Models and Materialities: Confabulation and the Contemporary Still Life

FW May I start by exploring two aspects of your work: the practical advantages of using Chinese colours instead of Western style watercolours on Chinese and Japanese papers; and secondly, the paradox of using paints and supports strongly identified with traditional Chinese painting to paint flower bouquets in vases that appear to operate within, or with reference to, the Western tradition of the floral still life.

TL I'm drawn to toying or playing around with the historical and cultural themes of still life and traditional mediums. I feel in doing so that these ideas come preloaded with a set of virtues and values and meaning before I even start to paint. For example, in traditional ink painting there's a philosophy you're supposed to adhere to for the painting to be considered a worthy piece of art.

In traditional Chinese painting, usually the body or outline of the painting will be done with black ink and various tones of black (i.e. a gradient effect) Any additional colour would act as a kind of accent or highlight. In contrast to European painting it may appear to be a more illustrative application of colour rather than working in layers to build depth and tone. There are no advantages or disadvantages, only differences.

When I began looking into ink painting there was a lot of writing about proper brush grip and certain ways to apply strokes and so on and so on. There are a plethora of styles and schools within the ink tradition similar to European painting. All these styles and systems seem too constricting, so in a way I rejected these formal ideologies and simply paint what I feel like painting. I don't spend much time thinking and deliberating on what colours to use.

FW I understand that it is not your intention to directly reference European traditions of flower painting yet for your paintings to work paradoxically I would have thought it was necessary to invoke both traditions in your paintings. Early flower still lifes by artists such as Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) (sometimes called Velvet Brueghel) and Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573-1621) are paradoxes too, of a different sort. For example, we are invited to look at painting of exquisitely rendered flowers arranged in a bouquet that in reality bloom at different times of the year Paradoxically, their beauty is preserved but only in painted form. The value of these paintings at that time was less than many of the flowers depicted.

TL I am interested in the symbolic language of the still life. In Chinese painting, depictions of peonies, chrysanthemums, bambo, and plum blossoms are recurring subjects. They are described as representing auspiciousness, longevity and harmony. Chrysanthemums, for example, are believed to bring good luck and have links with Buddhism.

The focus in Chinese art, because of its illustrative quality rather than its realism, leads the viewer to reflect more on the flower’s symbolic meaning than to the flower itself. Clearly, Chinese painting isn't a pursuit of visual likeness. In general it is an attempt to evoke and express a visceral response.

European Catholic paintings are also littered with floral motifs. The Virgin Mary is often depicted with lilies, said to represent purity and innocence. Paradoxically, lilies are a popular funeral flower for Chinese and Europeans that I find interesting.

Some of your questions lead me to talking specifically about European sixteenth- to seventeenth-century still life but that doesn't reflect the way I see things. I think the point is that there are similarities between cultures, maybe all cultures; that we as humans are hardwired into looking for a meaning which language is incapable of expressing. For whatever reason, flowers seem a choice metaphor for both cultures; the pursuit is really the same. The visual language used to communicate, however, is distinctly different.

What it is about flowers themselves that we seem so fixated upon? They are universal; you see depictions of flowers in every culture. They adorn wallpapers, they are in art, they are in ritual and they are romantic gestures etc etc. I don't think it’s a coincidence that religion borrows the floral motif. Buddha sits in a Lotus position, the lotus is employed in the Bhagavad Ghita as a metaphor for how human beings ought to conduct themselves and, again, ties that lilies have with Christianity and the Virgin Mary.

We attach all these concepts of meaning to flowers. There are countless poems; paintings, songs that personify flowers, such as William Blake's 'The Wild Flower Song' and Vanitas paintings use flowers as moral warnings. So I find all these readings of an 'inanimate' object confusing and paradoxical. How does plucking a living flower (in essence killing the flower) and placing them in a vase bring joy? Or painting them act as moral guides? And then it becoming an object of desire and status? It is absurd, and this I interesting in still life.

FW Your painting of still life is, as you have told me, a paradoxical practice—a Western convention, painted without reference to an actual bouquet, alive or dead, painted or photographed. Painted from memory and the imagination, your flowers appear weightless: flying and floating off, collapsing, slipping, dissolving, twitching. This gives the paintings a fleeting, transitory, insubstantial quality. Certain marks in your paintings (often white or translucent) seem to disrupt the space. They also disturb the viewer's expectation of a still life, of finding substance, gravity and depth.

TL My work is littered with themes of paradox and contradictions: life and death, Eastern and Western, traditional and contemporary. I think my paintings are full of contradictions because ultimately they are about life and—consciously or not—my life and sentiments. The flowers in my paintings are not real, they do not exist and I'm often not sure what flowers they even are. I have a feeling to paint a flower and it happens. If there was a point where I made a decision that flowers would feature in my work, I have no recollection of it, an uneventful decision maybe.

There is not a single focal point in my work because my work is not about any specific thing. There may be disruptions because there is in my mind no conscious message to convey; the flowers are just a motif, a symbol for everything and nothing.

You mention disturbing the viewer's expectations for substance, gravity and depth, and maybe that is part of the point of my paintings. By merely mentioning the materials and ink painting there is already a painting formed in the mind of the viewer before they even see my work. If you image search ink painting on the Internet, that is what most people think of ink painting. I'm trying to shift the paradigm of what ink painting is and perhaps still life too.

FW There was a growing trade between Europe and China in the mid-seventeenth century as can be seen in the Wan-Li vases depicted in the elder Bosschaert's still lifes. At the time, this highly valued object from another world, depicted in the Northern European style of oil painting, must have seemed a thing of wonder. To me, its appearance in painting of that period seems yet another paradox, one that has now become all but erased in our culture of the copy, the imitation, and the simulacra. We barely see its otherness now.

TL I don't see Chinese objects painted in a western style or vice versa as a paradox as such, more a juxtaposition of cultures. Going back to the functional quality that still life painting had in its early period, I acknowledge that these meeting points of eastern and western aesthetics were borne of trade and consequently became objects of desire.

The motive of these Northern European painters appears to be clearer than my own. Paintings of exuberant and luxury items are clearly aimed at a wealthy audience. The intent of such early still life is direct, linear and easily read. Obviously, I'm aware of similarities and I understand that my work may be deconstructed and analyzed in a manner that references early still lifes, though I feel there shouldn't be too much emphasis of that nature placed on them.

What I value is the illusion and the power of Art, through use of symbolism, juxtaposition, paradox and the manner in which a painting, a still life, has the ability to elicit very deep rooted human emotions.

FW I would like to return to painting as process. Your objects of still life are generated out of process and memory, rather than being observed or appropriated from real life. To put it another way, you materialize objects out of paint; you are a materializer. Could you guide me through your painting procedures and how your Chinese paints and supports contribute to this phenomenon?

TL The paper I paint on is Xuan paper from China. I find it rewarding to work with a surface that doesn't always allow you to do what you want. It has a resistance because of its fragility and isn't a perfect consistent material. Due to this I work in layers and assess how many layers I need to build up an image as I go along. It is a gradual process. The way in which I work doesn't allow me to be direct with what I paint. I have to wait and see what happens and address whatever fluctuations occur.

In terms of the subject, I'll know I want to paint a still life or a portrait and it's a case of knowing what the thing looks like in my mind's eye and then letting my hand do the rest. If it doesn't look or feel right then I just keep painting and working until I'm satisfied with the result.

There are generally three steps to my process. I'll work on the raw paper until I feel there is something that resembles a painting. Then the paper gets wet mounted onto a thicker sheet of backing paper. Once dry, all the creases and ripples are gone and the image becomes clearer. This pasting process also alters the initial painting somewhat. The inks run and blur into one another. The backing paper acts like primer for a canvas, but in a reverse order. As a result, the painting/colours gain more depth.

The painting has by that point gone through a transformation of sorts. There's an element of randomness or lack of control here, I'm left having more decisions to make: as to whether I leave certain iterations or work with them and bring them out, or dull them down by more painting. The piece finally gets laid onto panel (another pasting process) and I’ll see whether it requires any more painting and or changes. It is a cyclical conversation with the painting.


extract from Models and Materialities exhibition catalogue.

interview with Frances Woodley and Timothy Hon Hung Lee