How do you paint your place in the world? Shea Chang does it strangely and beautifully
The Hamilton artist's solo exhibition explores how it feels to be made Other — and how it feels to belong
They look like cloud formations. Or scientific drawings of new life. Or, maybe, like fragments of a language you'd find in a dream. The shapes are familiar, but they combine in unforeseen ways. Devising — perhaps divining — this unique visual vocabulary, artist Shea Chang strangely and beautifully marks her place in the world.
The Vancouver-born, Hamilton-based artist's enigmatic work is the subject of a solo exhibition titled Future Oriented Jelly Technologies, on display at Monday Press in Hamilton. The exhibition, filled with Chang's peculiar whatsits, asks a question that's both personal to the artist and universal to all people: what does it feel like to be all of the things that you are?
Chang considers herself a mark maker of the abstract variety. Combining drawing, painting, printmaking and photographic techniques, the artist's curious and distinct gestures reflect the many intersecting facets of her experience, including her queerness, her multiracial identity, her sense of community, her connection to the environment and her relationship to her surroundings. Like a fingerprint, Chang's marks are an expression of her individuality; you can see in them her exploration of what it feels like to be made Other, as well as what it feels like to belong.
"I think that it is a human thing to make some kind of mark," she says. "There's just something about leaving a trace or an impression."
All of Chang's work comes from a place of improvisation. The artist studied Chinese watercolour as a child, and a similar wet-on-wet technique informs her process today. She begins with a wash of water, then makes her initial marks in ink. The pigment comes alive on the wet surface, its forms dissolving and transforming themselves as if they possess a kind of agency.
The artist usually has about 20 small works in progress at once. She must wait for each image to reveal itself to her.
"Time and marination are a part of it," she says. If she tries to force a design, the work seems to lose its power. Oftentimes, she'll spend hours examining her marks, coaxing them to tell her what next.
"Once it happens, it's like fire it's so quick. It's like this moment where I see what it needs to be and I just do it."
One of the earliest works on display, the cheekily named Smooth Aberrator (think: Sade meets an astronomical device for creating visual disturbances), is key to the exhibition and exemplary of Chang's iconography. It looks like paper currency, a flag or perhaps a playing card, with conjoined Flamin' Hot cheese puffs at its centre.
The image appears first as a tiny 10-by-15-centimetre work on paper at the start of the show, then again in the final room, reproduced more than 30 times larger on a light box, drawing visitors in for a closer look.
Chang has marked the corners of the work with more symbols from her private alphabet. A macaroni-shaped figure and another that recalls a razor blade were inspired by car parts she discovered while doing yard work. Tubes, like the macaroni, appear throughout the artist's work. They represent conduits: they're vehicles for transformation and becoming. Living in Hamilton's north end, with industry always in her periphery, tubes also suggest relationships to work, history, place and environment.
Another marking, this one shaped like a crude weapon or maybe a sailboat, is Chang's icon for offcuts — the unwanted remnants we cast aside. Questioning what is deemed desirable and what is not, the offcut is another powerful symbol that recurs in Chang's art (including in the nearby painting Flip Flop, where it bites into the picture like teeth). Smooth Aberrator's final figure approximates a Chinese logogram from the artist's memory.
"I was thinking about the motifs and Chinese characters that appear in my family's home," she explains. "I have no idea what they mean because I don't read Chinese."
This icon reflects her particular experiences of race, ethnicity and culture. "My grandmother is dead and I moved to Ontario a long time ago," she says, "so my connection with my Chineseness is very … there's a sense of longing that I know that I can never really quite attain."
A similar thread is woven through Bumper and Chimerico, two gigantic wheat paste murals comprising the exhibition's centrepieces. They are dizzying works of digital collage that quote from the other artworks hung around the room as well as from elsewhere in Chang's oeuvre. Here, she manipulates the fragments by moving them around the bed of a photocopier.
Some of the murals' largest gestures — the moments that felt the most like brushwork, according to the artist — were made by sliding a plastic fan, belonging to her grandmother, across the scanner top. The fan was just this cheap "nothing-thing," she says, that her family found among her grandmother's possessions after she'd passed. Chang took it not because it was special in any traditional sense, but because, worn and a little broken, her grandmother had used it well. It represents a real, tangible connection to this person as well as to this facet of the artist's identity.
Chang says that all of her work — the visual vocabulary, the shape play, the importance of agency in its design, the consideration of how others might engage it — "it all comes from this desire to visually articulate something that can't be held in one hand." The artist is trying to show us what the plural nature of experience feels like to her, be it messy, joyful, tense, estranged, harmonious, or all these and more, too.
"I want to make things that are slippery," she says — "things that are not easy to categorize."