An Artist for the Dystopian Age

For decades, Tishan Hsu has explored the ever more salient relationship between technology and the human body.

Article by Adriane Quinlan

Tishan Hsu lives above his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio, where an immense skylight keeps a Norfolk Island Pine alive. The miniature green chair was once the artist’s son’s but, these days, Hsu uses it to work on pieces on the floor, like the glassy tank just behind him — a cast-off component of a sculpture that grew in another direction. (Flora Hanitijo)

When Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum was shut down last March, so was the first retrospective of the 69-year-old artist Tishan Hsu. Hanging from the gallery walls for no one to see was Hsu’s immense “Cell” (1987), a 16-foot-wide raft of carved wood painted in fleshy tones and overlaid with rigid bars to recall the experience of staring down a microscope into a magnified view of human blood. In another gallery sat “Virtual Flow” (1990-2018), a suite of mock laboratory equipment in a sickening shade of millennial pink, built to “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” proportions. Meanwhile, the recorded sounds of a hospital respirator emanated from the device playing the 2005 video work “Folds of Oil.”

In addition to upending the schedule of his retrospective, which was organised by SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens, where it is now on view, the pandemic impeded Hsu’s plans to start an ambitious work cycle, as well as the staffing of his studio, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. But the coronavirus has also made the artist’s longstanding interest in the relationship between the body and technology, the organic and the man-made, seem even more prescient. “I remember telling people in the ’80s, ‘I don’t know what the work is about. I don’t have a text here. The work will reveal itself,’” Hsu said on a recent video call. “It just validates the unconscious.”

An early adopter of digital editing techniques, Hsu helped develop the studio for interactive art at Sarah Lawrence College, where he taught for more than 20 years before his retirement in 2018. Here, his large-scale printer sits next to “Blue Interface With Lego” (2019), a dye-sublimation print. (Flora Hanitijo)

Born in Boston and raised by an opera singer and an engineer, Hsu had a childhood that was scored by the warbles of humanity as much as by the orderly hum of machines. As a student at MIT, he studied architecture and began to experiment with sculpture, putting to use his knowledge of ergonomics and organic forms. To fund his art-making after graduation, he took a job temping as a word processor at various law firms; typing on a primitive computer, his thoughts would veer to what screens might do for memory and sense perception. In his off hours, he was reconsidering painting, working with plywood forms. He eventually developed a technique of scratching through layers of paint to reveal gooey, naturalistic shapes in the wood. Staring at these early works can be a bit like looking at an electrical outlet and seeing in its contours and openings a face in shock: eyes and lips sometimes appear to cohere, then fade back into abstraction.

When Hsu started showing his hand-wrought slabs in New York in the mid-80s, the work felt out of step with the decade’s slick graphic art and loopy, graffiti-inspired paintings. But the subsequent decades revealed Hsu’s anticipation of our current era of industrial design. Pull out an iPhone to take a picture of Hsu’s “Squared Nude” (1984) or “Institutional Body” (1986) and you’ll notice that the shape, orientation and proportions of the gadget are roughly the same as those of the painted wall hangings. When Hsu’s show opened at the Hammer last January, a curator pointed out that “Closed Circuit II” (1986), a square wall hanging with a lenslike, circular form, resembles an early logo for Instagram. And when asked about “Portrait” (1982), a horizontal wooden slab whose rounded outer edges frame a rectangle scratched in the manic texture of a static-filled screen, Hsu insisted: “I was not thinking of the iPad at the time.”

Yogurt containers are just one part of Hsu’s system for organizing the substrates he uses to give his sculptures textures that are alternately scratchy and gooey, organic and shellacked. (Flora Hanitijo)

For a 1989 show at New York’s Pat Hearn Gallery, Hsu focused on the idea of medical intervention. Doctors had told him that he would eventually need a kidney transplant, but that future technology would make the procedure less risky. “I had this idea that the hospital was the most radical site for what we’re doing to our bodies,” he said. “That some future people might look back on us, as we look back on very early cultures that do these things to the body, like impel them or scar them.” The kidney transplant, which Hsu finally underwent in 2006, increased the likelihood of his having a severe response to Covid-19. And so, last spring, he let his staff go and joined his wife, who stays at their home in the Berkshires, where he lived out a version of Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain” (1924). “After a month or two it started getting very weird psychologically; you lose track of the days,” he said. At the same time, he spent more of those days scrolling through the news, thinking about how the headlines were designed to entice him to click. He started making drawings studded with eyes and lenses that “watch” the viewer, reversing the direction of the gaze and subverting the hierarchy of spectator and work: the surveyor becomes the surveyed.

Even in the mountains, then, the artist felt watched: by the sites he visited, by the phone he took to bed. “They actually have cognitive psychologists helping them design this software so that they know what will pull you in,” Hsu said. “We need to stop and think about what it’s doing to us and our bodies. So in a way that’s what my work has been trying to grasp. I would say, whether people connect to my work — I think I’m really just trying to ask the question, ‘What is really happening?’”

On display together for the first time, Hsu’s sculptures ask more questions than they answer. Like props built for the Harkonnen den in a “Dune” remake, they seem designed to furnish a future we could not want to live in — a dystopia that may reflect aspects of our reality, but remains enigmatic enough to hide its politics, and grotesque enough to make more squeamish viewers turn away before they’ve had a chance, as Hsu said, to “stop and think.”

A mix of alkyd resin and oil paint produces a thick, tarry black that Hsu began deploying in the 1980s to paint wooden forms that he’d scratch, forming networks of lines that seemed to buzz with electricity. (Flora Hanitijo)

Now back in Brooklyn (his apartment is above his studio), Hsu answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire via Zoom, having chosen a virtual background of an oozy-looking stucco wall that could easily have been mistaken for the handworked surface of one of his sculptures.

What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

I have to have eight hours of sleep. I work much of the day and evening. I live where I work, and I like being able to integrate everyday life with my work. I may go down in the evening for several hours, depending on what’s going on. Phone and internet, doing my work, working with assistants and, you know, eating or socialising — it’s all kind of mixed together. I feel like I’m always working mentally, if not actually in the studio. I don’t keep a schedule.

How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?

Seven, 10, maybe.

What’s the first piece of art you ever made?

Oh, I can’t remember. In elementary school I was drawing all the time. I recall doing a landscape by looking out the window for the first time, and I remember doing a papier-mâché mask, a picture of which was published in the local paper. I drew an architectural rendering in elementary school, and the teacher brought people in to look at it.

What’s the worst studio you ever had?

The worst one? I had a studio, I mean, I used the living room of a summer house that had no heat. I was taking a year off after grad school to decide whether I was going to be an artist and said, “I’ll only allow myself to do art and nothing else, so if you’re not going to do art, you’re not going to do anything.” And a friend offered this empty old house for the winter. I put down a piece of linoleum and just worked there. The ceiling, floors and walls were all dark brown wood. Small antique windows, a ceiling bulb and a space heater. It was six metres from the ocean, which can be pretty grim in the dead of a New England winter.

Hsu’s techy, dystopian vision also includes powder pinks, swimming pool aquas and taxi cab yellow — all on view in his collection of acrylics. He credits his understanding of color to an early teacher of his, the painter Maryann Harman. (Flora Hanitijo)

What’s the first work you ever sold? For how much?

A painting in high school, a landscape. I don’t remember exactly what the price was — a few hundred dollars. I was painting from observation along the lines of the Impressionists, studying with the painter Maryann Harman, who taught me everything I know about colour.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

My ideas for my work have always felt like steps in a long arc of an idea that is still being revealed through intuition. A new piece doesn’t feel like a first step, but rather a step in an ongoing journey, where I am already in a context within the work, and am making the next step. Sometimes it has been difficult to stop at a given point and produce a body of work, enough for a show, when I am seeing the next step. And spending time on the last step feels frustrating and repetitive, like variations on a theme. A teacher once told me I jump too fast and need to get more out of each idea that emerges. I feel I finally have enough understanding of the work that I can retrieve ideas that emerged along the way and allow them to unfold more fully, more effectively, or recombine several in ways I hadn’t imagined, thanks to the advance of technological tools available to artists. The steps, in a way, are already there. I just need to take them.

How do you know when you’re done?

I don’t feel there’s anything more to do.

How many assistants do you have?

With Covid, one. Pre-Covid, between two and four.

Have you assisted other artists before? If so, whom?


Before the pandemic, Hsu was planning to hire more help. Lately, he and his sole studio assistant have been using these panels to test a new process for printing. (Flora Hanitijo)

What music do you play when you’re making art?

Generally, techno. I like a lot of the techno coming from — well, early on it was Germany, where a lot of musicians from around the world were working.

When did you first feel comfortable saying you’re a professional artist?

When I moved to New York, after grad school, I called myself an artist. The term “professional” never meant much to me.

Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?

I don’t eat in the studio.

Are you bingeing on any shows right now?

I don’t watch TV. There are some shows I would like to binge on but don’t allow myself the time. I like film, where I can experience it in one sitting. And I’m a news addict, which is one of the big issues I’m wrestling with.

What’s the weirdest object in your studio?

The skin of a stingray. It’s very tough, and there’s almost like an eye right in the middle that’s part of the pattern of the skin. It looks like something out of sci-fi. At some point, I was looking for different kinds of skins. I’ve always been fascinated by how color and pattern manifest in nature and on living creatures.

How often do you talk to other artists?

Well, at this point, my assistants are generally artists, often younger. Occasionally I talk to artist friends closer to my generation.

Hsu barely touches oil paint these days — a degree in architecture at MIT and an interest in industrial design pulled him away from painting and toward sculpture — but the medium defined his early study of conventional landscape painting. (Flora Hanitijo)

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

I spend too much time following the news and commentary on the web. I sometimes think I may not be entirely procrastinating. What I feel is an addiction might not be entirely about my own impulses. I am thinking about the reality described in the recent documentary “The Social Dilemma” (2020).

What’s the last thing that made you cry?

I can’t remember the specifics but some things on the news last year made me cry.

What do you usually wear when you work?

Old clothes.

If you have windows, what do they look out on?

I don’t have windows in the studio. There are only skylights, and I look at the sky.

What do you bulk buy with most frequency?

I order a lot of water. Five-gallon bottles of water. I lived through 9/11 downtown when we had to carry water up seven flights of stairs.

What embarrasses you?

Responses I often get when I’m asked my age.

Do you exercise?

Yes. I do martial arts, specifically action meditation and resistance training.

What are you reading?

“The Futurica Trilogy” by Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist. Also, “Critique of Black Reason” (2013) by Achille Mbembe.

What’s your favorite artwork (by someone else)?

There are so many. One? Rosemarie Trockel’s steel sofa with the plastic sheet on it [“Copy Me” (2013)]. A performance of Pope.L in which he buried himself vertically except for his head [“Sweet Desire a.k.a. Burial Piece” (1996)], which I witnessed; I will never forget it. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s “Can’t Help Myself” (2016), shown recently at the Guggenheim. William Kentridge’s early animations. Early Bakshaish rugs.

The Munich Atelier Where Stained Glass Comes Alive

In a six-story building in the city’s centre, Michael and Petra Mayer run — and reside in — one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated architectural glass and mosaic studios.

Article by Gisela Williams

A mosaic atelier on the second floor. Photography by Matthias Ziegler.

The extravagant Ludwig II, the so-called mad king of Bavaria, was said to love nothing more than a room aglow with painted glass. Indeed, his obsession with the art form galvanised the revival of stained-glass making in Germany, initiated by his grandfather Ludwig I in the early 19th century. During that era, elaborately designed windows — in churches but also secular buildings — became fashionable, with many German artists and artisans adopting the craft, including Joseph Gabriel Mayer, who in 1847 founded Munich’s Mayer Institute of Christian Art, a workshop that produced religious sculptures and altars. By the 1880s, Mayer, who had by then been joined by his son Franz Borgias, had offices in Paris, London and New York City. (The company still has an office on Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.)

Over the years, Mayer created the windows for Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein castle chapel in Bavaria, as well as the Königshaus am Schachen, his legendary folly of a hunting lodge near Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In 1892, Pope Leo XIII awarded the company the church’s prestigious Pontifical Institute of Christian Art title and, soon after, one of the most important commissions of that era, now perhaps the most recognised stained-glass window in the world: the Holy Spirit window above the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, an abstract design of deep orange and yellow splinter-shaped glass surrounding a dove. Mayer’s work, distinguished by its saturated colors, painterly but naturalistic images and allusions to late Gothic artists like Hans Holbein the Elder, came to define the era’s Catholic churches.

The Mayer of Munich building has 15 glass and mosaic ateliers within its 54,000 square feet. This one is dedicated to glass painting. Photography by Matthias Ziegler

In the offices of the present-day Mayer of Munich atelier — a six-story, 54,000-square-foot industrial-style building from the early 1900s in the city centre — a small framed etching of Joseph Gabriel Mayer hangs on the wall. With his unkempt curls and intense gaze, he bears a remarkable resemblance to his great-great-grandson Michael Mayer, who now runs the company alongside his architect wife, Petra. Michael studied mosaics in Friuli in his 20s and soon afterward dedicated himself to the family business. Petra wrote her architecture school thesis on how German cities should acknowledge historic Third Reich-era buildings with the conviction that we should not erase history; that societies should not be allowed to look away from their darkest deeds. “There are still multiple Nazi buildings in Munich that are, shockingly, not marked as such. The city tends to keep the buildings and just repurpose them as cultural or social institutions,” she says.

The couple, who are in their 50s, met in 1993 when Petra was hired to help redesign P1, a legendary Munich nightclub in the basement of the Haus der Kunst, a modern art museum designed by one of Hitler’s favorite architects, Paul Ludwig Troost. Applying the ideas of her thesis to a public space, Petra decided she wanted to repurpose a type of metallic gold mosaic common in Third Reich-era Art Nouveau interiors to line a huge column in the center of the bar’s dance floor. “It’s fine to preserve these buildings and transform them into cultural spaces, but I think it’s important to note their origins,” Petra says. “In appropriating those historic gold mosaics, I meant to both mark and transform that World War II-era architecture.” She had heard there were historic examples of the tiles somewhere in the basement of the Mayer workshop, and made an appointment to see them. Michael showed her the company’s collection of Puhl & Wagner mosaics, which it had purchased in 1969 from the German government. Not long afterward, Petra and Michael fell in love and moved into his tiny bachelor pad in the workshop’s attic.

In Petra’s boudoir, a portrait of her by Kiki Smith presides over an antique daybed from Lamu and a green Baroque dresser — a gift from Michael’s grandfather. Photography by Matthias Ziegler.

The Mayers oversee the business from a series of sunny, art-filled rooms on the top two floors of the building. Dozens of warrenlike workshops and ateliers crowd the four floors beneath — here, workmen restore historic stained-glass windows and mosaics, while others make contemporary works. The labyrinthine basement archive houses an extensive collection of vintage stained-glass works.

Even before the couple officially took over in 2013, they had begun transitioning the bulk of Mayer of Munich’s clients from religious institutions to contemporary artists. (Sometimes, the two overlap: Michael worked with Ellsworth Kelly to create the colored-glass windows of “Austin,” the artist’s 2018 chapel at the University of Texas’s Blanton Museum of Art.) In only the past two years, they collaborated on a massive outdoor mosaic created by the German artist Kerstin Brätsch for the Bas Smets-designed park at the LUMA cultural space in Arles, France; a pool designed by Peter Marino for the Hotel Cheval Blanc in Paris, opening in 2021; and public works for various New York City M.T.A. stations by Firelei Báez, William Wegman and Diana Al-Hadid. (One of their largest commissions to date has been the expansive white marble mosaic by Ann Hamilton that was installed two years ago at a World Trade Center subway station.)

In the bathroom, a taxidermied gray heron, which Petra found at an art dealer friend’s shop in Munich, sits in place of the shelves in the medicine cabinet. Photography by Matthias Ziegler.

So dedicated are the Mayers to collaborating with artists that there are even three small one-bedroom apartments reserved for visiting artists next to the couple’s living quarters on the top two floors, which they share with their two young sons. Kiki Smith, who has worked with Mayer of Munich on more than 20 projects, and who attended a neo-Gothic church in New Jersey growing up, recalls being mesmerized by stained glass as a child. “I am very attracted to a serial pictorial narrative, and to the medium of glass,” she says. “I’m fascinated by something that can keep transforming. Glass can be a slow-moving liquid and a solid.” The Mayers have hosted Smith several times over the past decade. “I love being there,” she says. “To wake up in so much light every day is heaven for me.”

Indeed, the Mayers’ top floor, a high-ceilinged atrium that includes the living room, dining room and kitchen, feels almost open to the elements, floating over the city. Stuffed birds perch on the shelves, and panes of antique stained glass are propped against or installed in windows. All this shares space with an eclectic collection of art: a cluster of framed Bavarian folk oils from Michael’s grandfather; three drawings on paper by the contemporary American artists Mike and Doug Starn; and a set of ginkgo leaves suspended in a series of glass cubes by the artist Jan Hendrix. Tucked in a small nook over the kitchen are a daybed and a large drawing of a pregnant Petra, a gift from Smith.

Colored glass tiles in the mosaic atelier on the second floor. Photography by Matthias Ziegler.

One of the windows in the living room, which faces in the direction of Munich’s Old Town, is made from broken pieces of painted glass — discards from one of Smith’s projects. “I have an impulse to save and fix things,” says Petra, who is constantly repairing forgotten treasures from the Mayer archives. A few years ago, she had a ceiling removed on the ground floor and found a stunning Expressionist archway from the late 1800s. More recently, off that same hallway, she claimed a small room with a mezzanine floor and turned it into a cabinet of wonders, displaying a series of works that 17 of the Mayers’ artist friends created for the company’s 170th anniversary in 2017. These include a piece entitled “Dancers” by Eric Fischl, in which four layers of painted glass reflect on one another, seemingly moving with the changing light; and a tiny triptych of mosaics by Vik Muniz.

On the workshop’s facade, Petra and Michael installed 14 abstract mosaics that represent the stations of the cross made by the Nigerian artist Uche Okeke, who had worked at Mayer in the early ’60s. “I found these pieces gathering dust, and my friend Okwui Enwezor, who was the director of the Haus der Kunst museum, confirmed that they were Okeke’s,” says Petra. “It’s important to bring things out from the dark,” she adds. “And to let light heal them.”

A version of this article appears in print in our launch edition, Page 48 of T Australia with the headline:
Order a copy | Subscribe

The Rising Street Artist Breaking the Mould

Acclaimed muralist and figurative painter Lisa King is leading the charge for women artists holding territory in an aggressively male-dominated scene.

Article by Jane Rocca

A work in progress shot of a mural Lisa King was working on from mid 2020. Photography courtesy of Lisa King.

When artist Lisa King took to Adelaide’s backstreets with a group of graffiti friends for her honorary first “throw-up” in 2008, it was an initiation as much as it was a groundbreaking DIY rebel moment in her career. Her figurative illustration, inspired by Japanese manga, sat alongside other tags and paste-ups and it felt good to see it up there. To anybody walking past, it would have been seen as another street art attack, but King was in fact one of the first females to find her urban voice among a chorus of men who ruled the graffiti scene at the time. “It was illegal and exciting to see my illustration up there,” King, who is a trained graphic designer, says. “My head was like, ‘What is this? I want more.’ It was a sensory overload.”

King, now 39 and living in Melbourne, works as a commissioned muralist and is known for her large-scale public works in Adelaide, Darwin and the US. Her beginnings in the graffiti and, later, commissioned urban art scene gave her a taste of the gender imbalance in both cultures, particularly the former. “I was hanging out with a bunch of artists in Adelaide doing graffiti. It was a new movement and I didn’t really know anyone, but being able to head to the street and do something like that felt amazing and that anything was possible,” she says. But that’s when the artist realised there were few women on the scene. “It’s where the guys hang out. They told me I could sit in with them and watch them do aerosol work, but I wasn’t exactly encouraged to do my thing. It was very territorial.”

She says she found it hard to find her place there because she felt the male artists didn’t make her feel she could use the same walls as them. When she did try to do more throw-ups, her work was tagged — a sign she wasn’t welcome.

Street Artiist Lisa King is known for her large-scale public works in Adelaide, Darwin and the US. Photography by Nicole Reed.

Her next move was to open and operate Paperhorse Studios in Adelaide between 2008 and 2010, mixing with like-minded artists keen to find a place between graffiti, street art and gallery presence. She was inspired to move into urban street art thanks to Polish duo Etam Cru, who graduated from fine art school and became known for their graffiti brushstroke. Their work touched on Eastern European folklore, mysticism and sarcasm. Finally, here were artists King could relate to. Seeing their work gave King the encouragement she needed from afar.

She painted her first commissioned wall piece in 2010 at the University of South Australia student bar. The rest is history repeating. She recalls sitting in on many aerosol sessions with her graffiti friends, but didn’t feel satisfied on the sidelines. “Aerosol is hard to get your head around and it’s really intimidating,” she says. “The guys are so prolific and super intimidating, but it got to the point where I was like, ‘Hey, let me in.’ Their response was, ‘No, you can sit with us but you can’t be one of us.’” King decided to turn her fury into focus. “I understand there is grassroots solidarity and history in graffiti and it’s all about holding on to that culture, but it has to evolve,” she says. “From the get go, the guys knew the art I was portraying was super feminine and that I had my own voice. But I kept seeing my stuff get tagged. There is rivalry in the scene, but once the guys didn’t let me in, I was like, ‘Fuck you. I don’t need you, I will take my own path.’”

King’s most famous works include the front wall and a guest room at the Majestic Minima Hotel in North Adelaide in 2015, a portrait of David Bowie at the Maid hotel in Stepney in 2016 and the large-scale project Walls of Wonderment in 2017. She paints portraits etched deep in street culture influences — where the personal is political; gender, mental health and wellbeing are her focus. Last year, King was part of the exhibition “Here I am: Art by Great Women” at Ambush Gallery in Canberra, under the National Gallery of Australia’s landmark “Know My Name” program celebrating Australian women artists. She continues to work with Fitzroy street artist network Juddy Roller.

A mural in Adelaide created by Lisa King. Photography courtesy of Lisa King.
A work in progress shot of a triptych work with Fitzroy street artist network, Juddy Roller. Photography courtesy of Lisa King.

“The graffiti culture is full of rules, yet there’s no rules, at the same time,” says Street artist Rone [aka Tyrone Wright]. “It’s an arena with a lot of grey areas. You can paint where you want, but that doesn’t mean someone isn’t going to beat you up about it.” Wright started out in the graffiti scene in Melbourne in 2002. He is the first Australian street artist to have a retrospective of his work on show at Geelong Gallery — a sign that street art has hit the mainstream. He is known for his feminine portraits; the graffiti world appealed to him, but not the overtly masculine tone of it all. “You don’t want to paint over someone’s tag, because chances are you heard the guy tried to stab someone who did,” he continues. “While that never happened to me, I did hear stories like this. It’s also not very inviting to women. A lot of the graffiti stuff becomes egotistical schoolyard politics. It has its own social culture but doesn’t really open itself to everyone.”

From graffiti to street art and now muralism to public art spaces, Juddy Roller founder Shaun Hossack says the scene has come to mean many things over the past two decades. Social media has changed the way we interact with street art, he says, and the flipside is it’s also attracting those keen to riff on its glory for all the wrong reasons.

“Street art was a good vehicle for creative people who didn’t have institutional education to break through the emerging art scene to a more mainstream accepted platform,” Hossack says . “Now it’s seen as a monetary opportunity to help your career, and with that comes a lot of opportunists who get into this for the wrong reasons. They don’t understand graffiti, the history of the culture and where it’s come from,” Hossack continues. “It’s not rebellion anymore or illegal and isn’t something you do for yourself and keep to yourself. Now it’s seen as a commercial vehicle for success. I don’t know how authentic it is anymore. If you’re going to copy artists like Rone or Adnate, you won’t survive.”

King, who is often asked by emerging female artists for advice on how to break into the street art scene, says her journey was anything but easy. “I tell them to express themselves in a different way, tell your story, get political, make a statement art piece and change the way people think,” she says. “My experience was brutal, but my resilience got me where I am. It’s hard to give advice to younger women and stay put yourself in a shitty situation like I did. It’s still such a male-dominated industry, but the time is now for women to start conversations and be more political with their art. Because the world is ready.”

The Healing Spirit of Otis Hope Carey

The ocean is central to the creative process of this pro-surfer turned artist, whose elegant, expressive paintings continue to make big waves.

Article by Lucy E. Cousins and Emma Pegrum

Otis Hope Carey. Photography by Shaun Daniel Allen.

For pro-surfer turned painter Otis Hope Carey, life has taken place in and around the ocean since the very beginning. The Gumbaynggirr Bundjalung man originally from Grafton, now based on Country in Coffs Harbour, is connected to the ocean – “gaagal”, in his language – through his ancestors; it’s one of his family’s totems. His parents first took him to the beach as a baby, and he later became known for his expressive, lithely style of surfing on the pro circuit, winning two Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles. But it’s his art that’s taken him viral. Since holding his first solo exhibition at China Heights Gallery in 2016, Carey’s career as an artist has hit stride: in 2019, an enormous mural he painted for Chris Hemsworth’s Byron Bay mansion was seen by the famous actor’s 1.6 million Instagram followers, and last year, one of his works was shortlisted for the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Wynne Prize.

That work, titled Ngalunggirr Miinggi (Healing Spirit), forms part of his current China Heights exhibition of the same name, works for which Carey started making after his grandmother’s passing – the original catalyst for his art. It’s Carey’s fifth solo exhibition in the six years he’s been painting, and it contains some fifty canvas works as well as a collection of wooden sculptures. In his work, Carey, who is  a father of three, re-contextualises the traditional symbolism and stories of his people within his own contemporary expression, reflecting on intergenerational trauma and the healing power of the ocean. Having struggled with depression connected to that trauma for much of his life, Carey sees his painting as a circuit breaker – a way of putting the pain down and not passing it onto his children, while sharing his culture with the wider public at the same time.

Otis Hope Carey, Ngalunggirr-miinggi, acrylic on canvas, 242 x 194cm, 2020. Photography courtesy of China Heights Gallery, Sydney.

How important is your home – and where you produce your artworks – to you and your culture?

“I live on Country, on Gumbaynggirr Bundjalung Country up at Coffs Harbour; there’s a lot of mountains and a lot of rainforests, plenty of ocean. And I just paint at home in my garage. I don’t need much of a space to paint, so it’s nice that I’m able to paint here because the kids, they come and watch me paint.”

You only began painting in 2015, what inspired those early works?

“My grandmother passing and going back to Country, going back into the dreaming. We were all pretty close to her and she passed away a year after I started painting. I’ve got a really different way of thinking – school was never my strong point – but I figured out that I’m a creative human and I need to constantly create things. Otherwise, I get unhappy and sad. Painting is kind of like my healing mechanism.”

Were you looking for a wider audience or did you consider painting as a hobby?

“No, no one really saw my work, and then as I started to experiment with the cultural aspect of art, one of my mates said, ‘Dude, you should have a show at my brother’s gallery.’ [China Heights Gallery in  Sydney’s Surry Hills]; so I showed them my work and they’re said they had space in a year’s time, if I wanted to have a show. And I was just like, ‘Cool’. They’ve never really done that [before]; met someone and then just ask them to have a show.”

Otis Hope Carey, Ngalunggirrmiinggi, acrylic on canvas, 116 x 203.5cm, 2020. Photography courtesy of China Heights Gallery, Sydney.
The artist and his son. Photography courtesy of China Heights Gallery, Sydney.

What were you hoping for with that first show?

“I just wanted to share my culture. That was just the main thing for me; to be able to have a platform, to be able to share my people’s stories. All the family came; dad still tries to wrap his head around it. He still doesn’t understand the art world. I mean, I don’t understand that either; I feel like I’m neither here nor there. I just stay in my lane and I just keep to myself.”

You’re an avid surfer, how do you incorporate surfing into your creative process?

“I live probably three throws of a stone [from the beach]. I surf every week. Just to be wrapped by the ocean and all the elements that it gives… The ocean is actually one of our Gumbaynggirr Bundjalung totems, so it’s one of my totems. I just feel very at home when I’m there. I’m very calm. I feel better. I feel recharged. I always thought surfing and making art were separate things, but I feel a lot of the movements that I make with a brush reflect the way that I move on a wave when I’m surfing.”

Do you find it different surfing in Sydney, than surfing on Country?

“It’s so different. Even the feeling of the water feels different. When I go surfing here, I feel like the water’s stuck to me. And when I’m somewhere else off Country surfing, I feel like the water bounces off me.”

Otis Hope Carey, Gaagal, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 151cm, 2017. Photography courtesy of China Heights Gallery, Sydney.

What is it you hope people walk away with from your current exhibition?

“A lot. I’m aware that a lot of non-Indigenous people don’t have much access to Indigenous art or Indigenous people. I just want to break [down] those barriers and make it easier for non-Indigenous people to understand Indigenous people through the arts. I feel like a lot of people can find it easier to relate and understand through the window of an art. I think, for me, if someone was to tell me something with words and it made me feel uncomfortable, I wouldn’t take it in. Whereas if it’s in an art form, it’s gently placed in front of you.”

Do you see the discussions about changing the date of Australia Day as progressive in the way that Australia needs to grow and mature?

“I don’t want to call it a movement because it shouldn’t be a movement, but it’s getting so much more positive. I think you got to think, the referendum was only in 1967 where Indigenous people were still classed as flora and fauna. My grandmother was classed as flora and fauna for half her life, and that generation is still around. So, I believe when that generation [passes], then change will happen a lot quicker.And I think you’ve got to give props to the next generation because they’re so involved with multiculturalism in Australia now. They’re really promoting culture.”

And is that related into your current show, what is the context of your most recent works?

“This solo show is about a few things; it’s about the knowledge of knowing that a loved one has passed and has made it home into the dreaming. It’s about [the fact] that the healing process can also be a beautiful process. I struggled with depression and a lot of that depression was based around intergenerational trauma. And so, for me, it was really beautiful to break that down and understand it all and to not have to pass that trauma onto my children. And I thought that was a really beautiful journey, even though delving into it all was quite hard work at times.”


Ngalunggirr Miinggi (Healing spirit), Otis Hope Carey, is on now until 13 March. China Heights Galley, Sydney.