An interview with Tim Brown, Hillyer Director
Your work explores liminal spaces between presence and absence, representation and abstraction. What can you tell us about the painting “Crossing” as an embodiment of this kind of in-between space?
“Crossing” is part of the ongoing “inner-scape”series that explores the intricacies of threshold moments in life. Threshold typically takes the form of ambiguous spaces or moments: the interplay between light and dark, the cusp of dawn and dusk. This series’ paintings are all balanced on the brink of coming together and falling apart. I’m interested in these moments, because they are electrified with possibilities, embodying the process of transitioning into a new reality.
The relationship of presence and absence is explored on both a psychological and a visual level. “Crossing” creates an environment or scene that you almost find yourself entering. Yet, when we go closer, the physicality of the canvas and the paint dispel both the visual illusion and the constructed reality in our minds. It calls our attention to the bond between the sociopolitical, psychological, physical and physiological spaces we inhabit and the richly textured terrain of our inner landscape.
As I paint, I condense numerous dimensions onto the canvas, creating the illusion of gazing through multiple windows into infinite worlds at once. It mimics how our memory functions:a blended recall simultaneously pulls snippets from various timeframes to form a seemingly cohesive, although not always accurate, representation.
I make my paintings not only about something, but also about being something–each of my paintings exists as its own entity. I believe art can offer an encounter that brings forth revelations. These revelations can be transformations not unlike spiritual experiences.
Elaine Qiu, Crossing, 2022, enamel and acrylic on canvas, 84 x 86
Renée Stout has noted that “stillness” as a concept reflected in her exhibition “The Oracle Said “Be Still” can be both passive and active. Would you describe your painting as cross section of those two ideas?
The pandemic brought about a global pause, and this involuntary stillness was thrust upon the masses. The stillness brought forth introspection, asking individuals to ponder their role and relevance in a world that seemed suddenly unfamiliar.
A pandemic painting, “Crossing” explores the dual stillness that Renée Stout mentioned. Just like the pandemic experiences of many, my past few years have also been filled with surprises, losses, and restructuring. I spent countless hours in the studio reflecting on my father’s final years and his passing. Much of my work from this period emphasizes the fading of things, the conclusion of various aspects of life, and the elusive, intangible aspect of our existence. Viewers have repeatedly highlighted the palpable stillness in “Crossing”: while the imagery and brushstrokes appear distraught and fragmented, they seem frozen in time. Much like the eerie silence before a storm and the desolation that follows a flood, the stillness shows up through these liminal moments in the painting in the form of waiting or listening. Only within the static silence do we allow the voice of uninvited questions to grow louder. After the stillness in the studio, my paintings always emerge as questions rather than answers. I found that the enforced quietude of the pandemic and the deliberate calm sought through art had, in tandem, guided me toward complex, nuanced questions that resist simplistic answers, questions that disturb, intrigue, evolve, and expand.
Some storms invigorate life in their aftermath, while others clear away the outdated and broken, but invariably, something is often left in their wake—the foundation of the new life. I hope that the questions born from the quiet moments of the pandemic years will actively and consciously guide us as we move forward in the remaking of the world.
“Crossing” employs the use of one-point perspective. Yet, in the context of liminality, this point in space can also be viewed as temporal or indeterminate. What did you have in mind by using this compositional device?
One-point perspective is a frequently used art device in traditional Western paintings, particularly court and religious art works.It has almost become synonymous with authority, conventions, and predetermined truth.
At first glance, “Crossing” seems to embrace the classic one-point perspective, with its vanishing point drawing the viewer deep into the canvas, lending the painting both depth and realism. Yet the artwork subtly incorporates multiple perspectives. I intentionally kept these deviations to a minimum, making them discreetly interwoven throughout the painting. This nuanced approach invites viewers to reconsider their perceptions of reality and challenge the reliability of pre-established truths. The encounter with the painting affirms that what we see and know are simply slices of a more complete, comprehensive reality. It allows us to contemplate the unseen forces and overarching patterns at play. I believe such a vantage point offers solace and refuge from the tumult and chaos happening right now.
This moderate method of distortion also suggests that embracing differences doesn’t necessarily mean overturning established systems or norms entirely; rather, minor adjustments or small accommodations can lead to a more inclusive and harmonious collective existence.
What is most evident about “Crossing” is the vibratory surface of the painting that shimmers like planes of darkness and light. Is it your intention to exploit the interplay of these opposing values?
Everything is a phenomenon of energy. The flow of energy, by its very nature, requires a preexisting polarity, such as high and low, or hot and cold.The interconnectedness of opposites has persistently emerged in my work. I have made monochromatic works. The interplay of lights and darks is not simply a matter of aesthetics; it’s an exploration of the inherent dualities within nature and the human spirit. I often contemplate juxtaposed realities: power and vulnerability, rebirth and decay, life and death, sorrow and joy, mystery and conviction, as well as the far and near enemies of these notions.
There is an old Chinese saying: Cherish the shadow and uphold the light(知陰守陽). Only by recognizing one’s own darkness can one see the light in others. By acknowledging our limitations, we pave the way for exploring greater possibilities. This exploration becomes particularly poignant when considering the contradictions in our human experience, especially in an era dominated by information silos and echo chambers. Embracing dissonant thoughts and clashing convictions might offer profound insight as we confront the great divide in our contemporary social-political landscape.
It is quite interesting to view your painting alongside works by Cianne Fragione, Ellyn Weiss, Trevor Young, Sharon Farmer, and Joyce Wellman. Do you recognize some commonalities in their work?
In the exhibition, Renée Stout creates a contemplative space for viewers to revisit the stillness that permeated the pandemic. During the pandemic, even though there were other people around, like family members or even a pet, the truth is that each of us navigated this shared experience on our own. In reality, this is also how we navigate our individual lives—alone. Almost every piece showcased in this exhibition was born out of solitude.I am interested in painting the unspeakable and the unnamable—the things that keep us awake at 3 a.m.—the grief, the longing, the joy tinged with pain, and the sweet sorrow—the things that torment us while sustaining us most. To echo James Baldwin, “these were the very things that linked us to every living soul, past and present.”
Moving through the exhibition, I felt a familiar resonance in the works of my fellow artists. Each piece emanates its own unique radiance, encapsulating our individual triumphs and tribulations. Over the past years, we’ve navigated through calamities, dysfunction, and chaos. Many times, we had to stop and feel for the ground. But here, together, our artworks map out this cartography that reveals the edges and frontiers of our inner world as well as the ever-changing collective consciousness whose contours are formed by our stories told in silent studio hours and our stances held in stillness. It’s in this space that we come to an embrace, to a recognition of our common humanity, and to a glimpse of possibilities.