Toronto-based artist Andrew Ooi embraces the cold northern winters as a time to focus and “incubate” in the studio — something most of us in the northern climes can certainly relate to! I’m just marveling at the detail and texture of his gorgeous paper constructions, which combine traditional Japanese joinery and origami practices into intricate, contemporary constructions. Make sure to find more at the links below!
Can you tell me a little bit about you?
Born and raised in Canada, I am of Malaysian-Chinese descent which means that at any one time I will either bring up bitter Canadian winters or curry-steeped dishes in a conversation no matter how hard I try to do neither. And although I prefer food over freezing cold, there’s something about the season that forces you to stay in, incubate and dive into work with a clear focus and momentum that chases the days and nights away. However much I am absorbed, I do have some habits I can’t, and make an excuse of to break. I love watching videos of animals, especially of animals eating. A panda eating a carrot never gets old, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. (Nothing I’ll admit to here, but rounding up your guess is a good idea.) Also, starting a television series at any season, and viewing them out of order, is another. Spoiler alert: so far amazingly, I’ve never given anything away–at least nothing anyone hasn’t asked me. But talking about cuisine is always going to be a safer bet!
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
Since childhood I have always been a doodler and caricaturist; fascinated by paper folding and forming from flat to three-dimension. However, it wasn’t until high school when for a self-directed study, I copied works by great printmakers Albrecht Dürer and Katsushika Hokusai in art class that I discovered “Art” and another 2D-3D relation: the print plate or block. Etching, cutting and carving taught me to look at line, light and shadow as material and solid, and irrevocably, artworks in an entirely new way. Like at what point does a stroke become a shape? A pattern becomes a texture? A shade becomes a surface? Looking to the subtleties that answer these questions as one or the other is part of the investigation that guides my practice, and depending on what I’m working on, constantly changing. Plus, there was the matrix itself: basically, a relief or “shallow” sculpture. After making several of my own, I came to appreciate them as something more than just a component to the printmaking process, but as artworks as well. Paradoxical too: slim surfaces with depth, which is another guiding principle found in my work.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
Although I have shed the baggy jeans, and faded haircuts of my high-school years, I am still as curious as ever about the elements and principles of design which continue to prefigure my work immensely–in means and manner. Line, shape, colour and space; repetition, movement, balance and contrast, oscillate between, and re-examine ideas about painting and sculpture, object and experience, and multiple points of view. Add to this survey a circumvention of what makes a painting a painting– its structure, its picture plane, its treatment of surfaces–and you pretty much have enough material and problem-solving to last a lifetime for whatever matter is of interest: history, artistry, evolution and humanity being a few.
What is your process like?
My process combines an interpretation of Japanese joinery and origami techniques using handmade Japanese, gampi (fibre) papers–done entirely by hand. From large sheets I cut hundreds to thousands of finger-length strips, I crease one-by-one. From there, the creased pieces are individually painted with a design of my choosing I feel evokes my current theme of interest. I then refold the miniature paintings along some of my previously-made creases to form the units I interlock into one another to create the basis and composition of my artworks.
Depending on the size and type of my artwork, the process can take anywhere from two to eight weeks or a Walking Dead Marathon to a season of Better Call Saul–give or take delayed, upcoming episodes.
Any research beforehand is limited if at all; usually consisting of what effect I would like to achieve, what the masters before me have achieved and how, why it is so important for me to know at that moment, and what about the piece requires me to pursue that knowledge. I find this method to be more open to “happy accidents,” tangents, mistakes and consequently, innovation, than if I have it all already worked out. I also find that as the research essentially becomes part of the process of making the artwork that time becomes another significant and tangible element–at once grounding and reflective–necessitating the work be experienced rather than immediately discernible. This desire for viewers to be with the art is important to me because it may provide a thought, a feeling, another perspective, or even stillness, in not only how they are affected at present, but afterward too. Basically–spoiler alert!– my process is my “pause” button for myself, and anyone willing to take a look, because a lot can be revealed when life slows down, and our ability to react to those revelations are arguably, different, and more considered.
So, in service of slow, and to make room for those insights and subsequent feelings, I work on each piece one at a time. The resulting body is a record of where some ideas are the same, and when they begin to change, why they are emphasized, and when they became central. That is, the conception in the beginning, and the realization in the end, with shifts in continuity breaking any linear observation. Ideas pertaining to main themes of art and human nature, I feel, are best served by this process.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
If I ever have a career like Bridget Riley, Frank Stella or Alexander Calder, I will consider myself lucky. These artists have really broadened the way paintings are perceived–in the case of Calder, in space!–while defining concepts in Art that people continue to enjoy as novel, as dynamic, as fun and engaging as it was then, today. Never mind, Riley and Stella are still at work, pushing their artistic approach and creation to new levels, impossible to think they haven’t already outdone, but manage to unbelievably do. (Willing to meet another fan? Just say where and when!) Their collective contribution of illusion, independent-thinking and imagination are goals I am fortunate exist by example to admire for all time.
What is your studio like?
I have a small, dedicated work space inside my home for making my art. A long desk that is lined with markers, rulers, paints and bits and bobs–paper clips, sticky notes, strings, loose screws, elastics and more–that somehow migrate into the open, instead of remaining inside the kitchen take-out menu drawer of restaurants that have long since closed.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
In recent years, the art world has been undergoing seismic changes. Art fairs, social media, e-commerce, even blockchain artwork-authentication are rapidly insisting to be the new business as usual. Artists can promote themselves as brands or influencers, galleries can operate temporarily or virtually, and work can be scaled as a limited edition or mass commodity. What to do and how to be involved are thoughts that quickly get checked according to my realities and wants: developing artistry and vision with respect to materials and art forms at a pace suitable for the long haul. Making time for people, spontaneity and opportunities to come about; providing a lifespan of good memories and gratitude through it all.
What are three words you would use to describe your work?
Emotional, thoughtful and inventive.
What are you working on right now?
On my last trip to Ottawa, Canada, I had the great pleasure to see Canadian artist and icon, Tom Thomson’s painting, “The Jack Pine,” at the National Gallery of Canada, in-person. The artwork is nothing short of amazing: a layering of colours that move from thin to fat, to flat and thick, creating an overall description of light than landscape. As with many of his paintings, Thomson somehow figured out how to manipulate the natural sheen of oil paints to express a range of lighting conditions–including moonlight and shadows, foreground and forepart–within a dark spectrum. For my current piece, I’m using solid-coloured papers as a basis for layering and building light; all the while studying what proportions, hues, arrangements, patterns and intensity maintains consistency and similarly, captivates.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thanks Kate for Young Space’s visual feast of art and artists, ideas and approaches, incredible to discover.