Those of you who follow along here may recall that last summer I became entranced by a Tessar Lo painting of some sort of epiphany on a starry summer night. Since then, I've had the good fortune to get to know Tessar pretty well, and we've had many a conversation about his work and philosophy.
One thing that distinguishes Tessar from many of his contemporaries is that he's dead serious about challenging himself to grow as an artist. "I am against working with a formula where images and ideas are readily accepted," Tessar once wrote. "When something is comfortable, it is dead – an image that challenges and draws is alive." In my opinion, that tenet should be a provocation to the viewer as well – as an artist's work evolves, our perception of it naturally must expand and mature.
Paul Gauguin said, "I shut my eyes in order to see." The best paintings show us not what can be observed visually, but rather the ephemeral yet universal ideas that arise in the realm of senses, emotions, dreams and visions, beyond the reach of the camera's lens. At its best, Tessar's work touches on the unknown and unknowable, sketches into being the nebulous reaches of the soul, and kindles the coals of buried memory. "I want my work to stand for the things that lie deep within each of us," Tessar said. "My work should be the fears and hopes of those looking at it, should tell people something about themselves."
"Up" and "Down"
Tessar is has been hard at work preparing for his first solo show, "future perfect," which opens on April 11th at LeBasse Projects, but I am happy to report that he agreed to carve out some time for me and submit to my arduous interview process.
Erratic Phenomena: First, let me say what a joy it's been discovering your work and getting to know you over the past few months. This is the first interview I've ever done with a close friend, so I'm really hoping I don't let you down.
Tessar Lo: The feeling is mutual, Amanda – thanks for the opportunity to speak about my work.
"Beyond the Flowers"
EP: In your work, you often focus on a tropical paradise in which children and young people interact with totemic animals in a haunting landscape. How do you think your work is influenced by your memories of Indonesia?
TL: I actually have very few memories of Indonesia, but what I remember is a mood. Being that I left Indonesia as a young child, my association with it is bliss. That time was when I was around all of my family, the time that I was learning about the world. If there is a way Indonesia influences me, it’s in a feeling of opportunity and chance, the same feeling a child has, looking out with his or her bright eyes. I don’t know exactly how the animals come in, but maybe it’s the idea of urge and instinct – but it explains the youth, I guess.
EP: Much of your work seems to be an exploration of change and growth, and its attendant joy and pain. Your paintings often convey a sense of longing, sometimes a poignancy, as in a quest for something ineffable and elusive. Would you say you have an overarching theme or unifying motif in the narrative of your work? How is that narrative shifting as you grow as an artist and as a person?
TL: “Only unfulfilled love can be romantic.” I look at my work as a relationship I have with myself – I think the only true way to understand others well is to know yourself first – and in an attempt to keep things interesting, I am never going to have a fulfilled love with my work. I want my relationship with creating to be romantic, frustrating, mysterious and magical for as long as I can keep it. As a result of this, I think the work grows, morphs, and escapes me on its own – with me chasing it, kind of longing for it. Whatever shows up in the work is probably an illustration of that desire.
EP: In your paintings, abstract clusters of plant shapes, sharp geometric planes and undulating whorls of vapor and flame, representing emotion and metamorphoses, have played a central role for some time. How were you first inspired to use this particular combination of abstract forms?
TL: A direct lecture from your parents is never as interesting as a fable told by a great storyteller, with your own imagination and wits having to decipher the lesson within the story. This is my interest in abstraction – I want to speak in a way that there is room for misinterpretation and the creativity of my audience. I’m not so great at it yet, as I'm trying to figure out the kinds of formal elements that best convey what I’d like to say. To be honest, the appeal is in the capacity it holds over literal forms, not that I have any problems with figuration, obviously.
EP: The women and tigers you paint often present a colorless, yet forceful and hypnotic gaze to the viewer. Can you tell me what this unusual choice represents for you?
TL: I think that because for me, women and nature in general are the farthest things from being colourless, it’s interesting for me to depict them that way. It’s a chance for me to see and observe moments of vulnerability and solitude. The forceful and hypnotic thing you mention is only a result of the silence and wonder in the depiction. I think we find it moving because we actually experience these things less and less in our day-to-day.
"Go For It"
EP: Many of your paintings evoke the idea of having reached the edge of the world... and being on the verge of stepping off into some other mode of existence. Others take place in a foggy limbo which could be a border region between sleep and waking. These dreamlike scenarios give the impression that the viewer is peering into an intimate place, a well of memory and emotion that has been transposed onto another plane of reality. Do you see yourself as exploring the realm of the unconscious in your work, or are these chimerical landscapes more mythological in nature?
TL: Again, most of this ‘limbo’ and edging of the world comes from what I mentioned before – the lack of clarity, knowledge, is what makes things exciting. I am way more into the mysterious and essentially unknowable. It just comes out as I work – in both a metaphorical and literal sense – as space.
"One Place You Can Find Me"
EP: Are the figures who populate these nebulous places archetypes, or do they represent specific individuals?
TL: I don’t want to say they are archetypes, since that constrains them to being very specific characters, but they are definitely not specific individuals. I’d like to think that each subject holds its own being, as I draw and paint them. But they are influenced by past experiences and certainly represent specific symbols – so I really can’t answer that question well, hahaha.
"Fact or Fiction"
EP: The writer Octavio Paz said that surrealism is "a way of rediscovering the language of innocence, a renewal of the primordial pact... Surrealism is revolutionary because it is a return to the beginning of all beginnings." You've expressed a certain disdain for surrealism in the past, yet many would say it suffuses your work. If the labels for this kind of art that are currently popular – be they "pop surrealism" or "new contemporary" – do not satisfy you, what classification would you prefer? Would you wish to be associated with a different art movement entirely, or avoid being labeled altogether – and why?
TL: Let me just say that I don’t disdain surrealism. The surrealism of the past is one of the most beautiful and creative eras of work, in my opinion. In the past, movements were not so easily categorized and often they had to pass before anyone could name the era. I’m not adverse to what people want to call themselves, but I do think that outside of the creative people themselves and certain critics and pioneers, grouping hundreds of artists with very different voices and intentions into one big pit is a hasty thing to do – it just feels lazy to me. I am actually surprised that in our time of customization, personalization, and richness of subculture, one would even think of mass categorization – as I’ve seen and heard – as an option.
As for surrealism infusing my work, as I’m a fan of the era, I’m not surprised. Still, I’m an equally big fan of Dadaism, post-impressionism, ukiyo-e and outsider and contemporary art among other things. If we’re labelling – shouldn’t these guys be getting some accreditation?
To be honest, I doubt anyone could adequately label the thing I do, further than “working.” Often I myself am learning, through the things I make and do, what and who I am – it’d be an amazing thing if someone were to know who I was before I did.
"Hop, Skip, Jump"
EP: The process of aging and wearing is meaningful to you, and you often incorporate reference to it in your work, whether it be by sanding, staining, creasing, stippling or washing a painting before it is complete. You've also mentioned a fascination with how a painting will naturally deteriorate over time, be it by fading, pigments shifting color, corners wearing, or other means. Could you tell me more about what that purposeful dilapidation and the ravages of time signify for you?
TL: For me, the fact that time is essentially an abstract concept is really interesting, but it’s difficult to grasp. I think my fascination with signs of wear, damage, turning, has to do with how it’s a physical illustration or representation of the passage of time. That being said, I go in and out of periods where I feel like I can impose age on a piece – right now, I’m thinking how important it is for things to age naturally, so I haven’t been sanding, staining, etc. so much lately. I’m very curious to see what my work will look like in 30 years, if any different than now.
EP: Much of your creative process is mental, beginning with a casting aside of preconceptions and surmounting of fears. You question your work a great deal between shows, exploring new concepts and execution and challenging yourself to develop meaningful ideas and bring fresh eyes to the work. In just the past year, your work has taken several changes in direction, each interrelated but quite distinct from one another. Tell me a little about the challenges you've been posing yourself in your latest body of work, and what you've learned in the process.
TL: I have a fear of being the kind of artist that is merely decorative. Looking at the work objectively, this past year, I was often unsatisfied with the level of concept and charging of ideas. I sincerely believe that I’m capable of doing so much more than what I was doing. I’m of the opinion that an artist has to push culture and people somehow, beyond just admiration.
Being a young artist, I attribute much of what has happened in the past year as my trying to push myself to a capacity I feel I can reach. Of course, I know that a mark of a great artist is not how much he or she displays in skill and message, but the restraint he or she possesses. With this in mind, I’m trying not to get too ahead of myself these days and really focus in on specific ideas and methods until I feel like I’ve squeezed every last drop of it.
"Waiting and Waiting"
EP: In several of your paintings from the past year, you've achieved an unusual soft, subtle velvety effect in the finished work, but lately you've begun to hone in on a more immediate, dynamic technique that conveys a rawness and energy. Other recent pieces consist of a figure buried in the underpainting, partially obscured by a heavy wash that shifts the tone of the piece entirely, or a luminescent figure scratched into a deep starfield, as if your subject is coalescing out of the cosmos itself. Tell me a little about the process by which one of your pieces comes together, and how you come to make what must be rather terrifying decisions about what new ground to break in a particular painting.
TL: Again, I feel like I have to reiterate that I’m a young artist – the youth is what is behind the adventurous, seeking nature of my work. Often the shifts between the “styles” or settings I paint in is a matter of shifts of my mood and how I seek to best convey them. Maybe as a comparative example – the softer work came out of a time where I was feeling a little subdued, careful, almost excessively. But with the new body of work, where I’m painting more opaquely, I’m feeling more confident, willing to make mistakes more.
I’m starting to understand that painting – often as in my life – is a series of marks over marks and decisions that allow us to continue ahead, used to cover or redo certain things or altogether think things over. I try not to be too precious and neurotic about the work anymore – letting what comes out of me come out and trying to appreciate what’s in front of me. Also, I now know that certain qualities of my work – be it soft, bold, illustrative, abstract – are a direct portrayal of my mood or time, so I don’t worry about varying qualities too much, I’m embracing them as a record of my personal history.
EP: You typically paint in a larger format than most young artists, and would prefer to work even larger if it was practical. What is it about working in a grand scale that appeals to you?
TL: From a technical standpoint, I enjoy painting with my body over just my wrist. It’s less restricting – and no matter how you want to play it, the work that comes out of painting with your entire arm versus just the wrist are not the same.
In terms of the content of my work, I really believe that to truly appreciate the image I’m making and see my intent, the audience should be immersed in the painting. I understand the work that I make is not political or grand, but it gestures intimately, inward. I imagine the large painting before the viewer as a big hug – I want the people looking at my work, including myself, to feel like they can fall into the work and be safe.
"If I Could Fly"
EP: When artists talk about the work they admire, it can be very revealing. One of your major influences is Paul Gauguin. In his work, he combined startling color contrasts, animal symbols and abstract geometric designs with intimate depictions of nubile young women in a tropical setting, in pursuit of a deliberate shift toward exoticism and primitivism. Tell me a little about your relationship with Gauguin's work.
TL: When I was a bit younger, I had really immersed myself in his work – in high school, I had named my entire thesis series after a bas relief sculpture of his. But I hadn’t really thought about him again until maybe a few months ago. Gauguin is a painter I really admire because he speaks to me on different levels. Back then, I was into him for his technique and boldness – the image itself. Now I’m finding an interest in his intention – why he escaped for Tahiti, what he meant to achieve in painting loosely, and how interesting it was that despite his painting the daily surroundings of his life, he managed to really hit on universal themes like death and desire. I feel really blessed to have been so captivated by his work early on – he’s been a big influence in my trying to play a balance of representation and abstraction, both visually and conceptually. I feel Gauguin plays both fields equally well, and I admire him for that.
EP: What other painters or illustrators from the past move you powerfully, and what aspects of their work do you find most intriguing?
TL: I really admire ukiyo-e artists because of both their technique, process and how they were able to create real wonder and a sense of magic in nature and their daily living. Henry Darger is another artist I admire greatly because of the humility and dedication he had to making his art. There was no pretension at all with Darger, it was the outputting of his soul. There really are so many artists I admire, it would take forever for me to talk about them. I owe so much of my work to those that came before me. I have a true appreciation for every era of artists that dedicated their time to their vision.
"A Girl, Oasis"
EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?
TL: I really hate to go back to Gauguin, because there are so many great paintings out there, but his "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" pretty much wraps it up for me. Good art provokes thought and conversation, I can imagine the endless talks one could have with such a phenomenal painting and question.
EP: You greatly admire Canadian art star Peter Doig. I can see what might be inspiring about some of his work – the resonant layers of meaning in his challenging, stratified textures and the hallucinatory, dreamlike quality of his landscapes. What aspects of Doig's work do you find most intriguing?
TL: Well, you partially answered it for me, Amanda – haha. Peter Doig is another artist who plays well with both the literal and abstract. Besides just making paintings that look like the freeze frames of your dreams, I think he really pushes something so seemingly plain as a landscape to something that holds significance beyond representation. A specific example of this is his depiction of the rainbow tunnel beside the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto. I’ve driven past this tunnel a countless number of times, not thinking anything of it. Doig managed to paint it in a way that made me want to look at it for a long time. I aspire to have the ability to turn the seemingly mundane into subjects of magic and potential. I also look up to him for his powerful mark-making. You can tell he believes in himself and his ability – it’s a really tough thing to do.
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really fascinating at the moment? Literature or philosophies that spark your imagination? Anything that helps you get into the right mindset for painting?
TL: I used to read a lot more than I do now, and to be honest I think my work suffers for it. I enjoy art criticism and history, but my real love is contemporary Japanese fiction. I first got turned onto it reading Shusaku Endo, then got into Banana Yoshimoto, Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, all the while reading, of course, Haruki Murakami. For me, reading sparks so much of my creativity – as I’m sure anyone who is a reader knows, it calls on visualization. Visually, right now I’m into drawing and loose painting – almost childlike and doodle-y. I’m seeing a lot of freedom in them.
"What Becomes of Her In the Middle"
EP: The title of your upcoming solo show at LeBasse Projects is "future perfect." Tell me what that signifies for you, and what it might reveal to us about the work you will be presenting.
TL: This is my first solo show, so I’m trying to be positive about the career I hope to have before me. Of course, nothing is perfect, but the future is also so unforeseeable – who could know what is possible and what we really want ten years from now? It’s an interesting juxtaposition for me. As far as the work in the show, I don’t really think there is a direct correlation beyond my hopes and attitude.
EP: What are you looking forward to right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
TL: After my show, I’m moving back to Toronto, my hometown. I look forward to biking with friends, some time for reading, and seeing my family and girlfriend again. My dreams always change, but my consistent hope is to be happy, rich or poor, and to bring happiness to others through my work. Also, I’m hoping I can support my parents in a few years.
EP: Thank you, Tessar. This has been a real pleasure.
Tessar Lo's first solo show, "future perfect," opens on April 11th at LeBasse Projects – I hope to see you there. For those who can't make it to the show, you'll have to make do with his prints at A Paper Tiger, iPhone skins at Infectious, and t-shirts at redbubble.
"Old and New"
"Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire." -- Jorge Luis Borges, "A New Refutation of Time"