Carl Randall at Daiwa Foundation House: the artist as outsider

In his conversation with Andrew Stahl from The Slade School of Fine Art, UCL at Daiwa Foundation House on Thursday, Carl Randall explained how his meticulous paintings evolved from a simple sketch. It might originate from some movements or people’s facial expressions that intrigued him, and then he would make a few quick sketches on the move, and consider the composition. Then over time the quick sketches became more serious sketches, and slowly the overall impression deepened. Finally the characters found their ways into the picture. He would consider the light, tone and texture, making one layer after another. He approached his subject as if he were an outsider, so that he could observe and create, make a documentation of the reality, even if his play on the dimension and proportions of figures betray the artificial nature of a painting.

Listening to his talk, one sees that art is never a coincidence. Talent and perceptiveness are key, of course, but the contents and style come from hard work. Randall conceded that he never used photographs to make portraits, even though he had no intention of making a statement against portraits based on photographs. It just did not appeal to him. He would like to be able to meet his model, speak to him or her, and in those three hours he would observe keenly and feel the model’s presence or personality, pin down his impression of him or her, and to adopt the portrait in the larger urban landscape he was working on. Over the ten years he was in Japan, Randall estimated that he had drawn nearly a thousand faces.

image credit Carl Randall
image credit Carl Randall

He mentioned Edward Hopper as an influence. I have always felt a vague hint of Hopper in his work: the distance between individuals in a familiar yet slightly surreal urban landscape, the unflattering palette of reality, the way time seems to have frozen in the poetic moment, the impossibility to know someone or tell what they feel from just gleaning the surface, and how the mood of an individual seems to enter the colours, the lights, the environment. He said he liked Japan and found it a very calm, orderly city, and though the city is incredibly busy, filled with movements and skyscrapers and neon lights, it is a place where lost things are found.

Stahl asked Randall how he thought about the discipline of the artist. The key, according to Randall, is to treat your work as a job. “You have to get on with it, every single day, otherwise nothing gets done really.”

For more, click here. Exhibition continues at Daiwa Foundation House, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, Outer Circle, London NW1 4QP until 12 March.

Exhibition at Daiwa Foundation House
Daiwa Foundation House exhibition                           image credit: Carl Randall

power of making at V and A: craftsmanship and imagination

V&A’s latest show The Power of Making is a thoughtful showcase of modern craftsmanship and its relationship with imagination.

While the theme is nothing new, I’m struck by the choice of objects in this collection. From gigantic wool knit, a gorilla made of metallic coat hangers, bio-degradable coffins to spray-on fashion, the objects question the boundaries of conventionality and unconventionality, celebrate the play of imagination and such application in different industries. By putting objects outside of their typical contexts, they acquire an exciting dimension. An oversized piece of chunky wool knit displayed on the wall becomes an artpiece in itself. Layne Rowe‘s glass hand grenade is startling, making a social statement out of it. It is almost impossible to imagine the blood that will be spilt with a hand grenade. Equally, Dominic Wilcox‘s gloves with finger prints on the rubber pose a most threatening question: where lies the limitation of the manmade?

The show pays tribute to the value of traditional craftsmanship – teasing objects out of wood, paper, metal, glass, fabric… – providing the fundamental work platform for contemporary designers. I remember Leung So Kee in Hong Kong, so famous for its handmade umbrellas, and the undying fashion of handmade objects in the western world, how you can hardly place a price to something handmade. At the same time, the exhibition reminds one of the necessity of imagination in elevating and transforming a piece of work.

power of making 1

pin dress

Looking at the pin-dress created by Susie MacMurray, I am impressed by its curious texture and authenticity of skill. From afar, the dress seems to breathe a life of its own, taking on the guise of a half-woman, half-bird sculpture.

Altogether, it is a far better show than other recent exhibitions (such as the shows on the Cult of Beauty and Yohji Yamamoto‘s work) put up in the same venue, with more engaging narrative and clarity in presentation.

At the main entrance of the V&A, Amanda Levete‘s sculpture, Timber Wave, stands, beckoning at the passers-by, a commissioned piece from this year’s London Design Festival. Its contemporary design of wooden loops is somewhat at odds with the ornate architectural style of the V&A. I was expecting something more striking and poignant, something that interacts with the venue, such as Louise Bourgeois’s black spider or the rolling bridge by Thomas Heatherwick.

Exhibition at V&A from now until 2 January 2012.

power of making 2

The candid work of Japanese artist and printmaker Emiko Aida

I came across Emiko Aida‘s art prints first at the International Art Fair this year in Royal College of Art, and later at the art print specialist shop For Art’s Sake in Ealing. A 60x40cm aquatint art print called Reverie in the Rain caught my attention. A girl is asleep, in the background a verdant surrounding. It is an apt imagery of an artist’s mind: an active slumber of imagination.

There is a constant play of the wind, the trees, the seasons in her work, tinged with sweet nostalgia. I am drawn to the piece entitled Koinobori, carp-shaped wind socks that celebrate Children’s Day. The poignant choice of colours of those wind socks, the flippant tilt of the pole are put in strong contrast against a more aged background – slate coloured surrounding full of buildings – highlighting the triumph of innocence, the invisible passage of wind and time.

The artist is interested in detail and painting moods. Her work reminds me of the use of imagery in Kazuo Ishiguro’s books: that focus on the introspective, the nostalgic for a floating world. While I think the rich details work in some of the works such as the Koinobori and the sushi imageries, the more abstract artpieces such as The Echo Sounding series might benefit from a bolder, surreal treatment or a stranger use of colour. A tall man in a long coat stands in the rain, looking at the outside world. The fact that his back is facing the viewer provokes curiosity: we can only imagine what will his thoughts are in this rainy weather.

In some of her work there is at times a strange lack of perceptual depth – as if the world has been pressed flat. Check out the perspective she has chosen for the oil painting The Ninten City, with a boy in a hoodie top, overlooking the city from the rooftop, oddly placid. Such perspective gives impetus to the work,  hinting at the unreal, creating a dialogue on the art of perspectives with the work by Matisse and Magritte.

It is most difficult to dwell on the beauty of Japanese art and culture, without thinking about the sorrows of Fukushima.

West kowloon arts hub in Hong Kong part 1

m plus Hong KongGraham Sheffield, former artistic chief of Barbican Centre in London has decided to quit his role as CEO of Hong Kong’s HK$21.6 billion (£1.8 billion) West Kowloon arts hub project after five months. He has resigned due to health reasons, although many think that there must be more that triggered his abrupt decision to leave. The Wall Street Journal blog highlights that this follows the government’s decision to abandon Norman Foster’s canopy design for the arts project, while the Hong Kong Standard‘s article pinpoints Sheffield’s unfamiliarity with the local arts scene and his willingness to market the city’s arts hub on the world stage.

With the urgency to complete the 40-hectare cultural district before 2015, the Hong Kong government is now on an immediate global hunt for a new arts director. Words have gone round that Stephan Spurr, GM/director of Swire Properties with substantial arts background especially in theatre education and artistic direction, is tipped to be one of the candidates.

Mastermind behind the thriving Island East district in Hong Kong, a distinct strip of land where art and commerce meets, Spurr has demonstrated much creativity in transforming the landscapes in this skyscraper city. Born in Japan, educated in the UK and Canada, and having worked in Hong Kong’s competitive property development sector for several decades, he has international vision and is strongly supportive of arts development, especially theatre. Over the last few years, he was the volunteer artistic director for Shakespeare4All, directing plays and inspiring local schoolchildren to master Shakespearean drama/literature. He was also involved in advising the strategy of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, which has seen considerable expansion in recent years and attracted many new patrons on board. (Read more from SCMP‘s article)

Hong Kong is a heavily built-up city, and the project land area reserved for the arts hub is a rare piece of land for new architecture, property developments and museums. With a first high speed rail soon to be built across this region, it is a great location that will soon be connected directly with the Beijing capital. Many interests are involved. Many. In my opinion, this factor calls for leaders with vision as well as diplomacy.

We are yet to discover what top-notch candidates may register their interest in this artistic director role, and the jury’s still out as to how far this arts hub project will transform the arts scene in Hong Kong or even Greater China. Yet one thing is for certain: it is time for Hong Kong to address the need for a workforce of diverse talent, to create opportunities to fuel the long term growth and development of the city’s arts and culture. It is high time to cut back bureaucracy that will poison arts development and the retention of human capital.

Much work needs to be done.

Good morning Hong Kong towel

I am thinking of an artpiece I did a while ago – Good Morning Hong Kong. This is the most traditional towel you can find in Hong Kong, with the Chinese words in red: ‘Wish you a good morning’. Although it is more associated with working classes, I like its down-to-earth character.

good morning hong kong art

Decorated with the shiny marble beads – another classic of Hong Kong culture – it reminds you of the possibilities and happiness waking up to a good morning.

Hong Kong’s favourite: Instant noodles

I was always teased for my love of instant noodles. The midnight cravings for the unhealthy food. The other day I took a close examination at it and manipulate the perspective, with some fascinating findings.

The first image shows cooked instant noodles in its original, pure state. The choice of wooden chopsticks is used intentionally.

instant noodles art

The following image gives the instant noodles and the food consumer a context. The hint of an intellectual magazine immediately alters your idea of the person and quite possibly, towards the meal itself.

instant noodles art 2

This is what that underlies many of our prejudices. Try to pare down and evaluate people or events in their true light.

Henry Moore

With the exhibition on Henry Moore drawing to a close at Tate Britain, I went there for a browse. I had always harboured interest for the artist’s work, ever since I noticed ‘The Oval’ in Exchange Square, Hong Kong.

the oval sculpture in Hong Kong, Henry Moore
The Oval

Compared to the two isolated sculptures I saw in my home city, this exhibition at the Tate was breathtaking. The scale (150 artpieces) simply blew me away, and the sculptures rendered a coherent narrative on the artist’s experiments with different textures and shapes. I realised why the Guardian named it as the most important exhibition of Moore’s work for a generation.

The shelter drawings were highly engaging, featuring sketches of victims in air raids and dark mines. The war materials are honest and uncompromising, revealing Moore’s strengths as the official war artist, a side of his that has often been overlooked. His work echoes William Blake’s sublime, more apocalyptic drawings.

Henry Moore war shelter drawings
Henry Moore's shelter drawings

Manipulating the tension between cave and point, Moore’s indulgence on the mother and child theme as well as his love for the reclining figure were brought to the forefront. Soon you realise that the recurrence is not coincidental. It is an avant-garde experiment of form, texture and touch.

Some considered Moore’s work to be ugly, unnecessarily ugly. For me, the sculptures were a test of form and the chunkiness helped to give more fullness and sensuality to the idea of the body, the raw flesh.

I am especially fascinated by the range of materials Moore adopted for his work. He liked to use well-polished stones – green hornton, cumberland alabaster, cherry wood, elm wood and oak wood. Taken together with the organic forms, his sculptures lessen the divide between man and nature. Personally, I feel that Moore displays a greater mastery of naturalistic materials such as stone and wood rather than metal.

His exhibition also brings to light an interesting theory that advocates the silence of the artist: a sense of mystery or silence is needed to preserve the impregnable quality in the artwork, i.e. the artwork is larger than the author (click here for documentary on Henry Moore)

Simplicity and optimism in the work of Christian Købke

The three-month exhibition at the National Gallery featuring Christian Købke’s paintings has done a great job in raising profile of this lesser-known Danish artist who died young, reviving attention towards Købke’s interpretation of characters and colours in his artwork.

Anchored in the simplicity of folk life and customs, and with an invested faith in realism, Købke’s work draws out the pristine quality of everyday life in his hometown Copenhagen, reflecting attributes of Denmark’s Golden Age.

Købke’s work reflect a people who share affinity and a nationalistic sense of ownership. One finds in his paintings a stronger emphasis on the discipline of lines, shades of light, and the use of wide perspectives. Water reflections are often repeated, an element that succeeds in enlivening the still landscape, such as the brightness and clarity of the lake in ‘Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light’.

I am impressed by his fine attention to human figures in his work. The people in the celebrated masterpiece, ‘The View from Dosseringen’, illustrates his adeptness in representing the overlap between people’s personal and public lives, and his ability to juxtapose the boundaries of home and abroad. Two women are seen standing on the pier beside the national flag, waving at a departing boat, possibly saying goodbye to their family kin. By refraining from portraying emotions direct, the painter uses the canvas to conjure the fine balance between geographical distance and emotional closeness.

View from the Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake

Købke, son of a baker in Copenhagan, produced considerable paintings despite being little known outside his home country and his poor health. His portraits are mostly that of close friends and fellow artists, instead of commissioned craft of distinguished personalities, yet these masterpieces uphold principles of harmony, integrity and structure.

Meticulous and introspective in his art, I particularly enjoy Købke’s portrait of friend and fellow painter Frederik Sødring, a painting so vested with hope, glowing with warmth and richness of colours, bringing home the romantic spirit of Denmark’s Golden Age.

The video by National Gallery sheds light on the artist’s creative philosophy.

Thomas Heatherwick and his super-sculptures

Thomas Heatherwick and his art intrigue me.

Years ago, my boss at Swire gave me an interview clip on Heatherwick’s childhood. I find out that Heatherwick, born into a family of artists, harbours a questioning mind since he was a child. He likes to find out new ways of doing things. It’s fascinating how the curious, geeky child who makes strange greeting cards and craft for his mom becomes the man that he is today.

The man behind these ideas

When I was working in Hong Kong, I remember seeing the British artist for the first time, the creative mind behind the £120m Pacific Place Contemporarisation project, a visionary attempt to redesign one of the best malls in Hong Kong. He has a very intense look about him and doesn’t seem to give a damn what the world thinks of him. There he was, artist behind B of the Bang, in a press conference and media tour that promoted his creative work, oblivious to all that publicity surrounding him. He looked as if he was thinking of his next big idea. Nowadays, Pacific Place has a much more dramatic look about it, with the lighter shades, rippling wooden facade of toilets, musical capsule lifts, airy piazzas, a greenhouse Italian restaurant, and a dazzlingly luxurious hotel with a most modest stony facade (For more, click here).

The living coral sculpture he did for Shanghai Expo’s UK Pavilion this year is equally startling. I love the subtle, quivering silhouette of the sculpture (video).

London Mayor Boris Johnson has announced Heatherwick’s design for all Londoners: a new, low-emissions Routemaster bus which, in my opinion, looks like a red cake of soap. The new bus will roam London’s streets from 2012 onwards.

The new Heatherwick bus that looks like a cake of soap

Have a look at his medium- and large-scale projects on his studio if you have the time. They seem to assume a life of their own. (Heatherwick studio)

I am still planning to go to the Beach Cafe in Sussex he designed one warm sunny day.