Artwork’s Title: In the Dark; Off The Air
Materials: Oil and acrylic on canvas
Studio Based: London
Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
Over the years we have developed our own specific painting technique. Each painting starts from the back, where we layer and push paint through to the front of the Canvas, allowing paint to ooze through the weave. Once we have fully painted the back and concluded what we call the ‘background’, we go on to flip the canvas and restretch it so that the back becomes the front on which we paint in a more detailed manner. This technique allows the painting to have both abstraction and a form of realism. Between these two ways of painting a moment of focus or defocus is born. Prior to each painting there is a period of research involved. This can sometimes be purely visual research (an image archive that has been growing over the years), things we encounter in our daily lives, or more academic ones such as narratives forms poetry, novels and ancient myths that find their way into our paintings.
How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?
The Magical realism of liminality.
Could you share with us some insights on your recent work “In the Dark; Off the Air” (2021)? Is there any particular story behind this new painting?
Our previous show at Soft Opening centered around a student named Bruce Wang who moved from Kunming, China to Texas to study. While living in America he completely adopted a western lifestyle in which he ultimately became a real Cowboy, even speaking with a Southern twang. In a sense he completely assimilated trying to fit in a western context. Of course this story has a dark undertone as he had to adopt and neglect his own culture due to racist notions.
In the Dark; Off the Air is a riff and continuation of the cowboy narrative. The horse head itself is based on the horse head costumes in Jean Cocteau’s movie ‘Testament d’Orpheé. Referencing Greek mythology, the dark horse is the link to the underworld and tempts Orpheus away from his life as a poet which aligned to our own interest in afterlife within Chinese culture and liminality.
You’re both coming from a different academic background; you studied Architecture at the Architectural Association in London. How did you decide to be involved in the field of painting?
Although painting was for us a new medium, it felt natural for us because in a sense we have always been “picture making”. In architecture you are taught to convey ‘your space’ through two – dimensional visual renders – as such painting had a certain resonance to what we were previously doing at the AA.
How do two painters/artists work together in order to create an artwork? Does the painting process end up being collaborative or do you work separately?
Initially we had all four hands on one canvas, this was partly to do with the fact that we were learning off one another. Now we’ve come to a point where we work separately on a number of canvases – and some paintings one or the other has not had a hand in making. Our collaboration first and foremost is a verbal one, thinking through compositions, topics and concepts etc…
Michael, could you highlight any characteristic element, that you rely on or admire in Chiyan’s work while making an artwork?
I would consider myself a perfectionist and sometimes can really get carried away with details. I feel Chiyan is more loose and I admire that. Especially with painting when things become too detailed it doesn’t necessarily make it a better painting, Oftentimes it has the opposite effect.
Chiyan, is there also something particular that you pay attention to about Michael’s contribution while working with him?
Something which I’ve always admired about Michael is his innate ability to constantly learn and improve himself. He’s able to transcend between various mediums and ideas, constantly striving and hungry to explore the world. This characteristic quality is not only reflected in the work but also a great philosophy for life in general.
In your imagery, an intensively creative mix of various practices; as an artist duo, do you feel your art practice flirts more with abstract or more figurative attributes?
We see them both equally I would say, because we look to bring them together in a way which hopefully builds a certain tension between the two ways of painting. Again the idea of in-between could be applied as a general ethos that runs through our practice and quite literally within our paintings that sit in-between abstract and figuration.
Your artistry seems to incorporate some important Eastern aesthetics; Do your painting themes try to reflect the fact that you’re both second generation immigrants from China living in the UK?
Yes, I suppose the core of our practice looks at the qualities of the diasporic community. We see our paintings or rather our practice as a whole as a way for us to reconnect to our Chinese cultural heritage. Our paintings allow historical moments to encounter personal and contemporary ones and create a dialogue that spans between different generations.
Where do you draw inspiration in order to build up your imagery? Is your only imagery related to personal memories or are you also into more random figures or stories on your canvases?
Before each painting there is a period of research. We are sort of magpies, we take references from everywhere really, our personal memories, internet, films, books, mythologies etc. None of our paintings have random moments, everything is thought through at least to some degree, some are just less loaded in terms of imagery than others but can rather just be appreciated as a moment one encounters within our liminal landscape.
What about the place where you work? What’s your studio space look like?
We are very lucky, our studio located in London Fields is generous in size and light quality. The studio is on the top floor of an old factory and we have double height ceilings with skylights throughout the space – so really perfect for painting.
Which are your plans for the near future?
Currently we are finishing some paintings for upcoming group shows in the UK, Spain and China and also are working on a video commission for the Film Video Umbrella.
All images courtesy of the artist