Painter, sculptor, installation artist
Interview on January 6th at Daily Routine, Wudaoying
KL: How do you define yourself as an artist? Is painting all that you do?
TP: Painting and collage has become my primary mode but I dabble in everything. Anything I can get my hands on, whatever I have the opportunity to work with, I work with. I have a Bachelors degree in studio art and I have a Masters degree in sculpture so from the beginning I was doing installation work sometimes incorporating sound and video.
KL: Do you get much opportunity to do sculpture here in Beijing?
TP: No, I don’t have the space. That’s kind of how I’ve been working and I think that’s what defines artists anyway – someone who has a creative mind-set who wants to work creatively with whatever opportunity and resources that are given or available to them. My apartment or whatever work space I have dictates, partially, what I do. Recently I was reflecting on this idea of being an artist and not working, not creating art and get really depressed and saying, Oh, I’m not working. There was a period between my Bachelors and Masters when I spent so much time in the kitchen, daily experimenting and creating stuff. So I had an on-going hobby and obsession with food and creating dishes. Looking back, I realise that it’s all the same thing. For me, it has to be process-oriented creativity. If I could go back to the idea of doing installation work, I like to set up a scenario and processes where the viewer participates and gets involved so I don’t really have a projected outcome that I demand the viewer sees. It kind of just evolves into whatever it is visually to them as they interact, which may be different to me. I’ve done that several times before but I don’t really have the opportunity to do that now.
KL: So now you’re just painting?
TP: Primarily painting. I take a lot of photographs as this is another genre that is very appealing to me and I pick up knick-knack things I see on the ground every once in a while and think I’m going to do something with it.
KL: So you hoard?
TP: No, I don’t. In fact, I’m very selective about what I’m picking up. If I had a space, I’d be grabbing all of this stuff and working with it. I don’t have the tools that I have at home. I don’t have the space, basically but I have the same ideas in my head and I’m like, Argh! It’s a bit frustrating. But I think sometimes having limitations is good. I used to paint but I was really sloppy about it. I wasn’t really considering myself a painter even though I’d been painting for almost twenty years. I didn’t see myself asa “painter” painter because some people are really meticulous painters. I guess it’s really about your own definition of a painter. I really like the physicality of paint or the physicality of materials and the interaction with materials so I was more like a science lab kinda guy. What does this do? If I mix this with this and see the reaction I get and playing with visual elements. I’m good with composition.
KL: You’re saying you used to be a messy painter so your process has changed now?
TP: Now my painting has actually evolved into something that’s more painterly. I teach art history which has hugely influenced my painting. When I was in school my mind-set was, I’m only interested in contemporary stuff, things that are more fascinating and different. In art school you are around all these people and you start doing these really heady type projects and you’re so involved in being clever, your audience becomes the school. You start thinking, Who am I playing to? There’s no visual aspect to it. It becomes too conceptual. People would ask me what I’m doing and I’d try to explain it and realise it’s lost something for me. I had developed this attitude of, I want to be progressive and you know, this is old school stuff’ I’mnot really interested in. Now I find the process of teaching art history and going back through these old artists and movements really fascinating and some of these artists are badasses. I realised I’d glossed over people who were doing all this crazy stuff, they were often being radical.
KL: So who are they? Who rocks your world?
TP: Oddly enough, I like people like Goya and Manet. Even though I’m not painting like these people, I like the fast application of paint. I like the cleverness of Manet at the time putting together different genres that didn’t jive, which now seems to be no big deal. Putting together landscapes with nudity and a portrait and still life all at the same time was kind of radical. I like to pick and pull from things that I see. It’s like a folding in of itself. Contemporary art or contemporary painting is now taking the best of everything that went before and it’s kind of like a car parts place where you go and pick and pull what you want.
KL: Mash up.
TP: Yeah, mash up. So I’m a collage artist literally and then I also collage painting styles together as well. I think probably my strength is that I’m able, after spending a little time, to match a style. I’ll think, Okay, this is applied flat, I understand it. Then mix that with something else, like mix it with something that’s pop arty over here or ancient or medieval, it’s flat, and juxtapose with something that’s renaissance and a little more in-depth Now the collage approach had are kind of evolved further in my work for example I’m mixing in mythologies with modern day issues. The painting I’m currently working on [Yen Codex] has a mixture of street graffiti background and classical figures that are Romanesque with these strange mythologies that have references to religion. It’s part of a series I’m creating where each painting includes certain representations that flow throughout, one being the Chinese zodiac animals. This is the monkey one.
KL: Are you trying to represent what the monkey is supposed to be in the zodiac?
TP: No. This series that I’m doing is called Metamorphose but it has kind of metamorphed out of another series I complete called Phantasmagoria. It’s a dream-like amalgamation of items that I was putting together. Kind of a mix of personal stories or things I’d see on the news, anything that was around me, particularly the idiosyncrasies of Beijing from a westerner’s point of view, just mixing them together because I think that’s kind of how your world is. You get up and start your day and you’re watching all this news. You’re seeing earthquakes on TV and then you’re riding the bus with a thousand people and people are telling you stories, you’re talking to friends on the other side of the world, so life in itself is so kind of surreal.
KL: What do you want the viewer to take from it?
TP: I want to set up something that’s a pseudo narrative and I want the viewer to fill in the parts and interpret the painting according to their own influences not necessarily according to mine. I like the idea of setting something up and letting stories evolve in somebody else’s mind. I have my own process of making up a story.
KL: It sounds like you have a rather fractured narrative. Are you expecting they’ll put something more linear in it?
TP: It’s not a fully evolved narrative but there is a narrative in each painting. If you talk about the different parts of what’s in this painting I can talk about how the monkey relates to different things or what the apple relates to. There are so many different stories like Snow White and Adam and Eve. The viewer may see the references or they may not.
KL: The immediate thing it brings to mind is Adam and Eve. It’s like she’s offering the apple to the monkey and the monkey is Adam. I can see that.
TP: All the paintings have female figures of strength, change or oppression in there, it’s one of the other representations flowing through the series.
KL: I thoroughly approve.
TP: So I’ve created limitations for myself and by limitations I mean the visual criteria that are in each piece. The Chinese zodiac animals I mentioned, are one such criteria and then I’m pairing them withfemale entitiesand I’m creating different environments or environmental factors in which they relate. There are other common factors but I don’t want to spoon-feed my audience. I’m using my experiences here as a way in which I can connect these things together, the zodiac, the position of women and the environment are all issues that have caught my attention since living in Beijing. Also I’m using, everyday objects I see in China and the art history that I teach just all crammed together. China’s a very… almost claustrophobic environment, people are going everywhere, there are so many things happening, just driving here today on the scooter it was absolute chaos and it’s a wonder that I can get from one place to the next because I’m so interested in looking at the things around me. I’m trying to look at things and also trying to dodge people jumping out into the street.
KL: You’re the second artist who has mentioned to me about the feeling of claustrophobia in China. You’re just so hemmed in all the time.
TP: I like things to intertwine, there’s an “intertwining-ness” that I see everywhere in China. I have an affinity for creating art that overlaps and weaves like the Celtic illuminated manuscripts, which relates back to my wife, she’s Irish, and so I can appreciate this kind of intertwining of ideas and real life. I like organised chaos. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since the beginning. Even when I was messy with the paint I knew how to organise it and so it’s like, I want it messy but still kind of sophisticated. Layered would be the word, right?
KL: With all of your mish-mash of stuff going in there, how deeply do you devise the concept? Is it something that’s fully formed when you start?
TP: It didn’t use to be. I used to just start painting something or sometimes start with a background. I never painted narratively. Now I usually start with either an idea or an image that I have in my head, a general image and go, How am I going to work this into this painting, into the composition? It needs to be interesting in the frame of the canvas and sometimes things work their way in there balancing it. I might just throw an object in there. Sometimes it’s just intuitive. Recently, in making the Metamorphose series it’s been more of an idea for a story or series of stories, or mythologies mixed together around the core criteria. I often start with an idea and I’m like, Okay, I’m going to work it some way into a collage. Icut out interesting things Isee in Chinese magazines that are relevant to the idea and work characters together, seeing how they fit and then start from there. That’s my source material. It’s all a collage. My head’s a collage.
KL: When you speak about using the Chinese magazines are you interested in China in a pop-cultural way or have you researched Chinese art history or mythology?
TP: I do research on mythology, for this series mostly characters that are female heroines in Chinese mythology as I’m interested in the position of women in China. Take my dragon painting from Metamorphose for example, I start by thinking, Okay, let me look up mythologies that have to do with women and have dragons. And I’ll go through these stories and sometimes I get the ideas and that’s how it starts evolving. Sometimes you make really cool connections just by typing, the internet is a great thing. You just punch in “woman,” “dragon,” “Chinese,” “story,” “mythology,” and I’ll get these great stories about this Chinese deity who finds three snake eggs in the river and they grow into dragons and she’s the mother of dragons.
KL: I think that’s the khaleesi you’re talking about. Isn’t that Game of Thrones?
TP: I know it’s amazing, I told this to my wife. It sounds just like Game of Thrones. She’s called the mother of dragons. So I’m thinking that might be where they got that from, who knows.
KL: Maybe. I mean we’re all thieves these days, right?
TP: Of course. It’s pick and pull.
KL: As far as the Chinese experience, did you come here with intent? Some people fall into China and others fight to get here.
TP: I’ve always wanted to travel and this seemed like a very interesting place to come and out of nowhere it did fall into my lap. A guy I used to work, asking him what he did his previous summer, he told me he went to China and I said, Oh really! That’s awesome! He also told me he went to Nigeria to work for the Nigerian president and I was like, What?! And he told me he could get me into China if I wanted to go for the summer. There was a summer programme. So I said, Alright, I want to do it. So the next year I signed up and I went. I was here for eight weeks with no intention of staying and happened to meet somebody here who’s now my wife. So in that process I went home, I had an art show that was pending in November and I quit my job I worked at for seven years, applied for a job here and I’ve been here for the last two and a half years.
KL: That’s a great story.
TP: It is. It’s longer than that but I’ll just give you the short version.
KL: What do you think of the Beijing art community? Are you very involved, do you find it supportive?
TP: I’m not connected enough to be honest, I think that I’m a bit of a recluse to some degree because of time limitations, I’m going from work and going home and still trying to maintain my other job which is painting. Although having said that I was lucky enough to to participate in a group exhibition in 798 last year and I am planning a solo exhibition for this year.
KL: Is it isolating? Do you wish that you were more involved?
TP: No, I don’t think it’s isolating. It’s the life of having 2 full time jobs, my paying job and my art. I have a great dialogue and banter with my wife and actually even with the art show I had prior to coming to China we had that relationship, a long-distance relationship where we were constantly having a dialogue about the names of the works and how they evolved. It’s really exciting you know, to come up with ideas and words and what they mean and sometimes the words would start to kind of manipulate the artwork as well, it started to change things as well. Thinking, that would work really well, and relating those ideas back to the work or bouncing ideas off each other. It doesn’t always work in relationships, sometimes one person is telling you to do one thing and you’re like, No! I’m not doing that.
I think you should change that.
I’m like, No! I’m not doing that.
KL: So is she your muse or are you a two person, self-contained art community?
TP: Most definitely my muse.
KL: Oh that’s nice.
TP: I incorporate her into the work as well.
KL: You know that’s every woman’s dream, to be a muse.
TP: Is it?
KL: No. It’s a horribly sexist thing to say. [laughs]
TP: Yeah I don’t think she’d appreciate that. I don’t think the muse thing is offensive.
KL: No, it’d be great to be a muse, but just not passively.
TP: She’s definitely not in a passive way, not just somebody I’m gazing off at, that’s it, she’s a muse in the sense that she can inspire me through ourconstant dialogue and banter whichchallenges me to think in a different direction. Which, actually, has kind of led me to painting in a more narrative fashion. I didn’t paint like this before.
KL: Being created like that do they cease being a narrative and become a dialogue?
TP: Our dialogue is the narrative that makes the paintings occur and it has to do with several things, it has to do with the ideas I have from reading and observing and mythologies and the mixing of things. Sometimes I have an idea that sounds funny in my own head, you know I think something would be visually funny even though I’m not trying to make it super overt and sometimes people look at it and say, Oh that’s really beautiful! And it’s like, Oh, I thought it was going to be funny. I can’t control people’s reactions to whatever it is but I like reactions whether it’s disgust or delight. Getting a reaction as an artist is good. Getting an “eh” or non-reaction is the worst thing. I like when somebody comes in and starts to tell me their interpretation of my work. They’re like, I get it! They have this epiphany about whatever it is they see in the painting, and I don’t provide a hard-edge story for any of the paintings, but they’re telling me how things are connected as they see it and I’m kind of sitting back and watching it like I’m seeing the painting for the first time. It’s wonderful being able to see my work through the eyes of others and interesting how different that can be from what I had originally seen when creating it. And I kind of like that, it’s fun.
“As a kid I helped my Dad build our house, I have been creating ever since”
Thomas Potter is an American contemporary artist living and working in Beijing. He received a BFA from the University of Texas and a Masters in Fine Art from the University of North Texas. Having participated in a variety of shows both group and solo for almost 20years in the USA he he became intoxicated by the vibrancy and curiosities of Beijing after spending a summer in in the city. Thomas is now fully immersed in the daily life of the Chinese cultural and political capital where the beauty and idiosyncrasies of Eastern culture observed from his western perspective has a huge influence on his art.
Thomas uses an array of mediums including paint, collage, photography, drawing, installation and video. His art reflects an amalgamation of clustered interests, personal experiences and the peculiarities of everyday objects when their context is altered. It combines conflicting facets such as spirituality and conflict, dreams and reality, history and present, overlapping them where they become appendages of each other. His art is a mesh that acts as a counterpoise, bringing about a desired balance between fantasy and reality and allowing the unlikely layers to collectively create surface and depth.
Thomas has been part of group exhibitions here in Beijing and is looking forward to his first solo show in the capital later in 2016.