Energetic sensations radiate from Kristy M Chan's abstract canvases, guided by a mixture of both stress and excitement. Renewing her focus into total abstraction, her latest works are born from a desire to capture and interact with her experienced emotions.
In her upcoming exhibition, Binge a collaborative London solo with The Artist Room and Simon Lee Gallery, Chan continues her investigations into our sense of self, while drawing on her emotions and experiences throughout this summer in the U.K.
We spoke to the artist ahead of her show, learning about her shift from the figurative into the vibrant abstract oil paintings we see today, as well as how she navigated the explosive interest in her work since her auction debut at Phillips in December 2021.
Throughout art school and in your practice that's followed, you have predominantly worked with oil paint and oil stick on canvas. What is it about oil as a medium that you like?
Oil retains pigment very well. The texture of oil paint is quite sticky and is something I enjoy working with. Acrylic doesn't move in the same way that oil does. Recently I started using linen instead of canvas, simply because I always liked the colour of it. Then I learned that it was actually a lot more durable compared to canvas. I also really like the way oil pigments bleed into the sides of the linen.
Your practice has shifted from somewhat figurative works, to the vibrant abstract oil paintings we see today. Can you tell me a bit about this transition?
I don't like when artworks feel like they're easily reproduced. I think that's why I gravitated towards abstraction, because it's so hard to imitate brush strokes. It's that lack of control that I really like.
I moved away from figuration because I felt really confined to [painting] humans and objects doing things. Essentially, I wanted to start making work that felt like the painting is doing something to you, and you are doing something to it.
Having been born in Hong Kong, do you feel it is important for you to engage with audiences in this part of the world? Are you well acquainted with your audiences in Asia?
I'm not very acquainted, however, I think it's really important for me to converse with my audience in Asia. I grew up in Hong Kong and came to the U.K. when I was 16. So, the majority of my formative years were spent in Hong Kong, observing how busy and insane the city can be.
Some of the paintings I exhibited at Tabula Rasa Gallery have Mandarin titles and some have Cantonese titles. So depending on the different regional dialects, the way you experience the artwork can differ from individual to individual. The different titles are a reflection of the social climate of people moving around all the time. It's also a cheeky remark for anyone who is bilingual, trilingual—however lingual they are. Because for me, I think I have a different personality when I speak different languages.
You had a brilliant sold-out show at The Artist Room in London at the beginning of the year, which was your first ever solo exhibition. With this success in London and having just moved into your new studio, have you got any more shows planned in the city?
I've got a two-venue solo show titled Binge, run in collaboration with Simon Lee Gallery and The Artist Room, opening on 11th October during Frieze London. The exhibition focuses on my experience of summer in the U.K. I've never actually spent a full summer in London or in the U.K. because I've always been abroad on art residencies or travelling. For this show I wanted to reflect the brilliance of summer and its downfalls, such as the unbearable heat waves we experienced this summer.
The repetitive, fluid strokes in your paintings hint to an almost meditative painting process. How much of your painting is planned, and how much is the product of intuition and improvisation?
It's not meditative at all. For me, it's absolute chaos. When I begin to make a painting, I have a lot of energy that sways between stress and excitement.
I guess, in that sense, my painting process is somewhat repetitive. I normally have a colour palette in mind, but often it turns out completely different to how I envisioned it.
I start with all sorts of colours, most of the time with just two. I use dark and light tones to make a range of shapes and forms, and see how that goes.
I'm interested in the techniques and motives of German painters in the sixties and eighties, such as Sigmar Polke. Polke experimented with mixing different chemicals into his paintings, which made it difficult to transform them into mass-produced prints.
He was moving away from the mass-produced artworks and prints of the fifties, in favour of producing unique works that people could be experienced in person. With the rise of digital platforms such as Instagram, I want to make works that aren't easily reproducible, by working and experimenting with chemicals like photochromic paint and sunscreen.
In your auction debut last year, your work Weather Going Bananas (2021) sold for nearly ten times its high estimate at Phillips. How do you feel about the explosive interest your work has received?
It's very overwhelming. The heightened interest actually made me want to focus on painting just for painting's sake. There are some people who are only out there to see the investment potentials. I wanted to put them off by painting something that was really different from Weather Going Bananas. I think part of painting and putting works out to the public is that you want them to be seen, and to be experienced.
I believe every piece has its own little life. I used to call them babies, but they're big now. I guess they're like crying toddlers—they can go and have a place to run around, and if they end up in the storage, that's unfortunate. But it's okay to not have control, because you can't have control over everything.
What's next for you?
I just want to take things as they come. I feel incredibly well-taken care of by The Artist Room, and I have a few other things lined up, but I would like to take a break in 2023. I'm going to go back to Hong Kong for maybe a month or so, just to relax a little bit, and then I'll return to London to settle down and work in my new studio.—[O]
Main image: Kristy M Chan Studio. Courtesy Ocula. Photo: William Waterworth.