I have many questions regarding the nature of visual art. I like to think of my writing style as visual in nature but when it comes to putting pen to paper to make shapes or faces I am lost as to how I should be representing things, or what I should be representing.
Having no background in the visual process I have begun a series of interviews with painters, established and otherwise, to find out how they operate, where they fit in the Toronto scene, and if there is a relatable element to their methods that will shine through in conversation, in words.
Dave (D) met with Annie Si-Wing Tung (annietung.com) (A) and gathered some information on the limitations of visual art and the importance of process in the T Cafe on Bloor. Dave had a licorice tea while Annie drank red.
D Okay so, um, I’ve seen your website a little bit. Could you describe your style of painting? I know you do the improv thing but you do other things as well, just in general: what is your approach to painting?
A Ahm, I usually have multiple series going on just because I don’t like sticking to one style.
A So right now I paint from my dreams. So I will be recording some images I have and then I’ll translate them into my paintings. So that’s one series. And then the second one would be, um, just trying to make painting more three-dimensional, so I’ll be using, like, plaster, and just really random found objects in trying to break the boundaries of what painting would be: just a flat two-dimensional surface on a wall. And then the third would be my live painting performances, where I’ll be painting live to musicians. So that’s just a way for me to experiment with painting. It’s not very traditional. It’s more like that it’s about the process.
D Yeah, Okay. Hold on, I want to turn the phone on to airplane mode so nothing interrupts us.
D Just give me a second.
D Sorry about that. Em, okay. So, I want to approach these in terms of all of your different series, but lets start off by saying like, why do you take so many different approaches to it?
A Um, I think that relates back to the reason why painting still exists today. Because back then painting was more, you know, documentation. That’s what it was for. But now with technology advancing, there’s photography and video. Painting doesn’t seem very relevant anymore because were into the modern age.
A So the reason why painting’s still around, I think, is because it needs to be pushed, with its boundaries. It’s not just four pieces of wood and canvas anymore. There’s more experimentation.
A So the reason why I use so many approaches is because I personally… we call it “Painting A.D.D.”, where you just can’t stick with one thing; where you just go all over, so that’s why I do it.
D When you say “we,” you mean…
A I know a lot of painters who feel the same way, where they just can’t stick with one kind of style, but they try to approach it with experimentation.
D Do you think this is something that’s intrinsic to painting itself? Because when you think of ‘artists,’ you think of a certain style of work, like I mean William Blake and stuff, he did these really epic paintings. And you think of Jackson Pollock and you think of, you know, the drippings, and the crazy stuff. But do you think that those painters themselves were still always doing “Painting A.D.D.” as well? Or is this something more modern? or more…
A I think it would be more like a post-modern idea of painting, because it’s not what you paint anymore, it’s how you paint it. That’s what I’ve learned. So even with like Jackson Pollock, he also doesn’t have in mind what to paint but how he paints it makes him very recognized, with the drips.
D Okay. Um, when you say “it’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it,” um, the things that you mentioned are all—even if they’re abstract they seem like they’re representational in some way of something that happened to you, like your dreams, or live music. Is this—I’m trying to phrase this properly—could you just paint abstractly? Or do you need an inspiration like that?
A I think painting itself needs inspiration in general. Because it has to come from either music, or visual-wise, or just like, where you’ve been or what you’ve looked at. And the fact that you’re translating what you’ve learned onto a canvas, that translation, I think that’s the whole process of what painting has become. It’s not that you’re trying to represent exactly what you’ve seen or learned, but its more how you approach it.
D So it’s not the thing that you’re painting, or the painting itself, it’s the in-between. The process.
A The process, yeah.
D Okay, so talk to me about your process. Let’s start with the dream series… like how? Walk me through… what do you do? You have a dream, you wake up, you write it down?
A Yeah, I’m very into Salvador Dali. He’s pretty much my role model. I want to be friends with that guy, if he still exists. [She laughs] I’ve read a lot about him, and I do read a lot about dream qualities, like from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. So I have a notepad beside my nightstand and in the state between falling asleep and being awake I try to remember what I dreamt of, like some specific object or scenery, and I’ll draw a doodle. And I will collect them over like, a month, and I will try to put them all together in a painting.
D Is that how Dali did his? Is his based on fragments as well?
A I think… I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I read a lot about how he would have a bowl of water beside his finger, and when he falls asleep he would dip his finger in the water, and wake, and paint. So, I don’t know if that’s really true or not because he exaggerates.
D He’s a bit of a mysterious man.
D Um, okay. Then you take all the fragments of these dreams and you collect them over a month and then what happens?
A Then I’ll try to paint them.
D Is there a certain way that you approach the composition of the piece based on the dream fragments that you have? Or is it just however it feels like it should go?
A It’s just how ever it feels to go. Also I’ll use a lot of neon colours, so that plays a part too. It’s more like colour composition.
D Okay… um, what was the second series? Not the live music, what was the other…
A Oh, they’re just, like, three-dimensional paintings.
D Okay, so let’s talk about that. I mean, you believe that experimentation is what pushes this art. Is there anybody that you saw doing this and you wanted to…
A Um, I don’t know if you’ve heard of Kim Dorland.
D No. Clem Dorland?
A Kim Dorland.
D Okay, no.
A His paintings are crazy. I saw them at Angel Gallery and his paint, literally, this is the canvas [she places a hand out] and this is the paint [she places a hand dramatically further away from the other hand.]
D He just layers it and layers it and layers it?
A It just layers. He pretty much just pours paint on it and it creates all these creases. And makes it very sculpture-like. With mine that’s almost the same way I want to approach it. I want to break the frame of just being two-dimensional, and the fact that for me, I want people to be able to touch my paintings. Not many artists want that. It’s always been like, “Oh, don’t touch this, because it’s art.” But with mine, I want it to be very interactive, and people can feel what it is.
D Do you believe that… what do you think that will do to the experience of the art, the fact that it’s tactile? That people can touch it?
A I guess it will be two senses that you can…
D Yeah, appreciate it on a second sense. I like that.
D Um, okay, so what kind of materials do you use to make your…
A I use plaster strips, just because its very easy, and it’s easier to dry. So that will be building the layers, and usually it comes out really thick, too, but not as crazy as it can be.
D Okay, and when you paint these, are these abstract objects? Or are they based on something as well?
A Hm… I found the similarities with most of those paintings is that they kind of mimic a landscape—but they’re not at the same time. They’re abstract but you kind of don’t really know what it is. It could be that some of them look like a tornado, or like an ocean, but they’re not that at the same time.
D So it…
A It kind of opens to interpretation.
D What the painting is actually came to you after the fact?
D You just kind of let it go.
D And again, the thing I really want to understand is, when you sit down in front of a canvas to do something like that, what motivates you to put a line here, or a plaster strip there?
A Well, what we use as a term is called “The Vocabulary.”
A Vo-cabulary, of painting. It’s like each stroke, each object, you’re adding vocabulary into the larger piece of writing, I guess.
D So, it uses a “vocabulary,” and is there… okay, I’m going to try to extend your metaphor here.
D If there’s a vocabulary of painting, do the same strokes and images mean the same thing to everybody?
A I think it’s more to the painter themselves. That’s my vocabulary.
D Okay. So it’s like everybody has the same letters, but people make up different words? Kinda thing?
A Yeah, kinda like that.
D Okay, cool. So…
A Sorry, I hope this will make sense. I feel like I’m rambling sometimes.
D No, no, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it. It’s, again it’s a Socratic thing. You never really know what you know until you say it, right? So when you’re sitting down, what I think we didn’t answer was: how do you apply that to the canvas? How do you decide what to do, or what goes through your head?
A I think also aesthetic plays a large part. I guess I’ve been training my eyes to what looks good and what doesn’t look good, and that also plays a large part of it, but at the same time it’s also, like, expression. Like how you feel at the moment. But that also relates to aesthetics, because you’ve been training your eye for so long to look at art and to look at things. It kind of plays together.
D Okay, here’s maybe a really difficult question, based on that: What looks good to you?
[Silence and a sudden laugh from A.]
A That’s a really good question.
D Without, you know I don’t have your paintings in front of me, and I would be able to tell, if I did.
D But could you describe what kind of things draw you to a certain painting.
A I think in a sense of “good” to me, its more “how relevant is this painting?”
A So it’s not an “is this good or bad,” but how/why is this painting important? Like everyone can call themselves a painter or an artist, but why is this painting relevant in this arts community or with people in general. So I think I determine “good” based on that.
D Okay, then how does that inform the aesthetic? That’s the real question.
A I think the easiest term would be “pleasing the eye.”
D Yeah. That’s fair to say. Very cool. I want to talk about that relevance some more later, but lets talk about the third series, the jazz, the improv stuff. I find that really fascinating. I’ve never heard of anybody doing that, either. I’ve seen live paintings, but they’re all structured.
A I’ve been doing it for two years. It’s a funny story of how that happened.
D Tell it! Please!
A Ahm, my best friend’s a jazz singer and we were just, one day we were watching The Simpsons, and there’s that episode with Lisa playing the saxophone, and that crazy lady was painting her playing jazz. I don’t know if you remember that episode, but Marge came in and she was like “what are you guys doing?” and Lisa just said, “oh yeah…” I forget the girl’s name… “Yeah, the girl’s painting my music and I’m playing to her painting.”
A And I turned to Courtney and I was just like, “we should do that.” Like actually do that. Why not? And we’ve always wanted to kind of jam together, but I don’t play instruments. So I was like “I’ll paint.” So then, I guess a little band formed and she knew some other musicians that do improvised music. So that just organically happened.
D Really cool. How long… does it take for you to… like how long do they jam for before the canvas is done?
A Each set is more like 40 minutes or 45 minutes, and I’ll paint on a very large canvas, like 3-4 feet.
A And I’m a really fast painter too and it just sort of happens. When I feel like my painting is done I will signal the musicians that I’m done, and they will gradually stop.
D Very cool. So that’s, well, don’t interpret this the wrong way, but it’s more about your painting. Because they will stop when you’re done? I understand that it’s a mutual thing, but, um…
D It’s to see what paint comes out of it, right?
A Yeah essentially because I have limited space, whereas music it could just go on and on.
D Right. Why, ah—have you ever thought of doing it to other types of music? I know you formed with a jazz musician friend, but is there something about jazz that seems suited to this?
A I like the randomness of free jazz.
A That’s almost the same as what my paintings are: they’re very random and expressionist. So it works very well together.
D Very cool. And you do this in front of an audience?
D What’s the name of the band?
A We don’t really have a name, we just kind of like… whoever wants to jam, we kind of form.
D Very cool. Okay, so lets signal into, like… I have two sides of questions.
D So let’s signal into my second side. Um , kind of flowing off of that… um, this might come off as hard, I’m just trying to phrase it as easily as possible. Things like the jazz painting… is that “relevant” to you? Is that? And if so, what is the thing that you’re trying to get across with that kind of art?
A I think there’s definitely relevance in the sense that people can hear and watch the creativity flow, and how we can interact with each other at the same time.
A So, it’s more of like, the process-based. Which I’m very into. In a painting, you can never see what it actually is because there’s so many hidden paintings underneath it. And I think that is the most interesting part. With just a painting being hung on a wall you’re not showing much, whereas a process you can see how this circle-thing became—from so many strokes, or so many expressions.
D So do you believe that visual art by itself is limited in a way? Because you seem to be very much about combining multiple senses and process into your artwork, to kind of overcome—is it to overcome the limitation? Or is it just something that you find interesting?
A Like in visual arts in general?
D Yeah. I’m just curious.
A I think the term “visual arts,” there’s so much meaning to it now. There’s so much interpretation that it’s kind of hard to say. But yeah, definitely. It’s not just looking anymore, but it’s more like other senses coming in at the same time.
[D nods and eats a muffin. He apologizes for eating.]
A To answer your other question, I did do a performance for a DJ at Augusta house one time. It was a little crazy and I have also learned that I can’t paint when I’m drunk. So, I can’t. It looks like complete shit. [Laughs.]
D I tried writing when I was drunk. It’s like giving birth. It’s so hard. You can’t focus on anything.
A People always think that like, “Oh, Artists, they just need to get high or drunk.” That’s not the case. I can’t do it.
D I heard a great anecdote about that from my creative writing teacher, she said “all these writers and the artists that you hear about that do, that have all these great stories of being drunk and high, you know, they’ll get drunk and high and do stuff. But they can’t write drunk and high. It’s not… it’s not easy.
[A laughs again.]
D Okay, so how is the general reception to the jazz painting, or, if you have exhibitions of your other stuff. How is that? Is it good? Does it matter? Are people getting that second sense that you want them to? Is it working?
A Yeah? I think people do get the point when I’m painting really close to musicians, and then they’re playing with me. They’re like, “oh, she’s painting to the music,” or “oh, they’re playing to her painting.” But then there’s also people who thought I was painting the people, or something. And they’ll try to look really closely or be right beside me and watch me paint, literally watch me paint. There’s a lot of different responses, and I think its great that people are able to interact with the artists while they paint the art, rather than “here’s the painting, you can look at it, but that’s it.”
D But don’t touch it.
A Pretty much.
D I like that a lot. Okay, so, you’re based in Toronto. Do you find that there’s a strong visual art community in Toronto?
A Definitely. Especially in Canada. Well, I guess Montreal is also the same as Toronto. But yeah, because Toronto has a very diverse culture. I feel more accepted as artists, because there’s so many artists emerging, and there’s so many different little neighbourhoods that are booming with galleries. Like the Junction. I feel like the art scene has shifted north a little bit.
D Like north in Toronto itself? Or north from the states?
A It mostly used to be Queen West; that was the main art-area. But now its shifted to like Ossington, more up north, and now the Junction, I feel.
D Do you… so you feel, very welcome as an artist. Could you explain why? Is it because there’s so many artists? Do you get to do a lot of exhibitions or things like that?
A Yeah, well, A) You want to interview me.
D Fair enough.
A Well, you didn’t know me, and like you just, you know…
D Didn’t even think of it that way.
A …found me on Craigslist…
D Didn’t even think of it that way.
A So that, in itself, people are very accepting of emerging artists. It’s not like “oh, you’re not professional? Don’t even bother.”
D Do you feel that there’s any limitations to the Toronto art community? Or is there anything about it that bugs you?
A Ahm, I think the whole concept in general of how art has to be in a gallery. That really bugs me. I guess the mindsets of emerging artists at the moment that I know of. They’re very “oh, I don’t know what I’m doing but I have to be in a gallery,” or like, “oh, I need to be represented by a gallery.” But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. If you really want an exhibition, you can just set up one in a field, or a barn. You know, it sounds very seventies, but I feel if you want something to happen, just do it.
D That’s fantastic advice. Is there anything, you know, um… would that be your advice to any upstart painters? Or do you have any? Anything more to say?
A Just don’t rush it. Keep doing what you do.
D Cool. Yeah. That’s a good interview right there.
See more about Annie Si-Wing Tung at http://www.annietung.com!Tags: interview, non-fiction, painter's tapes