Erratic Phenomena: When you were just four years old, your family emigrated from Indonesia to North America, looking for a better life for you and your sister, who needed to attend a school for the deaf. Soon you were living in Scarborough, on the outskirts of Toronto, where you displayed an artistic bent early on, and had the opportunity to enroll in a secondary school for the arts. Tell me about the landscape of your childhood, and some of your earliest artistic experiments. When did you first realize that mark-making was what you needed to do with your life?
Tessar Lo: Early on, I was very introverted. Something happened when I started school in Canada that shifted me. I grew up with a lot of space and freedom, giving me room to play and learn on my own. My parents trusted me and the world we were in, despite the fact we had just arrived. Every kid draws pictures, and I was no different – I felt a sense of worth in it. I drew page after page of Ninja Turtles in my scrapbook, somewhat fascinated by how I could make it better each time. I was also very active, playing in the dirt, running around. Being outside so much, my eyes were open to the world. That, and my family not having so much money, forced me to use my imagination to stay entertained. (I made contraptions and dioramas for the toys I had, used a broomstick to fight crime.)
When I turned nine, we started moving quite a bit. Those years were a bit of a blur, but I remember feeling a sense of displacement every time. Even so young, I knew what it meant to yearn for something you once had, because often I didn't get to have it for so long. But I also learned to adapt quickly, embrace discovery of the new worlds. Looking back, I think my happiest times were being outdoors, making drawings and listening to stories. I grew up in a family of storytellers, and I was fortunate to hear so much of the world beyond just Scarborough. Communicating with my sister was and is still an adventure for me as well — she has continually inspired and intrigued me.
As for realizing what I needed to do with my life, I’m not sure of the exact moment, since I’ve always been happy making things with my hands, discovering new things and trying to be a part of them.
"the breaking crown, or akin to the blackness"
EP: Your father is a photographer as well as a karate instructor, and he passed both disciplines on to you. How do you think his guidance influenced your creative development? Were there other people whose encouragement gave you the confidence to take the path you've chosen?
Tessar: The most important things I got from karate are spiritual and mental. I learned to be aware and sensitive of the things around me. Many years into my practicing, my dad put a large focus on imagination, to hone the knowledge I had into greater application. These things go beyond martial arts, it's a developing of craft and life-long learning. There is a lot of expression in karate, using only your body and form — very much like dance. Like dance, and any other art, unless you submit wholly and honestly to the craft, you get little in return. That’s a pretty big lesson. My dad gave me all these things, taught me to be still, knowing when to stop, when to go, rhythm. Without my growing up with karate, I doubt I would be able to do what I do today in the same way. Through karate, I was taught to listen to myself, and also discipline, patience and scope.
My mom, as sort of an opposite, taught me a lot in just being. She is reckless with emotion and blind when it comes to knowing limitations. She has an extraordinary belief in herself, grounded in something that is still very mysterious to me. This bravado, an uncaring, unsettling energy, is also a big part of my process of creation.
"in contrast to the bright orange sky just 1000 hopes ago"
EP: Early on, you admired the work of Gauguin, which likely primed you to appreciate other approaches to spontaneous abstraction, such as Fauvism, CoBrA and art brut. Tell me a bit about your first encounters with ostensibly naive approaches to painting. Did you connect with that form of expression immediately, or was its intent puzzling at first? How did your relationship with those images evolve over time?
Tessar: My high school had a pretty extensive art history curriculum. I was aware of the expressionists and abstraction then, but it didn't appeal so much to me. Emotionally, spiritually, I wasn't ready for the depths of these works. I was more fascinated with realism, the Renaissance and later, post-impressionists. Gauguin’s adventure in escapism and the paradise he had seemingly found was something so enchanting and otherworldly. I still am very much in love with Gauguin, but I’ve found that a lot of what Gauguin yearned for in another physical place could have been found in the materials before him.
I looked to the spontaneous, instinctual quality of the act and surface of painting and saw a glimpse of a different kind of paradise in it. Gauguin had turned me on to primitivism, and it led me to dig deeper internally, looking for truth and truth in nature. It was then that I started to realize my kinship with the fauvist and expressionist movements, a desire to capture the universe with painting as a portal, not just a destination or depiction. My current way of working is maybe a combination of those ideals, allowing me room for discovery, with a respect for recording and a surrender to nature.
"some things to consider, before you, turning white"
EP: Matisse, the father of the Fauves, maintained that "You study, you learn, but you guard the original naiveté. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard, or love is within the lover." Are you able to let yourself succumb to that primal gesture completely, in the way that Matisse describes? Does that surrender transport you into another state of mind?
Tessar: It would be really nice to know if I’m reaching into the truest of my being. I’d like to think that at times — at my best — I slip into it momentarily. Painting gives me a chance to return to nature, striving for it, bit by bit. But I don't think this is something that I could know for sure. It’s not rare to get lost in painting, in a specific gesture, meditating on it, reforming, but truly succumbing to primal gesture completely might be what happens in the moments before you die.
"in the dark we danced and your hand became a plane that took us high and far away"
EP: In recent years, you've been increasingly giving way to instinct in order to access the unconscious, to stop painting from memory and instead to intuitively respond to experience, desire and dreams. Do you find yourself perpetually surprised by where a painting has taken you, or do you generally have a destination in mind? Is there a romance in the endless pursuit of something you could never quite quantify in words?
Tessar: You can never take memory out of the equation. This is something that's a big part of anyone's being — a major factor in what you'd deem important presently, and what will spark your interest in the future. It’d be better to say that I don't focus on memory as much, since it will always be there. Intuition and risk have been a growing part of my process instead — making way to not only accessing desire and dreams, but living them immediately.
Every painting is different in character — I’ve learned that outside of myself, so many factors dictate what actually happens over the course of the painting. Sometimes it takes many unexpected turns, and sometimes it comes so readily, as if it was waiting for me there the whole time. While I do think of images, it's probably only half the time. The other half, I’m trying to recognize cues. The most important thing is affect — I’m trying to feel outside of the process, while being immersed in it. There is definitely romance in the mystery and elusiveness of the work, how your being and everything outside of you will decide to work that day, or not work.
EP: Cy Twombly once said, "My line is childlike but not childish. It is very difficult to fake... to get that quality, you need to project yourself into the child's line. It has to be felt." How would you interpret that distinction, "childlike but not childish?" Do you think becoming skilled at traditional drawing and composition is essential to letting go of those strictures and breaking the rules in interesting ways, or would a genuinely naive approach be equally productive?
Tessar: The idea that one needs to technically learn drawing and painting to execute an idea or inspiration well is becoming more and more unlikely to me. Life is out there to be handled and taken in, then output in the very unique way of each individual, despite the level of his or her formal training. What counts more than anything is the sincerity of the creator and the significance of the idea or experience created. That being said, I do believe formal training can help exercise the mind, teaching control and general knowledge of traditional materials. Having strong fundamentals would probably help you get to where you need to go more efficiently. Personally, I’ve felt it beneficial to have a foundation in some formal education and training. Out of that, sometimes knowing what you don't want can show you what you do. Anyway, I’m sure someone who's earnest in making their work will want to dig deep into their history and seek to better themselves in the best way possible.
EP: When you begin to paint, you generally work with confidence and speed. Do you spend most of your time between paintings looking and thinking? Or do you constantly engage yourself in exploration of different processes and elements that ultimately come together on the canvas?
Tessar: I earnestly try to think less about everything these days. I’d rather feel present in the world, absorbing as much of it as I can, then painting or drawing or making something out of the moments and truths. I’m always playing in the studio, but I think the real exploration is in living and seeing things carefully in your life, specifically the relationships you have with people, your environment and even inanimate objects. When I get to actually making something, I don't think about anything too much. Ideally, I’m creating purely, as a response to every part of me and the world.
EP: You enjoy painting on a hard surface — a wall, a floor — which allows you to get nearer to the work, sometimes almost inside it. Stapling a large canvas to the wall also lets you be much more physical with a painting, using the entire gesture of your arm and allowing you to smear, scribble and scrape with abandon. Tell me about how it feels to paint in this way, and how far you would take it, if you had the time and resources.
Tessar: I’m pretty happy with being able to paint with my body. It sometimes feels like I’m dancing as I’m painting. For me, being able to gesture freely is a bigger, more important experience than using only my wrist, rested on a table. I’m pouring a lot more of myself into the work because often my body is almost entirely physically engaged in the act. What I love about painting is getting lost in it, and the way I work these days makes me feel like I can really do that. With more resources, I’d probably want more space so I could have more projects happening simultaneously, but really I’m very lucky with the space I have now, and I try my best to use it completely.
EP: Painting, like life, is often a process of mistakes made over mistakes made over mistakes — wantonly changing, destroying and recreating, eventually resulting in sumptuously layered textures and patterns. You enjoy playing with layers and levels, building a stratified surface with multiple meanings. Recently, you've spoken of pursuing something you call "biocartography," which seems to have something to do with the processes of wear and tear on physical forms. Would you say you're trying to replicate that feeling of time and history in the layers and tactile surfaces of your paintings?
Tessar: We live for nothing if we don't see and understand ourselves truly. Art is a record of our experiences and acts as inspiration and sometimes even guidance. Biocartography is my definition for living entirely in a way where one can absorb everything with a naive and open mind and then attempt to communicate it as record. In my paintings, I build layers mostly due to discovery and mistakes in the process, so when I see my work, it's a recording of those moments. There's a little bit of sentimentality and marking of a specific place and time when I look at older works. You're right to mention the processes of wear and tear, and the time and history, but these things happen sometimes without us knowing. So I’m not sure if I can consciously or purposely replicate that in my paintings — it must be that it just happens in spite of me.
EP: You've said you're trying to not only paint about, but paint in that nebulous state between waking-reality and dreaming-reality. You once told me, "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." This idea of the unconscious as an ocean that can be plumbed for enlightenment is familiar from Jungian psychology, and is at the root of many indigenous belief systems, in which shamans treat sicknesses of the body by mending the soul. Do you see this restoration of balance between the rational and irrational realms as one of the most important functions of the artist in our increasingly secularized society? Can art heal hearts and minds, or even restore the will to live?
Tessar: Speaking for myself, I see the value of recognizing the things outside of what we think we know and investigating them. Sometimes art can be a channel for this. It can inform us and it can definitely heal, for those that want to believe in it. It carries a spirit and breadth of emotion that fill the cracks of our lives and help us understand why things are. But those things aren't visible to doubters or the disinterested, simply because they won't engage. Art works as a conversation, and the ability for it to move someone has to a lot to do with trust and vulnerability, in the creator and the viewer. Many people are fearful of what they will find when they look within — and that's why so many don't. But the very same things one gets from being honest and confronting oneself are what will make one realize all that is meaningful. We spend enough time with the concrete realities of day-to-day living, that balance from the opposite of that, "the irrational," is definitely necessary. At the same time, the spirit of those worlds can be a strong and heavy thing. As much as I believe in the good of it, I tread lightly, and respect it, even somewhat fearfully.
EP: In your most recent work, you've been trying to convey something very complex and elusive — the idea of eternity or the hereafter as a door that opens into our unconscious, into the same place we journey through in our dreams — almost as if we die in our sleep every night. Or perhaps our souls leave our bodies and travel into this other realm while our bodies rest, and sometimes our souls choose not to return, or lose their way. As Haruki Murakami wrote in Sputnik Sweetheart, "The answer is dreams. Dreaming on and on. Entering the world of dreams and never coming out. Living in dreams for the rest of time." This pursuit could cast you in the role of psychopomp, the mediator between the conscious and unconscious realms, as well as the spirit guide which shows the deceased the way into the afterlife. Do you think it's possible to bring back insights into the eternal mysteries from traveling in the borderlands? Do your discoveries there sometimes overwhelm or even frighten you?
Tessar: I can't claim to know anything about what you call the borderlands, but I know what it feels like. There's a strong curiosity and wonder that I’ve always had for this place that we visit nightly, and then the next day pretend that it doesn't exist. Though it can be frightening or overwhelming, mostly I wonder if there's something there speaking to us, trying to show something special or telling. And while it's impossible to convey what there is out there in a painting or drawing, I can try to capture the weight of it. These days, I’m finding a lot of the enlightening and surreal "out there" is also actually right in front of us, in our waking reality. We just have to open our eyes and be ready for them. I just try and make sense of it in a way that works for me, through traveling, collecting and recording.
EP: Lately, you've taken to making small pieces of art and biking around the city to leave them in random locations for the public to discover. Tell me a bit about your motivations for this pursuit. Do you think unexpectedly encountering art in everyday life can change people, or open them to a new way of seeing?
Tessar: The original inspiration for me leaving art around Toronto was to affect people and their environment, and a practice of letting go. It kind of developed into a mystery of not knowing where the small pieces would go — if someone would take it home, gift it, throw it out, draw on top of it — that ended up making it more exciting for me. The sense of possibility is what ultimately kept me doing it, just wondering if it could sway someone. I really do hope that encountering art casually can make people more curious, that's what I’d want more than anything. If it's the catalyst for even a, "Why is this drawing here?" it's done more than enough already.
EP: Is there an underappreciated artist working today whom you wish would get more attention?
Tessar: My brother Edwin Ushiro deserves way more attention and respect than I think he gets. He is a great person and mind, full of inspiration always. We are also going to start a manzai tour of the world in 2013, so look out for that.
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?
Tessar: Music and film have always been big things for me — it's never-ending, what I can discover, both in the contemporary, looking back, and even the repeating of the music I’ve already come to know and love. Mostly, I think about the atmosphere and tone of everything around me, in the books I read, the things on my table, sometimes even the food I eat.
EP: Tell me a bit about the work you'll be presenting at your upcoming solo exhibition at Jaski Art Gallery in Amsterdam, which opens on October 22nd.
Tessar: The work I have for “The Dying Wishes,” started as an investigation of purpose, then ventured into ideas of religion and spirituality and finally coming back out in speculation. I had made the error of looking for answers and as usual, was finally met with more questions. But in a way, this makes me feel like I’m making the right work for me at this moment. Both directly and indirectly, I’m trying to paint the tension of the idea of the place after everything is done (to our knowledge). I’m always feeling a bit like this is our current state, like end times, 2012, and all that. My time with these thoughts resulted in painting the desires I have of what's to come after my time here, coupled with maybe some of the things I (or maybe all of us) would inevitably have to deal with.
EP: Who do you make your paintings for? Why do you need to make them?
Tessar: Any work I make is firstly for me. It's the best way to learn and process all the complicated and sometimes difficult things encountered in life. Creating also lets me see the beautiful in something that I might start off thinking poorly of. The process is the most exciting thing for me, the possibility of some humble mediums and the recording of history as I go along. But I also make my work with hopes of interacting with those who see it, bringing something special or at the very least, something worth thinking about into that moment in their lives. I need to make stuff because it's the only way I can cope in this life — both with the good and bad. I need to channel the things inside me and keep discovering in order to stay sane and willing.