Visuals / Interview
Fiction, Faces and Fine Art -
Writer and Artist Mark Chu
Words and Photographs by James Whiting
Tuesday 13th February, 2018

So far having traversed the worlds of professional classical piano, criminology, food reviews, literature, as well as painting, writer and artist Mark Chu has seemingly seen it all. Now based in New York, we caught him just as he was back in his home town putting the finishing touches on his recent show OPUS at Abbotsford's MARFA Gallery.
TJ: How is it being back here in Melbourne?

M: Yeah it isn't bad. I haven't had that much time to see friends or anything, but it's good to be here.

What spurred the move over to New York City?

I'm actually still studying there - the MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia University.

Did you move over there specifically study?

Yeah well in Australia there are just those classes where you do a bit of writing that gets graded and stuff, but in America one of the main functions of the courses works in a workshop structure. So everyone brings their stuff and you all read each other and discuss it all together, and I really like that format. To me it's a much more helpful way to learn.

It definitely seems like much more of a two-way street in that format, because otherwise most of the time you just hand in your work to the assessor and it becomes almost a total dead-end. You get very little back from that.

Yeah exactly. There's nothing that motivates them to put work back in really, whereas if you're doing your colleagues or mates, you want to give back.

I've read that at just 15 years old you were performing solo piano with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. What was it that made you flip the switch and move away from that?

Yeah I guess it's usually a case of someone jumping from a creative industry to being an accountant or something [laughs], so I suppose I need to talk about why I jumped, and why I jumped to what I did. There's something about classical music that attracts people with a different sense of social value, and amount of value, and that try to carry some value from that with themselves throughout Australian society. It can have a great community to it, but it can also have a lot of pretension to it, with a lot of people who are portraying themselves as upper class. It distorts how they appraise the music and how their life works around that. To me why you listen to music that you love is because you feel quite emotionally about it, but some of the people [I played with] didn't seem to feel anything about the music. I feel especially when you're young that isn't something you're looking for.
But basically I left that behind and didn't do too much for a while there. I tried a few things - my parents wanted me to do law and I didn't do that, and then I started criminology but didn't finish it. I started writing a lot though and was doing reviews in the Good Food Guide for a while and decided I wanted to become a novelist. One thing led me to another and I found out that in the USA they had programs that we didn't have here, and I've been lingering there for a while ever since.

Do you think that between Melbourne and New York, the atmosphere of each place has the tendency to push different types of work out of you?

It's kind of obvious but the people you're around are definitely going to inform the kinds of discussions you're going to have and that changes how your work is informed. I think the way people organize their lives in America is a bit different. I think they’re maybe a little less social. More driven to make money and be successful, even in the creative industry. When it comes to just hanging out with a group of friends, you might be less likely to have that one same core group of friends who'll be hanging out every weekend for years. Whereas in Melbourne it's not that uncommon to have that.

And you have both a very active painting and writing practice, and also make music too. Is it a case of trying to balance your work at all, or does it just work in waves?

Doing these paintings have been taking up quite a lot of my time and then the rest of my time usually goes towards the writing but I feel like they complement each other quite well. If you have a big project, like this show was quite a large project in a way but writing a novel is an even bigger one. This show maybe took about 7 months but if you're writing a novel you'd be a pretty fast writer to get something done in under a year. Doing one of these paintings might take a couple of days. But setting yourself that task, working it from beginning to end, and finishing it - it's a bit more of a satisfying feeling than if I'm endlessly writing and editing. Not having that time restriction can be a bit of a killer.

Deadlines can be very fertile too but having too much freedom can not be the easiest thing sometimes with writing. Within writing I want make literature that is really on the edge and I've always looked at it as, there's literature and then there's something else that's just fiction. With my painting I don't really see those kinds of categories and I haven't set those standards for myself, so I think inherently with my art there's a different type of freedom - possibly because [in painting] the standards you set for yourself can be very different.

Just quickly, what do you see as that line is between literature and non-literature?

One thing I thing is that I don't think it necessarily needs to have a gripping plot. Well, there are three things that literature ought to have at least one of. One element is about the style, and whether it is inventive in terms of how it uses language. Another is something like whether it reveals something new about human psychology, and by new I mean as new as the latest medical journal...

Do you find similar things drives your work, regardless of it being writing or painting?

In a way yes, and also no. If you look around this show, you wouldn't exactly say you're seeing a whole lot of perfectly happy faces. They’re a bit on the slightly melancholy or dark side. But for me in literature, I really like things that tend to more of the dark side, whether it is violent or maybe perverted or types of characters that are in a way criminal. I don't think I have the ability to really set a picture in that sort of action though - maybe film would be a better option in the case of having a visual element. I think for instance, having a picture of a dead person isn't really the same about reading a story about how a person came to die. I think in images it's a bit more subdued, most likely because there are some things in images that are quite hard to explain.
For example if you take the colour pink in a painting, conventionally you would say it's quite pretty. And I would agree and say the same because of how it functions aesthetically, but it would be hard for us to know why. Maybe it would be as it's more purely aesthetic, and solely within that context, it isn't tied to a greater system of how to explain things... However if you had read a story about someone who'd been shot in the head, you'd associate the same colour with that visual of that, but because of the moral field you wouldn't feel the same about it at all.

Is there an underlying foundation to OPUS at all?

The reason behind calling it OPUS is that within a large body of work, especially in music such as in a symphony, you can have quite a few different moods or movements. I wanted to capture that difference. While one figure may be almost twisted and another more contemplative. I think that if you looked around, pretended you were an alien from somewhere else, wasn't familiar with different genres of art or even what a human face was, and just saw how the paint was applied I'd say there is a fair bit of consistency in the way that brush works across all of these pieces. Even if they are quite stylistically different. Some shows, especially if they’re abstract, comes across as one big feeling to me. For instance if it's geometric work and only uses a certain range of colours, that can be great but I'm not sure being in a gallery space multiplies the works too much. I wanted to do something on the next scale up and do something you know, with 70 works. I think that when you group them all, the two most different works are quite different, but between each there is some sort of connective tissue from one work to another, but without each having to connect directly to totally everything else.

What kind of timeline does all the work lie on? How old would the oldest work be?

Maybe starting from April [2017]. Some of them are pretty fresh. On good days you can get a few days where you can get a few done, other days it’s all crap that you throw into the bin. Other days you don't do anything [laughs].

How long into making these works did you realize you wanted to make a show?

I have a friend who I’m always texting when I'm just walking around and have dumb ideas and this did really just start of with a dumb idea I had. I just thought, 'what if I did 100 paintings, that'd be pretty interesting.' Just having that numeric figure in your head - and to a lot of people that won't sound very artistic - but I think that an idea like that, because it's empty, but because of that you can fill it with another concept.

Was there any reason to bring OPUS to Melbourne at all?

Well I'm not actually allowed to make work in New York, so that's probably about as good of a reason as any, but mostly all of the people that know about my painting are in Melbourne. In NY, because of the people I talk to over there, I focus on writing. It would be really nice to be able to bring both writing and painting together though. It just takes quite a while to build a double career like that.

Reading into the backstory behind a lot of the work, you discuss the process of reconstructing and thereby finding shapes within the structure of the human face and the lines that can be imagined to connect physically distanced features. Do you think that in your process of doing that you're finding new ways of perceiving the form of the face or new ways to articulate what you're seeing?

Sometimes when you’re painting, because it’s manual, there’s an experimental element because it’s wet and you never really know how it’s going to react. You stumble across little mini ideas as you combine components differently. You see what works well and what doesn’t, and that affects what direction you take the work in. I don’t think every process was pre-planned but then as you gather your best processes, you can see like ‘Oh, I might be going in that direction’. As you think about that, you might not have known that where you were taking the work, but I think once you do it consciously think about it, you can achieve tasks a bit quicker. But also sometimes doing that consciously doesn’t make the work any better. You can want to do something that you did yesterday and it’s just shocking.
And that’s not limited to art.

So it’s the first show for 2018 at MARFA - What's on the cards for you this year?

Yeah, I’ve got a show planned in Shanghai. I met a guy who owns galleries there and we’ve talked about putting something on. The chinese art market is very different though. I mean, at least in my head these faces aren’t particularly joyful faces. The joy someone may get out of seeing this work won't be from looking at a joyful face. I think in China a lot of art is made in response to a desire for something with a joyful message. It’s radiating and is peaceful and it’s full of positive emotion. Part of me thinks that’s kind of terrible, but also another part of me thinks that if you’re going to be a successful artist, it’s a challenge worth embracing because maybe you can form a sort of compromise and bring in your own ideas to that style that’d be cool, but it’s going to be a pretty different way of thinking for me because I definitely gravitate towards stuff that’s not immediately happy. And not because I’m not happy myself - I think it’s because I’m actually too happy to be honest - I took the tests where it measures you along a scale and the results were actually through the roof [laughs]. At the same time some people have worked really hard to get where they are, and I think I work hard, but I think it’s been that where every opportunity I’ve had to work hard, I’ve been rewarded quite well. Whereas in China you can work incredibly hard and all that means is you get to survive another day. In the environment where especially the rich people who can buy art have come from that other environment, where they’ve seen those nightmare-ish type scenes, they can remember it on their own ends.