Andrew on Photos and Processing Time
Toronto, Canada: where
9 mins: read time
I first spent time Andrew Owen A01 and his lovely wife and creative collaborator Sheila Hu on a day when he will tell you the clouds parted in the sky and beams of light filtered through just in time to create a life-size solargraphic interpretation of Matisse’s Dance with five human actors. I had met him, only the day before, and was an actor in the solargraph piece, along with friend and Hong Kong artist Augustine Tse, Erin Loree, Sheila and Lea R., who had just stepped off a plane from Zurich.
Andrew is a compelling personality, so when he asked if I would like to participate in creating what is possibly Canada’s largest single-take photograph; it was easy to oblige. When he talks it is impossible not to become enraptured in his stories, of which he has many of epic scope. But he is also a contemplative man. Who pushes and pulls meaning into his work, often drawing reference to iconic works from the Western cannon, and studies during a decade immersed in the cultures of India, Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Last summer I spent time with Andrew and Max Johnston (REN) at Andrew’s backyard where they danced around each other in the creation of FLORAGRAFF!, a very large, collaborative painting using the aerosol techniques of both. This piece along with solo works by both will be a part of an exhibition I am curating, A01+REN FLORAGRAFF! Godfathers of Toronto Graffiti Art: 1980 >>> NOW, which will celebrate the two as Toronto’s first brand-name graffiti artists, and their evolution into important contemporary artists. The show will present at #Hashtag Gallery between September 26th and October 5th.
For this interview I chatted with Andrew about his time preparing for and working at the Andy Warhol Preserve Residency in Montauk, New York which he and Sheila were invited to work at this past September, just days before and after wielding spray cans with REN.
This summer you travelled to New York for an artist residency at the Andy Warhol Preserve. Before the residency you flew down to the city.
With our boy Raymond.
Yes, and how long did you go there before the residency and why?
We went down three weeks before the actual residency.
Firstly, when Sheila and I go to do the big floral paintings we usually do a reconnaissance trip to the site first — to understand what is there. Every environment is so different, especially that seascape there.
It is a really powerfully weird seascape. I wanted to know what was growing there, what colours to bring. I think it would be unprofessional to jump into that situation blind and potentially sacrifice quality or vision because I forgot to bring something or didn’t get time to think about things in advance. In my work it is important to give time for research and reconnaissance. Very often when we go, we are able to pick up the idea of flora that will be in bloom two weeks later when we come back to paint. What is blooming at the time might not necessarily still be there.
The second reason was to do the Re:Photo:Surfaces program. This involves taking one-to-one scale photographs of surfaces, printing out the photos, and then repositioning the photos directly over the area depicted, and re-photographing the prints positioned in-situ. That program is one I have been working on for more than ten years. It grew into the idea that I could also work on the program in the Lower East Side and Manhattan. Its like killing three birds with one stone. I was also able to meet the curator Esperanza León, and start figuring out the logistics of getting to that remote and private place, and what is going on in Montauk.
Since you of had to bring all your own supplies for the residency, what were you able to bring and what had to be sourced in New York?
You can’t bring spray paint on a plane, or even on a train. For the painting program I had to get the supplies there — in the city. I have been using Krylon lately, which is the original graffiti paint. It’s cheap and they have great natural colours. So part of the first trip was to find Krylon. We bought a big grocery buggy and loaded it up at Lowe’s with all the colours and tarps and other gear. I had also brought down a small bag of essential tools.
Like the Re:Photo:Surfaces interventions, a lot of your work is created in notably separate time stages. Can you reflect on the importance of time in your creative process?
I was just thinking about time today. I think about it all the time. Something that we should always keep aware of is map-territory confusion. People often confuse the map with the territory. Time, calendars, clocks are abstract symbols representing something. There are not thirty days in a month, there are not 365 days in a year — these are always shifting. There is no fixed definition of time, only abstract symbols created to try and represent it. Einstein says that, "the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion”. If you subscribe to that like I do then you realize everything to stabilize time is an abstract convention that people get tied to. Most people regulate their life to these abstractions representing something that may not even exist.
What about immortalizing the flower by marking their absence on your canvas; what importance does that have to you, as you trap that in time?
There is something funny about the solargraphic processes in that they are "organic". Unlike conventional photographic images, which are fixed, solargraphs will lighten or darken over time according to their proximity to natural UV light. It suggests that there is an organic quality to them. When you think about it: the sun and water are the sources of all life; the flowers are sustained by sunlight and water; and the photographic process employs sunlight and water. So there is a collapse between subject and media, object and subject. The intention of the work is not to make an image that is apart from the flower, but to actually create a trace of the flower’s life force. That force is still present in the work — if you put it into a dark room it will change, if you put it into a light room it will change, just like a flower will respond to the moving sun. The flowers that I worked with are powder now but the flowers in the piece is still living and breathing; and will still be in 100 years. So its life force is captured and it never dies.
I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the importance of absence in your pieces where the mark you are making is done so in the taking away of something.
We know that material is transient; empires are built and crumble. If you want to see something beyond the churning of birth, life and death you must also look beyond the subject and object. There is a belief in Buddhism where our idea of the world is only what is impressed on our senses. The suggestion is that we are living in a sensorial realm and this causes thought. From thought there is desire, and we have many desires. If we are able to strip away the desire, the thought, the materialism what would remain is a vast soothing emptiness. How do you indicate a vast field of emptiness? It is beyond our senses, beyond materialism. Is there a way to get a peak at this emptiness? The solargraphic image is not created by light on the object, but light everywhere around the object, and the absence of the object. What is left is a white field, which indicates the spacious emptiness behind objects, perception, thought. This is what the works are trying to point to.
Interview by Alexis Venerus
Photography by James Lai
See more of Andrew's work
Follow Andrew @andrew.owen.a01