The funny things you see

One of the greatest joys of painting in the semi-abstract to abstract genre, is hearing what my audience sees within. Whether on social media or in person, here are a few memorable remarks to perhaps you can relate:

  • I can see an upside-down mermaid in a bowl of spaghetti! (See image below)

  • I can see a blue Holden Barina (an Aussie car) that’s fallen off a cliff into a shrub! (In this person’s case, I believe this actually happened to her! I’m not sure I like being a ptsd trigger :S)

  • I see a group of babies screaming

  • It’s a butterfly party! (Children are the best at this)

  • Animals. Always animals. Penguins, donkeys, lots of accidental cats apparently. One woman could only see elephants, lots of elephants and it took a longtime convincing they were flowers. Bless :D

I would just like to say that whatever you may see in my paintings says a lot more about YOU than it does the accidental creator :D

‘Wisteria Bonsai’ or aka an upside-down mermaid in a bowl of spaghetti

‘Wisteria Bonsai’ or aka an upside-down mermaid in a bowl of spaghetti

Chef’s Table (Palette and Palate)

My girlfriend kept harping on about this show called Chef’s Table on Netflix, and insisting as an artist I would find it interesting. 

I was reluctant at first, because well, are chefs like artists? And also, I’ve never been able to understand the recent wave of cooking shows. When you think of the number of hungry people, I thought it all in pretty poor taste; kinda tough to swallow, or hard to stomach. ;) 

But as it turns out, Chef’s Table is about the chefs themselves, and their “journeys” for lack of a better word. And it is surprising the parallels between the life of a chef and that of an artist. This might not be surprising to some of you… it is called the “culinary arts” after all. But I went to art school, and there were no culinary skills taught, believe me!

To start with, one of the hallmarks of an artist is individuality, and the chefs in this show are no different. The personalities, cuisines, cultures and approach are as varied as a modern art fair. Variety is the spice of life, they say. 

Another alarming parallel is chefs and artists seem to name their creations with word play and puns. In the episode featuring Will Goldfarb, we were taken to his dessert bar ‘Room 4 Dessert” with such dishes as ‘Pandan-bert’. I’ve come up with some groaners for my own work, but chefs truly take the cake! ;) 

The chefs exposed are not necessarily on the gravy train, but they are the cream of the crop. Cherry-picked. Some are the avant-garde of food, taking molecular gastronomy to the next level… often employing “food labs” which are kitchens dedicated to experimentation. Methinks this is much the same as an artist’s studio… where hours are spent, mistakes and discoveries made. Chefs on the show create organic bubbles of flavour inside algae skins, foams and flosses of unconventional flavours. It’s a similar kind of innovation that I see with painters who use gels, fluid acrylics, paint skins, and artists in general who push the limits of the materials in their given medium. If you were to look into a modern studio and a modern kitchen/lab, you’d find tools that wouldn’t be traditionally be found in either. Blow torches, industrial moulds, plastics and dry ice, for example.  

Artists long ago escaped the confines of the square canvas, and chefs are no longer bound by a round white plate. Grant Achatz at his restaurant Alinea, (whom, on a side note, often visits contemporary art galleries for inspiration for his dishes), serves food on pillows of scented air. And in the ephemera, there’s Vladimir Mukhin’s White Rabbit restaurant in Moscow, which aims to create an overall experience much like an installation artwork.

There is a definite familiarity with chefs’ obsession with… well, familiarity. Nostalgia and childhood features throughout the series. Notably, and one of the strongest episodes, was Christina Tosi: a New Yorker who invented cornflake milk ice-cream. You know, that flavoured milk left over after a bowl of cornflakes? I thought that was quite brilliant! You don’t have to look far in the art world to see that “flavour” of nostalgia, from Chardin’s ‘Boy with a Top’ to Jeff Koons’ ballon dogs. I guess it alludes to an overall occupation with childhood (some of us have even been accused of painting like one). And I think too, it’s important for innovation to approach our work with a notion of “play”… if not in concept, then in the creative process.

Another memorable episode featured Francis Mallman who lived and cooked on a seriously remote and wild Patagonian island. Along with Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun of the Baegyangsa temple in South Korea, these two chefs are all about immersion with their natural surrounds. Mallman is primeval in the connection to his surrounds, and Kwan spiritual, and the episode leaves you with same feeling you get after a week-long meditation retreat. For me, and I hear it from other artists too (especially those in cities), it highlights our dissonant need to be a part of the human city machine, and the desire to be out and grounded in nature. 

This blog post probably has enough on its plate, but it wouldn’t be right not to touch on the effect of patriarchy on the cheffing and art worlds. In the first season of Chef’s Table, there is just one female chef featured. The woman I speak of is Niki Nakamara, and all she had to do to be on the show was train in Japan for decades in the uber-male dominated world of Kaiseki, realise there was never going to be much opportunity there, move to Los Angeles, start her own restaurant, and become one of the top Kaiseki chefs in the world. Hopefully you can detect my snark here, but of course, this lack of equality is a reflection on the world of elite chefs more than on Chef’s Table, who to their credit, made more of a concerted effort to represent equally in following seasons. 

Similarly, women have long been fighting for equal representation in major museums, or to in general be taken seriously as artists. This is not easy given the “artistic genius” label that has a long history of being given to only men, leaving society with an inherited (mostly) unconscious bias. There are signs things are changing, with projects such as The Jealous Curator’s book ‘A Big Important Art Book - Now With Women’, The Other Art Fair London’s ‘Not 30%’, and revisionist history documentaries like ‘Kusama, Infinity’.

In a nutshell, the life of a chef is far closer to that of an artist than I thought. Granted, I can see that is a rather glorifying statement given cheffing is a pretty hard slog. It’s long hours, split shifts, hot kitchens, high pressure, and until you make it into the top tier, the pay is peanuts. But I’d like to point out that artists are not exactly living the life of leisure that’s expected of them. Most artists  I know are working long hours (usually second jobs too), in studios that are freezing cold in winter and baking in summer, and might be happy to be paid in peanuts. It’s almost like the life of a chef is going through a period of romanticisation not dissimilar to what must have happened to artists at some point. 

I can’t complain though. I’m not a starving artist. In fact, this is where I should probably mention that the gf and I had the good fortune of nabbing a table at n/naka (Niki Nakayama’s restaurant) when in LA for The Other Art Fair (to say it was tricky getting in is an understatement. Bookings for tables open three months prior, and are booked within literally seconds. It was insane, and took a number of attempts before we were finally successful). The evening was one of the most memorable of my life. Each morsel of food was a brand new experience, from a heavenly dashi broth, cuttlefish and lobster sashimi with wee medallions of weird stuff and yummy purees, to cherry blossom jelly and yuzu sake. Not just the food, the hospitality was above and beyond, even for Japanese standards (and American for that matter). The waiters, the chefs, all know you by name, and know why you are there prior to your arrival. It was a first class experience, and to think I could be repeating that in the future, is probably pie in the sky

Clearly, I can no longer judge our culture’s food fetish. I know the struggle for protein for some is still very real, and the excess of food we have in the West, and waste, should be acknowledged. But I have to say, when you start viewing food as art, and chefs as artists, our preoccupation with food and these food shows become a whole lot more palette-able ;) (perhaps conveniently).

One of the 15 courses at n/naka. It was a seared scallop with a puree of some delicious sort and jelly.

One of the 15 courses at n/naka. It was a seared scallop with a puree of some delicious sort and jelly.

Dashi broth with clams and special crystal weed found on the side of road.

Dashi broth with clams and special crystal weed found on the side of road.

Pasta made with seafood somehow.

Pasta made with seafood somehow.

Me having a jolly time.

Me having a jolly time.

Identity Crisis: Am I an Abstract Painter?

Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine that went something like this...

“How do you know when a painting is finished?” (I get this question often) Then I reply: “when all the elements are in balance and the painting makes sense visually” Her: “But if it’s an abstract piece, who else is going to be able to tell if the  makes sense? Aren't you the only person who can see that?  Which leads me back to my original question: how do you know when a painting is finished?” (actually it was longer and more involved than that, but that was the gist). 

…and this had me stumped.  I've always believed there is a human visual-balance gene that innately allows us to recognise when something is OUT of balance. When something is in balance, it’s so natural to us, that we don’t see it. It doesn’t occur to us to notice balance. To try and translate this anthropologically, I’d say it has something to do with proportions in the human body (i.e. Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’), or it could be referred to scientifically as something to do with the Fibonacci sequence found everywhere in nature. I don’t measure this when I’m painting, I’m just working until I no longer have this sense of visual disharmony.

This is all just a theory though. And my first question is: is this true? Do we all have this visual-balance/imbalance gene? I don’t know, and maybe some of you have thoughts on this, and if so, feel free to discuss below. :) 

The second lot of questions raised was: can I really call myself an abstract painter if I place so much importance on balance? Is my more representative work (the stuff that’s clearly "something") even close to abstract? There are so many reasons why I shouldn’t classify myself as an abstract painter, yet I relate strongly to others who do.  Am I an abstract painter? What is abstract?

Abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.
— Wikipedia

I have classified my work as numerous genres - surrealist, semi-abstract/representational, psychedelic, organic abstract, organic psychedelic, abstract expressionist. To some, I must sound confused! It’s not necessarily because I’m cantankerous over being pigeonholed, or that it’s just hard to pigeonhole my work, it’s also, and perhaps more so due to the pigeonholes being hard to pigeonhole. But you know what? With the advent of the online art market, categorisation is becoming increasingly important. When uploading art to any online gallery, including Saatchi, eBay or Artfinder, or even 'tags' here on this blog/gallery, we are asked to categorise. And why is this? Because this is how Google finds us. 

Always, on these online galleries, when selecting a category for your work, there at the top of the alphabetic list, is ‘Abstract’, right above Cubism, Dada, and Expressionism. But is 'Abstract' a category? Should it be labelled as a genre? 

Admittedly 'abstract art', in Western art, does represent a time/movement that coincided with changes and advances in science, and philosophy that began in the late 19th century. And the genre that we now know of as abstract art, connotes to that period of time. But abstract art, abstraction, and even something so totally (so I thought) contemporary as organic abstract (ie. allowing the materials to flow and form under their own steam) have been around since - well forever (see below vessel - dated 25 B.C.). 

Greek or Roman, 25 B.C. - A.D. 25 Glass 5 1/8 in.

Greek or Roman, 25 B.C. - A.D. 25 Glass 5 1/8 in.

Nonetheless, 'abstract' is thought of as a genre, and 'abstract' and 'representational' in this world of genres, are antonyms. It’s this notion, that then identifying as an abstract artist has left me felling uneasy. After all, many of my works are obviously representational, and those that aren’t are still so thoroughly obsessed with balance that the elements within take the form of traditional landscapes. But then again, and here is the conflict, this notion feels limiting, and 'abstraction' by definition should be limitless. Abstraction is a very abstract concept… naturally the most abstract of all concepts :)

All art is abstract. A painting of a person or a still-life is a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional reality and therefore infinitely abstract.
— Jerry Saltz
'In a Heartbeat' 140cm x 120cm, Acrylic on canvas. 2014

'In a Heartbeat' 140cm x 120cm, Acrylic on canvas. 2014

Let’s take the example of my most recent piece ‘In a Heartbeat’ (above). I caught myself saying this is the most abstract piece I’ve ever painted. But why? Because it plainly fits the criteria. It “uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.” But then a friend and fellow artist visited the barn and said “It’s like you’ve painted living tissue. I can almost feel it beating off the canvas”. This painting is a representation of living tissue… or of ‘life’. For my most abstract painting, it couldn’t be more representational. 

Here’s another example to add to the confusion. In this case of ‘Sticky-rice Landscape’, my most representational work, couldn’t be more abstract. It is fundamentally a painting of clumps of sticky-rice. Yet I spent laborious hours making identical marks in rows of abstract patterns and layers. It was stripped down to the very basic element of white elongated ovals. 

'Sticky-rice  Landscape' 110cm x 80cm, Enamel on canvas. 2012

'Sticky-rice Landscape' 110cm x 80cm, Enamel on canvas. 2012

So, it seems abstraction and representation, although antonyms, seem to coexist. But it's more. I've come to regard abstraction not as a thing, but a process on a thing... an element in a painting, representational or not, can be put through a process of abstraction to point that it's unrecognisable, and then brought back again, similar but for ever changed. A metaphor that comes to mind, is when you double translate an english phrase. i.e.. write an english phrase into Google translate, translate into another language, then translate it back to English.. you never do get quite the same phrase. So abstraction is not a genre, but a process. 

Abstraction is one of the greatest visionary tools ever invented by human beings to imagine, decipher, and depict the world.
— Jerry Saltz

I think this led to my biggest recent realisation, which in retrospect seems obvious - The abstraction process breeds innovation. 

Take the Sticky-rice example. From this process of stripping down, I formed patterns that I then went on to use in all my other works, including representational works. It was painted in 2012, but I use those same patterns today. Interestingly, it was in the limitation of this piece (working with white elongated ovals), that forced me into abstraction.

And then take ’In a Heartbeat’ - by being utterly free-flowing and forming, non-representational, balanced elements, it was revolutionary (in relation to my own practice), aesthetically, materially and conceptually. This is a very new piece, so I'm unsure of how it will influence any future work, but it was the freedom in painting this piece, it's abstract intention, that has highlighted new directions for future works.

So, I guess, in answer to my question “am I an abstract painter?” the answer is yes, but what’s most important to me as the artist, is not how the end product is categorised, but how it came to be. I am an abstract painter because the process of abstraction is vital - it’s the innovation resulting from the abstraction process that nourishes all other areas of my painting practice, including representation. 

Thank you for reading my rather lengthy, self-indulgent post :) I hope it was of some interest to you... perhaps you can relate? Or maybe you can answer these questions differently. It's a very big topic, I know.