I grew up aware that my father’s family had deep connections in China, where he himself had been born. There were always Chinese objects in our house that had been passed down through the family. I was first in Hong Kong in the mid ’70s but I regret now that I did not visit Mainland China before the great changes of recent years. My grandfather bought a 3D camera in about 1905 and took many photos on glass slides. When I was invited to participate in the 2012 Guangzhou Biennale I had them digitised and projected there in 3D as an installation—a collaboration with my grandfather and a chance to bring these memories back to China.
Line drawings have been made in every major culture since the Stone Age. There are of course differences between cultures and historical periods and styles of drawing, but I have never found that people have difficulty reading such drawings despite their differences. When I go to a cornershop in Newcastle, I have difficulty understanding the local dialect of English. Line drawing is not subject to such localisms.
The look of my drawings is not an accident. From the beginning I wanted to have precise accurate drawings that would have the same character as the fabricated objects I was drawing. I assumed they existed in mainstream culture and was very surprised to discover they didn’t, which is why I started to make them myself. My drawings are traditionally observational, each made by looking at a single object. I want my drawings to seem so obvious they ‘disappear’ leaving only the object. I have never sought to make drawings that look like ‘vector drawings, cartoons, instruction booklet diagrams, logos and app icons’ though these sometimes look somewhat like my drawings. I sought originally to make drawings that were styleless, but ironically they are now recognisable as my style. If your friend cannot see the art in what I do there is nothing I can say to help.
I am an artist not a designer. I make paintings not objects. I have developed my use of colour over many years: a full but limited palette of basic colours—red, yellow, purple, blue, etc. I want my paintings to have as intense a physical presence as possible. By their nature all reproductions of my work emphasise its graphic quality, which is of little interest to me. The meaning and impact of the work is only clear in its physical presence.
I make my work to be seen now. It is impossible to predict how it may appear in the future. I would like my paintings to come to feel timeless, despite eventual datedness of many their subjects.
I have always been more comfortable with the visual than the verbal. Ironically, although the visual world has become increasingly dominant over the past 30 years, people’s ability to look has deteriorated. Pictorial language is not only the basis of all written language but that of perception itself.
I see line drawing in terms of a particular type of focusing rather than as reduction. Every drawing involves choices about what to show and what to leave out. When I make a drawing of an object it is not possible or desirable to try to include every detail but I do try to achieve that level of detail necessary to allow an understanding of the object from the image. As far as possible I do not abbreviate or approximate. Line drawing is perfect for what I try to do.
Though aspects of the world have increasingly come to look like my work I don’t think anybody makes work like mine. The only way to see something from one’s imagination is to make it oneself. When I started making drawings of objects it never occurred to me that this might become the basis of my life’s work, but it has. I have no sense of having exhausted the rich seam I opened so long ago.—[O]