1-4 February 2018
Marfa Gallery, Abbotsford, Melbourne
(9 minute read)
Perched in the corner of Abbotsford’s Marfa Gallery sat Mark Chu’s portrait of his great artistic influence, Francis Bacon, gloomily observing the throngs as they inspected the 79 other works neatly arranged throughout the OPUS exhibition from February 1-4. A noted hedonist and boozer, one wonders how wistfully Bacon’s portrait looked on during Thursday’s opening event, which was attended by some 300 persons from all walks of life.
Grotesque with its sagged jowls, recessed eye sockets and paunchy flesh, Bacon resembled a bemused ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’; that famous painting locked in an attic and made hideous by its creator's lifetime of hedonism and debauchery in exchange for the artist's eternal youth and beauty (until Faust’s debts were called in of course). Geometrically un-experimental, and the colours dank and almost fungal, except for the licks of hell flame, this painting stood in stark contrast to the vivid and playful colouring of the rest of Chu’s exhibit.
I found myself at the OPUS exhibit after a chance encounter with Chu in front of the State Library. Briefly in Melbourne following four years living and working in New York City, he was running an innovative pop-up called Art Pay$ in collaboration with Exile Entertainment; together they aimed to break the stereotype of the impoverished artist. After drawing a five-minute sketch of Chu I was paid a handy $20 for my labour, thereby becoming a commissioned artist (which I immediately added to my LinkedIn profile). I also received the additional honour of having my portrait featured in the Marfa studio along with 15 other nouveau-artists.
The rest of the exhibit was equally as jarring and thought-provoking. When unpacking Chu’s work, a good starting point is Nadia Boulala (below), which helped me understand the influence of the Cubists on his style. Quizzical faces are mangled into kaleidoscopic abstraction, as if pinched and discombobulated on some Apple Mac application, and then given life by Chu’s brilliant gestural brushwork. Despite the distortions, one is able to discern the human face, a phenomenon reflected on by Chu in this very good profile by Convicts.NYC. Eyeball sagging from her left socket – not unlike that appalling scene from Hostel (2005) – Nadia retains an essential feminine beauty in her pointed cheekbones, luscious lips, and delicate nose, each feature constructed from different geometrical shapes and accentuated by the contrasting lighter tonal colours in the background.
My favourite portrait was Cosmetic Fear IV (below). It had resonances of an elegant, demure and alien-looking Audrey Hepburn. As suggested by the very kind and knowledgeable Alexi Ouzas, Manager at Exile Entertainment, Chu’s inclusion of the colour palette on either side of Hepburn broke down the wall between the artist and the subject, where the subject is normally entirely oblivious to the colour palette being used to create their portrait. This trope of breaking down barriers to understanding art was also demonstrated through the Art Pay$ exhibition, and was a very thoughtful inclusion to the whole OPUS experience.
Much of Chu’s work demonstrates a fascination with the down-and-out, austere and dysfunctional aspects of the human condition. The sadness of Lucien Freud’s subjects can be found in many of Chu’s portraits. Witness Julio (below), a New York local who entered into his own Dorian Gray Faustian Pact by agreeing to have his photo taken for a portrait in exchange for one of Mark’s cigarettes. Or consider, perhaps, the honest and deeply personal triptych Why Have You Foresaken Me? Which recreates Bacon’s Triptych, 1976, with an anguished and contorted Chu sprawled on a canvas overshadowing his lover, who is draped languidly across a rug with wine stains on the carpet. Here, Chu considers the impact of his art and lifestyle on his partner. (Probably).
I am prone to lapse (prolapse?) into panegyrics, but Chu has always struck me as an endless font of great creative potential, be it in music (he has recorded as a solo pianist for the MSO and WASO), or in creative writing (featured in The Lifted Brow and an MFA from Columbia University in NYC). Given that he now seems to have substantially turned his attention to art and painting, I feel certain that he could not only win something like the Archibald Prize, soon, but also make a broader impact in the world of painting and portraiture through his life’s work. He is certainly much younger than Bacon was when the latter began honing his craft in his late 30s.
I recall three vivid fragments from the last decade and a bit of knowing Chu at the overlapping peripheries of our social circles. The first image is him sitting serenely atop a ziggurat overlooking a green football field – shirt untucked and in his final year of high school in 2006 - working on complex specialist maths problems. The second is probably from 2009 at a mutual friend’s beach house on Victoria’s surf coast, where he calmly counselled me about the need not to care about what others thought of me. (I had become embroiled in some beachside internecine summer feud, of Mercutio-Tybalt proportions in Luhrmann’s R+J). The third vignette is from his St Kilda Road apartment in 2011 while he was doing a lot of creative writing – books piled up to the ceiling - and he kindly and patiently offered me advice about career and study direction, me being at a loose end. We spoke about my new-found vegetarianism, how he didn’t agree with it, and how he would gladly eat whale meat in Japan.
All three of these interactions inform a lot of my understanding of Chu and his work in OPUS: the out-of-the-box intellectual who chose to tap into his creative wellsprings and passions rather than follow his successes into the professions; the anchored and almost serene man not riven by the opinions of others or by status anxiety; and the kind person moved (and bemused?) by the foibles of human beings and the human experience, but seemingly benignly indifferent (in his artwork at least) to broader political and social concerns and questions of morality. All of that said, one can only hope that there is not some grotesque and decaying ‘Portrait of Mark Chu’ locked away in an attic above his studio in New York City.
In Conversation with Mark:
Nick: How did you find the review overall?
Mark: Kind, and that anguish is in the eye of the beholder.
Nick: Can you speak a bit about Francis Bacon: how you came to admire him, how his personal life informed the development of his artwork?
Mark: At the beginning it was Bacon’s screaming mouth. But then Bacon’s color schemes and paint application began to seduce me, and his stories. What a moving tale about his partner Dyer committing suicide two days before his huge Grand Palais opening, Bacon reacting nil to the public, then painting that triptych to reference that tragedy.
Nick: Can you say something about colour: how you choose it, and your use of it in layering?
Mark: Over this exhibition I’ve learned how to use the colors I find most difficult to paint with—yellow, for instance, which has a tendency of making everything muddy. One difficulty is to break away from the language associated with color, and to relinquish thinking of the standard terms to describe color. Words like ‘red’ and ‘blue’ are not only imprecise, but harm the planning of a well-considered image, as they correlate to too specific a hue. For instance, if you start thinking about ‘yellow’ it’s more likely you’re thinking about sunflowers or lemons than the yellow of amber. The color should be imagined first, not the word.
Nick: How has your partner influenced your art, and does your art impact your partner? Do you have a Muse?
Mark: She is a permanent supporter; aid, critic, fan, colleague, observer, archivist. What I love most about her is her strangeness, or her being unique without trying to be—I am much more pretentious—and the shared life we created, how irreversibly she changed me, how irreversibly I changed her.
Nick: Can you elaborate on your fascination for the human face? Why do you paint more male faces than female?
Mark: As an image, the face provides a lot of direct psychological meaning. And faces are easy to abstract because we naturally read faces even if their composition is altered. Men are easier to ask in person to portray, as more men seem okay with being ugly. But—many of the faces I’ve painted which I see as women, people see as men. I’d like to paint more women soon.
Nick: The first portrait I noticed of yours (below) was this arresting, bent figure with spindly limbs and fingers. That was 9 years ago, and your work has evolved considerably since then. How have you developed your style and skill set, and with what routine and coaching and resources, if any? How does this differ to your discipline/training as a musician?
Mark: Every resource can teach, so to be constantly thinking about learning is important. That can make social interactions difficult as people sometimes prefer light conversation. Technique is vital—stamina and consistency too—strategy too. I’m not naturally disciplined, or humble. I’m perhaps more impulsive and indulged—so you have to trick yourself into not only being disciplined but knowing you require it, to train yourself into having better instincts and impulses. Not sleeping and eating regularly has been a colossal help over many years, but unhealthy habits like those can also erode mental health.
Nick: What do you make of my reflection on the absence of politics in your work?
Mark: Image has a better chance of approaching the sublime without politics, especially currently. There are too many ugly logos around, and clever posters. Perhaps my writing will be political in the future. ♦