edition,” but who were—in the opinion of those breathing the more rarefied air of universities and public galleries—terribly misinformed, if not downright ignorant.

At the time I was only half-joking about Bateman’s influence on my work. In fact, there were many aspects of his practice which I respected. He was an extremely competent draughtsman, and could render wildlife scenes extremely well. He was also a very astute businessman, having found his audience and a way to reach them. Only time will tell if his work will have a lasting cultural impact, but artists of a certain popular representational aesthetic—among them Norman Rockwell—who were previously ignored by the art world elite, are now being given attention as important artists of their time. Bateman’s oeuvre may be to late twentieth-century Canadian wildlife art what Currier and Ives were to nineteenth-century America. In any case, I respected Bateman’s skill and attention to craft, and his ability to find an audience and convince that audience to buy his work, even if I didn’t find his actual images to be very interesting to look at.

My respect for history and tradition seems rare in contemporary Western art, but as I’ve recently found out, it’s a key tenet of classical Chinese painting, a tradition which I’ve noted has for many years sat quietly but insistently in the background of my aesthetic sensibilities. In this tradition one of the guiding principles is that artists should copy masterworks in order to both preserve them and to learn through emulation the techniques of past masters. I think it is this concept of honouring tradition and learning from it that keeps me from attempting to make a clean break—intellectual or otherwise—with previous generations of artists. I prefer to acknowledge my influences and respect them rather than attempt to destroy their legacies.