Studio Visit: Andrew Ooi


Andrew Ooi is an artist living and working in Toronto. Their work can be seen in PLEAT’s December 2018 exhibition as well as

Please describe your work.

My work is about transposing two-dimensional paintings into three-dimensional sculptures to express the many conceptual, physical and temporal qualities of perspective.

The painted representation (from where I start) is usually an intuitive and symbolic response to my current environment. Its appearance is revealed to me in stages, gradually, over time, which I take to cut my canvas–rolls or poster-size papers–into hundreds to thousands of strips to be creased and folded. Have my circumstances changed since my initial preparation? If so, how do they (now) affect my original perception? Throughout my process, I repeatedly return to these questions just as I do to the first ways primitive, ancient and medieval civilizations created their respective iconographies: by using a single flat picture plane and hieratic scale in combination with primary shapes and mark-making.

As I paint circles, dots, lines, strokes, and washes of colour on both sides of the paper, I reassess if my design choices are in keeping with any of the circumstantial changes and my overall understanding of them. Shifts in my surrounding and interpretation materialize similarly in my chosen compositions and patterns. Some works have a true centre while others do not; perhaps on the fringe or a moving focal point suggesting discontinuity and continuity, finite and infinite. Contrasting and complementary elements–like black to white, organic to geometric, bold to subdued–assist by teasing out the purposely-made inconsistencies of what otherwise seems a symmetric whole.

The perceptible differences, and the speed in which they appear, is a result of the many applications and functions of repetition. Visually, the repeat is either dynamic or static, producing a rhythm or schema respectively. The slower the variations are perceived, the more likely the artwork behaves as an illusion or evocation; the quicker, as an item, (article!) or entity. In all instances however, repetition indicates the evolution from prehistoric to neoteric representation and my facture based on my previous discoveries and what it consequently inspires as I experiment with the sculptural properties of paper.

And ultimately, the empirical experimentation is how the canvas becomes concrete. That is, how the paper evolves from flat to form. When I fold and fit combinations of my paintings into each other, I am no longer treating them as finished surfaces, but as raw materials–like wood, metal, minerals and stone–ready for use. I can build across and up, simultaneously. Shape colour into perspective. Control depth, light, space and shadow. Expand and contract. But most of all, I can fuse the warmth and nuances of repetitive handwork with the human behavior of habit to show a structuring of life, consciously–in reality and that of the papers which come alive when handled–over the period of time necessary to make sense.

What internal and external factors motivate your conceptual choices?

Everything. Everything motivates my conceptual choices, internal and external–however symbiotically, not independent. What’s happening around me? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Or is it too early to tell if I feel anything at all? Does it matter? What would it look like if it did?

Paradoxically, discovering the answers requires phenomenological and pragmatic consideration. Maybe it is why, coming from two distinct modes of thought, I love making mistakes when I work. One mind presses me on what I know (or at least think I do!), the other, on what I don’t. The times I suspend any preconceived ideas or direction I believe the work must follow is precisely when I figure out exactly what it needs to do. The overall plan never if seldom changes. (I have yet to cut additional papers once an artwork is conceptualized.) But allowing for those discoveries to occur–within knowing, not knowing and wanting to know more–motivates the dimension and quality of those choices, endlessly.

Who are your artistic influences and what have you learned from them?

All the artists that inspire me seem to fall into at least one but usually two of three genres I am attracted to in art: kinetic, playful and perspective.

In no particular order, Alexander Calder injected care, youth, charm and curiosity in the everyday, with everything he touched; approaching a painting of a canvas, for example, the same way he would a refashioning of cutlery. He also evinced imagination and creativity as definable factors in art: from the unformed exhibition works he carried with him as a spool of wire and pliers in his pant pockets’ to the public mobile sculptures that alter their locale into some kind of preternatural phenomena. He is a magician, a jester and an engineer, and through his appeal to the young and the old, the most ordinary visionary.

Frank Stella has been redefining conventional ideas of painting and sculpture since the onset of his profession. He made line a form, black a void, object a subject and colour a quality of light. His 2D prints show surprising depth, and his sculptures–on the floor, or on the wall–are liminal, interpreting space as a blank canvas, and canvas as an open space. Now in his eighties and still making work, the only thing Frank Stella hasn’t done is redefine himself. Oh wait, he is doing that too. One of the greats!

Another great for other reasons is Rembrandt van Rijn, better known as the painter, Rembrandt. His dramatically-lit painted scenes and portraits are a mastery of suggestion. His daubs of paint can be a glimmering jewel or the overall luster on a piece of metal. Using alternate angles and severe contrasts are some of his tricks, and by keeping his audience literally and figuratively in the shadows, he ignites their perception and imagination to complete the image. He is a true director and perhaps an economist too–with his materials and his means–in commanding a sensibility in his paintings which may appear obvious, but deceptively are not.

Likewise, there is nothing simple about Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts, etchings and engravings. His knowledge of lines and dots to describe objects, people, nature, shadows, texture and light is encyclopedic. To illustrate a particular form, he follows a precise methodology. Just look at the sky in some of his prints. How many kinds of clouds in various states are shown with lines and dots only?! This is as sophisticated as a visual language gets, albeit with some exception, one, specifically dear to me: the art of the Australian Aboriginal Papunya Tula artists.

When it comes to painting, I cannot help but respond to the colours, designs and patterns immortalized by the Aborigines. They are amazing. More than intuitive, their works through the ages trace a sense of reality beyond the physical: exposing the artist’s and humankind’s spirit, correspondingly. Their palette and marks are not limiting, but ideal, mainly because their desire to create is from a place of understanding who they are in this world. Painting with this perception of knowledge is why Papunya Tula artists can portray the infinite, and extend their meditation to anybody, eternally.

Now, if there was ever a secret among artists as to who they look to in art, my bet would be on Bridget Riley. Yes, her optical paintings are about rendering motion, light and illusion in their absence, but they are also about systems, nature, Impressionism and its breaking movement, Neo-Impressionism too. (Really.) She, like Stella, also in her eighties and working, is still examining the potential and activity of the space in between her lines, dots, shapes and colours as if it was her first time doing so. Her work is what drives me to be a better artist and is the reason why I chose to pursue the geometric form.

To complete the list is present-day sculptor Peter Anton. His photorealistic and super-sized sculptures of food–fast, prepared, occasion, signature and arguably, Americana–proportionately echo our relationships with them though the restaurants, chains, shops and grocers’ freezers prevalent in our daily lives. Or do they? Although thoughtfully made to the last crumb, his reproductions, are totally independent of actuality, of which their permanence further emphasizes. In the context of the copy then, what is the “real deal”? Isn’t it always the art? Anton’s distinguished career, love for what he does and perseverance suggests there could be no other choice. His ethic and commitment makes me feel good about what it means to make art equally if not more than his delectable works.

How has social media affected your studio practice? 

For me, social media is time spent away from my studio practice. If I am taking a break from work, chances are I am checking out Instagram. But, I have to be careful. As much as I love to see the encouraging work by other artists, around the world, in real time, I still need to make my art. Because once you start watching the animal videos, the rest of your day is done.

Costumed pets or not, I do see how social media is actually a necessary and beneficial tool for artists, I could probably be better at utilizing. For work that is grounded in reality however (like mine) it must continue to exist within it and not that of the ones in our phones and devices. Though if I ever do create a zoological-themed body of work, it might not be hard to guess what happened.