Paul Gauguin once said, "In order to produce something new, you have to return to the original source, to the childhood of mankind." I believe that's the journey Tessar Lo has undertaken in the past year, as he has prepared to create the body of work that will be exhibited at Show & Tell Gallery on February 5th. Incidentally, this will be his first major show in his hometown, Toronto. If you're interested in exploring Tessar's ideas and evolution further, you can find some earlier discussions we've had about his work in the archives.
Accommodating as ever, Tessar recently set aside some time from printmaking and fabricating his installation for the exhibit to answer a few questions.
Erratic Phenomena: In your most recent work, you've begun to portray yourself as a participant in the dream scenarios you're painting. In this ever-shifting nightscape, jungles invade your bedroom, metaphysical sky elephants are playful guardians, a boy grows airplane wings, giant origami fortune tellers hold secrets, and massive whale sharks drift in impossible aquariums. Over it all lies a sense of childlike wonder and whimsical abandon.
Your upcoming exhibition at Show & Tell Gallery in Toronto is entitled "everything we wanted, in our nostalgic future." Will there be a cohesive theme or emotional trajectory in this body of work? In what state of mind would your idea audience view the show?
Tessar Lo: It’s wonderful and flattering to read the way you describe the work. It’s interesting that you assumed the boy grew airplane wings and did not just have them – the transformative aspect of it is really appealing to me. "everything we wanted, in our nostalgic future," is exactly what it sounds like – a familiar feeling, yearning and a commonality in our basic desires. I would hope that when people see the work, they can relate fundamentally.
For this period of time, I worked in a sort of abandon of the disbeliefs and structures I had set on myself – I would hope that when viewing the work, one can also look carefully and freely, with an open heart. This is the only true way to appreciate these paintings. It is more about the potential of a scene than it is about the finality of the story.
"We're Going Out, Are You Coming?"
EP: Over the past year, you've been engaged in a very rapid evolution, with the full knowledge that it will alienate a lot of the people who followed your earlier work. Long before you allowed yourself to begin to paint this way, it was evident that this was a path you deeply needed to explore.
Although your aesthetic has in some respects grown more challenging to an untutored eye, ironically the direction in which you're heading is probably more viable in the fine art world than the sort of work genre collectors typically gravitate toward – this is territory long occupied by contemporary art superstars like Dana Schutz and Peter Doig. The influence of Paul Gauguin and a kinship with the Fauves becomes increasingly evident as you diverge from the illustration-oriented aesthetic you were pursuing earlier. What motivated this choice? Do you feel that a naïve approach helps you get to a more primal level conceptually?
Tessar: To be perfectly honest, I am more often dissatisfied with my work than I am happy. I think my evolution was not a conscious choice, but an overall desire to find something meaningful in what I do. I can appreciate a nice image or form, but I am increasingly drawn to creating more moving and somewhat challenging work, it’s somewhere in me and I have to uncover it.
I’ve discovered that a painting’s ability to engage is far more important to me than its likability. With an audience giving me their attention, I feel it would be irresponsible to be giving them anything less than a new spark, good conversation or idea. I have been painting “simpler” because it allows me to focus on the mood of my work – by deciding to strip the paintings of gloss or over-indulging in unimportant details, the hope is that they reflect and invoke a direct, visceral response, both from me as I work and from the people who see the work finished.
"A Perfect Magic" (detail)
EP: Recently, your work has become more painterly, in the sense that you're more interested in the energy of your brushstrokes and the interplay of color than in modeling realistic figures. Your aesthetic has grown increasingly expressionistic – dripping, crayon-scribbled, childlike – and seemingly comes from a more instinctive or intuitive place. How has your process changed as you've explored this new territory? Is it difficult to disengage your technical training in order to paint with a more primitive hand?
Tessar: The desire to paint more honestly for me was less about the final form, but more in the approach and process. I am relying on my confidence and chance a lot more recently. There is less planning in rough or sketch stages – in place of that I am spending more time looking at the canvas, and generally responding to things that are happening in my head, and along the way of the painting. I am using very little in terms of reference material, but instead sourcing from memory and trying to translate visually the nuances of our differing states as beings.
When I first approached this series, I was trying to abandon all or most technical training, but the further I went, it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t exactly about letting things go, but more about restraining myself from getting caught up in the unimportant things and general over-working. More than anything, it’s become more about trusting my instincts while trying new things in the way of habits.
EP: Willem de Kooning said, "The real world, this so-called 'real world,' is just something you put up with, like everybody else. I’m in my element when I am a little bit out of this world. Then I’m in the real world – I’m on the beam. Because when I’m falling, I’m doing all right. When I’m slipping, I say, 'Hey, this is interesting.' It’s when I’m standing upright that bothers me." Other artists I've spoken with who paint from an internal perspective describe seeking a mental state akin to defocusing their inner eye in order to see past the quotidian distractions into a place where their vision is pure and alive. Is that an idea you can relate to?
Tessar: That’s a beautiful expression. My approach has always been somewhat escapist in nature, so yes, I can definitely relate to that. I think the daily things are unavoidable, but also provide many great things that we can’t always achieve in our minds alone, things like family and contact. But the “slipping,” and a general sense of movement, is adventure – and it’s why it’s so fun and important to understanding who we are individually and as “humans.” We all share in this place and time that is neither a place nor a time, and I think we all just want to be able to be there every once in a while. Oddly enough, I think the separation from the “so-called ‘real world’” is what ultimately can bring us together.
EP: Have you felt your overall creative objectives evolving as your work has shifted aesthetically? Where are you thinking about taking your work next?
Tessar: Deep down inside, I’ve always wanted the same thing – and I think only recently have I had the courage and stubbornness to follow through with it. Though drawing and painting is my first love, I have always been inspired to create freely without limitation. I have a certain maturation to go through before I can successfully execute in different mediums, but I can’t do it without starting at all. Overall, I am just going to try and open my eyes to possibility and try things I’ve never done before.
"What Would I Do"
Tessar Lo's "everything we wanted, in our nostalgic future," will open on February 5th at Show & Tell Gallery in Toronto.