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Interview: Pei Ou

Shame, 2023

oil on linen, 48 x 60 inches / 121.92cm x 152.4cm

1) Could you introduce yourself? Where did you study art? When did you first see yourself as an artist?

I am a native Chinese artist, specializing in oil painting and drawing. My artistic journey began around 2011 when I immersed myself in traditional Chinese painting education. In 2020, I earned my undergraduate degree in Visual Arts from the University of San Diego. Subsequently, I completed a Master of Fine Arts program at the School of Visual Arts in New York in May 2023.

During the second year of my graduate studies, I came to recognize myself as an artist. I felt that my early paintings didn't fully embody the artistic identity I aimed to achieve. However, with rapid growth over my two years of postgraduate studies, I reached a point in the first semester of my second year where I confidently embraced the title of an artist.

My artistic pursuits delve into the complexities of generational traumas and family bonds, expressed through unique and thought-provoking paintings that often feature small, symbolic figures, each narrating a distinctive story. These figures serve as central themes in my work, providing a visual narrative that explores the intricacies of human connections and personal histories.

The Invisible Threat, 2022

oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches / 121.92cm x 152.4cm

2) You have abstracted the human figure in the shape of cucumber-like green, cylindrical shapes that you metaphorically equate to trees. How did you arrive at this abstract summarization of the human form? How are trees and people different but also similar?

I have abstracted the portrayal of figures as cucumber-shaped, green cylindrical forms, metaphorically representing trees. This abstract conceptualization has evolved through my extensive engagement in landscape painting. Particularly, I have a profound appreciation for the overall structure of tree trunks. In my observations, I have identified certain similarities between trees and humans.

To begin with, the growth environment significantly influences the morphology and life characteristics of both trees and humans in similar ways. Trees interact with their surroundings, adapting to changes in their environment, mirroring how individuals adjust their lifestyles in response to external influences. Moreover, I believe that trees and humans share similarities in their philosophical approach to survival. Trees exemplify a harmonious coexistence with nature, adapting to seasonal cycles, growing, and experiencing cycles of renewal, reflecting a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding environment. This lifestyle, integrated with nature, aligns with the human pursuit of balance and internal harmony.

However, despite these similarities, I have also noted distinctions between trees and humans. One notable difference is that the growth environment for trees is inherently more unrestricted compared to the relatively constrained freedom of human existence. This distinction captivates me, as trees seem to epitomize an unconstrained vitality, in contrast to the responsibilities and constraints often present in human life.

Therefore, by abstracting the portrayal of figures as trees, I endeavor to capture the complexity and diversity of life, as well as the interconnectedness with nature. This abstract expression allows me to emphasize the shared aspects between humans and nature, provoking contemplation in viewers about life, freedom, and the interaction with the environment.

Don't Disturb, 2023

oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches / 40.6 cm x 50.8 cm

3) You have a background in landscape painting. Is your representation of people as trees a way of merging the socially constructed notion or boundary between people and nature, in a way? Or are you pointing out the relationship between people and the environment - that the environment makes the people, and the people make the environment?

Certainly, in my artistic expression, portraying people as trees stems from a desire to emphasize the intricate relationship between individuals and their environment. I intend to convey that the environment plays a crucial role in shaping individuals—molding their characteristics and experiences. Simultaneously, I want to highlight the profound impact individuals have on shaping and interacting with their surroundings. Essentially, my artwork delves into the reciprocal relationship between people and their environment, illustrating the mutual influence and coexistence between the two.

Nowhere and Everywhere, 2023

oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches / 27.94cm x 35.56cm

4) If you remove the details of the human figures, including the arms, legs, hands, feet, and the facial features, how do you convey certain situations or emotions that would normally require such details to be included? How does the reduction of those features in the figures allow for or require a heightened sensory experience on the part of the viewer? And how does this reduction force you to invent new ways of conveying such subtle information (that require arms, legs, facial features, etc.)

In my artistic approach, I prefer expressing situations and emotions through the postures, positions, and sizes of the "little people"; in my paintings, replacing the need for details such as arms, legs, hands, feet, and facial features. This simplification encourages viewers to focus more on sensory experiences, relying on these basic elements to understand and feel the emotions and contexts within the artwork.

By omitting specific features of the figures, viewers are compelled to rely on more subtle visual cues to interpret emotions and contexts. The choice of posture, relative positioning, and changes in size becomes crucial in conveying emotions. This simplification not only demands a deeper engagement from the audience but also provides them with more interpretative freedom, making the act of viewing the artwork a more subjective and individualized experience.

Simultaneously, I convey emotions and contexts through the temperature and colors of the environment. The use of color can express emotional states even in the absence of specific facial expressions, while the background's temperature and atmosphere contribute to a richer and more profound perceptual experience for the viewer. This reduction of details not only forces me to explore new means of artistic expression but also stimulates a more intuitive and sensory understanding for the audience.

In essence, through this process of simplification and abstraction, I aim to challenge traditional perceptions of conveying emotions and contexts, creating a more open, flexible, and immersive artistic experience for the viewer.

Words Unspoken, 2023

oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches / 30.48cm x 30.48cm

5) Humans are social creatures, and our social relationships contain particular and often unequal power dynamics. Do your paintings reflect or contradict this view, and how?

My paintings aim to reflect the distinctive and often unequal power dynamics within human society, rather than contradicting this perspective. In my artworks, I strive to capture and convey the power dynamics in interpersonal relationships through elements such as the relative positions, postures, and sizes of the small figures. At times, certain figures may be placed in more prominent or power-highlighting positions, while others may appear relatively smaller or positioned at the periphery, reflecting societal inequalities. Through these visual elements, I attempt to convey the intricate complexity of social relationships, while leaving room for viewers to engage in personal interpretation and understanding. However, this does not imply that my works merely mirror societal inequalities. On the contrary, I seek to provoke contemplation among viewers about power dynamics within human society through this visual language, prompting resonance or reflection as they engage with the artwork. My goal is to stimulate sensitivity and understanding toward power dynamics within human society, rather than presenting a singular viewpoint.

6) In the painting titled, "The dream that I have never dreamed of," I see a potential for a convergence of styles and traditions. Looking at this piece, I sense that your future direction could involve the styles of gestural painting of Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Expressionism, and Chinese Calligraphy. Would you ever consider letting go of the qualities of form, depth, and illusion that are achieved through layering and modeling, opting instead for a more gestural or calligraphic quality of the abstracted human figures in your paintings? What attracts you or repels you from this possibility?

"The dream that I have never dreamed of" represents an early stage in my artistic exploration, where my primary focus was on experimenting with the sizes, proportions, positions, and dimensions of the "little figures" to achieve a successful composition. During this phase, my consideration leaned more towards the formal aspects of the artwork rather than a deliberate exploration of specific artistic styles or traditions. In the context of your mention of gestural painting and calligraphic qualities related to the abstracted human figures, I haven't actively delved into these aspects at the moment. I would currently categorize my style as abstract figurative.

7) Another interpretation of your abstracted human forms could be a virus or bacteria of some kind. Agent Smith in the movie, The Matrix, compared humans to a virus. What do you think of this analogy? How does this interpretation compare with your assertion that you are representing people in the form of trees?

This question is quite intriguing. Over time, I've come across various comparisons for my abstracted forms—some see them as resembling cucumbers, peanuts, insects, or even magnified bacteria. The diversity in these interpretations is genuinely fascinating to me because I believe each individual brings their own unique lens to the artwork. I don't necessarily align myself with the more common readings of what my art might symbolize. Throughout this artistic journey, I've come to appreciate the significance of my personal perspective on how I perceive and interpret these forms.

Words Unspoken II, 2023

oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches / 40.64cm x 50.8cm

8) In "Shame" (2023), two human figures are on stage in front of an audience. Are you commenting on the idea of the "spectacle" as discussed by Guy Debord, regarding mass media and its role in the "autocratic reign of the market economy?" Do you think Debord's ideas have relevance to your work?

The concept of the "spectacle" as discussed by Guy Debord, particularly in his work "The Society of the Spectacle," revolves around the idea that modern society is dominated by images and representations, often driven by mass media, that serve to maintain and reinforce existing power structures.

I firmly believe that my artistic creations are deeply influenced by the themes and perspectives I wish to explore. Throughout the creative process, I naturally insulate myself from the impact of current popular media and remain impervious to the trends in the art world.

Instead, I adhere to the artistic themes and viewpoints that resonate deeply within me. This steadfast commitment serves as the wellspring of inspiration for my creations, enabling me to express an independent artistic language that remains uninfluenced by external factors. I trust that within this environment of creative freedom, my artworks can profoundly convey the thoughts and emotions I aspire to express.

Moreover, I hold a deep conviction that the form of "little people" is not a spontaneous creation but has evolved within me over the course of many years of landscape painting. It is not a form crafted on a whim but a unique manifestation that has grown organically within my inner being. This aspect is crucial to me because I am determined not to adopt any pre-existing forms to convey my viewpoints on humanity. This creative stance allows me to authentically listen to my inner voice, shaping distinctive and meaningful artistic representations.

Sign of surprise, 2023

oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches / 40.64cm x 50.8cm

9) Some of your paintings remind me of Katherine Bradford's style and color palette, but you also made a strong effort into developing your own, unique color palette. What is the most challenging aspect to developing a unique color palette that does not emulate the colors and the styles used by other artists? How does having a unique color palette contribute to a unique and identifiable style?

For me personally, a distinctive element of my color palette is my particular affinity for blue and deep green. I have a strong penchant for these colors, and they essentially find their way into almost all of my artworks. This personal preference not only reflects a deep connection with these hues but also adds an extra layer of uniqueness to my overall palette. The key to overcoming the challenge of developing a unique color palette is self-awareness and profound exploration of one's own artistic voice. It requires a conscious effort to understand what resonates with you personally, both in terms of subject matter and emotional impact, and translating that into a visual language using colors. It involves experimenting with various color combinations, pushing boundaries, and being open to unexpected outcomes. Having a unique color palette, especially with a personal emphasis on specific colors like blue and deep green, contributes significantly to forging a distinct and identifiable artistic style. Just as brushstrokes and subject matter can define an artist, colors play a crucial role in shaping the overall aesthetic.

When viewers encounter a piece with a signature color palette, such as a predilection for blue and deep green, it becomes a visual fingerprint—an immediate recognition of the artist behind the work.

10) Is sense of humor important to you? How should the audience read your work? Are they serious and dramatic, or is the depiction of people as cucumber-like "trees" a comical/pun-like visual device?

Sense of humor is indeed important to me. I maintain an open attitude regarding how the audience interprets my work. Some of my paintings carry a serious tone, while others exude a dramatic atmosphere. Importantly, these elements can often coexist within the same body of work. The depiction of people as cucumber-like "trees" serves as a visual device that can be both comical and pun-like. This playful approach introduces a layer of whimsy and invites viewers to engage with the artwork in a more lighthearted manner. Humor, for me, becomes a dynamic tool to convey complex ideas and emotions. While some pieces may carry a serious or dramatic undertone, the inclusion of playful visual elements allows for a multifaceted and nuanced reading of the work. This duality encourages viewers to approach the art with a sense of curiosity and openness to various interpretations.

11) Do you allow for multiple interpretations of your work? Or do you think that a work with a clear artistic intent would have a particular way of being read and interpreted? How do visual, narrative, and metaphorical aspects or devices in your work guide the viewer towards single or multiple conclusions?

I absolutely welcome and encourage multiple interpretations of my work. While I may have a clear artistic intent when creating a piece, I believe that art's beauty lies in its ability to evoke diverse responses and emotions from viewers. Art is a subjective experience, and the way individuals perceive and interpret it can vary widely. In some instances, my work may have a specific narrative or metaphorical intention, guiding the viewer towards a particular conclusion.

However, I also incorporate visual and metaphorical aspects that intentionally allow for ambiguity and multiple readings. This layered approach invites viewers to bring their unique perspectives, experiences, and emotions to the interpretation process. Visual elements such as the depiction of people as cucumber-like "trees" may serve as a metaphorical device, and the narrative may suggest certain themes. Still, the openness and abstract nature of the representation leave room for diverse interpretations. The combination of visual, narrative, and metaphorical aspects in my work aims to guide viewers toward a range of conclusions rather than a singular one, fostering an inclusive and engaging experience for a diverse audience.

Time's up, 2023

oil, oil sticks on canvas, 6 x 20 inches /40.6 cm x 50.8 cm

12) What are your dreams and goals for the future? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

My aspirations as an artist are deeply rooted in a desire for meaningful impact. I dream of showcasing my work in prestigious galleries and museums, gaining recognition from both peers and a diverse audience. The freedom to independently create and express my artistic language is a paramount goal, allowing me to focus on conveying profound messages through my pieces.

Using art as a powerful tool for societal change, I aspire to draw attention to important issues and be an advocate for social impact. Continuous learning and evolution of my craft, exploring new forms and mediums, remain integral to my artistic journey. Balancing artistic integrity with commercial success is a goal, sustaining both independent creation and financial support. In essence, my dreams encompass a multifaceted vision, blending personal expression with societal influence, contributing to the vibrant tapestry of the art world.

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