An Interview with Christie Lau
March 20th, 2015
I luckily stumbled onto the works of Christie Lau as I was browsing through several aritst websites and blogs. At a superficial stand point, what caught my eye the most about Christie Lau's work were the bright, vivid colours of the decorative floral patterns, and the thousands of intricate pen strokes etched on to create these grand, mystical animals in her paintings - they were the type of wondrous creatures that only little girls can dream about. It wasn't until I began reading her blog and examining the works on her website, when I realized that behind these beautifully drawn animals, is a deep rooted interest with natural science and ethology. In each of her pieces. Lau comments on animal behaviours and the natural world, and sometimes she finds parallels between the natural world and humans that help us better understand the human state.
Christie Lau lives and works in Toronto, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Currently, Lau is exhibiting at Navillus Gallery until April 4, 2015. Human // Nature is a group show that displays the works of several contemporary artists all exploring connections between humans and the natural world.
Judy Zhong: Why the fascination with animals?
Christie Lau: My first exposure to wild animals was from a safari in East Africa almost ten years ago. I realized animals behave as they have for centuries and these traditions and idiosyncrasies branch from evolutionary trends which we are also vulnerable to. Although the animals were beautiful they were also mysterious- so I fell in love with the notion that we could unveil these parallels. It was something I kept in mind during subsequent travel to other wild locations such as the Galapagos, Antarctica, and Patagonia. After the safari, I began subscribing to literature, lectures and documentaries about ethology. Some of the books that are influential for me and enjoyable reads are Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. In Toronto, I like to go to the Roy Thomson Hall for the National Geographic Lecture series, as well as the ROM 100 lectures at the museum.
JZ: What is your medium of choice and why do you think this best suits your style of work?
CL: When I can I like to use the medium as a metaphor for the theme I am working on. One of my earliest explorations into medium as metaphor was with the Kings series. At the time, I was experimenting with different image transfer techniques and what bothered me was how the copy deteriorates from the original. Cheetahs are like this in that they suffer a lack of diversity in their genetic pool and are almost DNA copies of each other. Because of this inbreeding, cheetah sperm do not often work as they should. As a metaphor for the deterioration of genes, I drew cheetahs
and afterwards used different techniques to replicate the image until the physicality of being printed repeatedly destroyed the image. Right now, I am experimenting with spackle but am still chewing on its conceptual possibilities.
JZ: In your artist statement you mentioned that you strive to understand human nature by exploring parallels in fellow animals. How do you achieve this in your work?
CL: It is a challenge to communicate what these behaviours mean to me in an elegant way. With my earlier work I would attempt this through man made details as context. In later series that were about evolutionary trends it would be through the process or by medium.
My latest series about de-extinction, however, was a series where I moulted out of this perspective and focused my reading on our historical relationship with animals rather than material fixating on our familial ties. It is a human reflex to use other species for information as shadows of ourselves, but only a recent endeavour to understand the animal as an individual we can communicate with.
At the time I was reading about de-extinction, I came across fluorite crystals in a Museum of Evolution. They come in a wide range of colours, but when exposed to light they gradually succumb to the UV radiation and turn clear. When I saw these crystals, it struck me that our contact with animals has a similar effect to their wildness- we bleed them of their essence. De-extinction is an endeavour to recover the evanescent colour of these forms- to pour blood into the hearts of animals we drove to extinction with recent advancements in gene synthesis and haunted DNA. To humans, this concept arouses both visceral disgust and the wonder of scientific progress...but what of the animal?
I translated my shifting perspective by painting the endling, the last known individual of a species, with thin, colourless washes on a mirror I grew clear crystals on. When a viewer looks at the piece, his or her presence infuses colour behind the animal and skeletal crystals in the reflection, artificially breathing life into the endling. The viewer can either focus on the endling itself as its own being, or see him or herself in the gaps of the reflection.
JZ: I really enjoyed seeing the process of some of your paintings on your blog. It seems very intricate. Can you describe your artistic process??
CL: Thank-you! In a lot of my work I gravitate towards ink because I can use it with a nib and brush. I relish in detail because I appreciate it as intimate and transient information. As a result, sometimes the drawing can get precious so I will use the brush to loosen it up for the movement, proportion and personality of the animal. I am also partial to a light skin of pigment when it is juxtaposed with meatier areas of thick ink. Layering is particularly noticeable in the Replicators series.
JZ: I understand the animals in your work often depict fantastical stories and folklore. Is this intentional?
CL: In the Deception series, it is definitely intentional. I connect the Swan
Lake narrative to pseudocopulation and parasitism in nature, where
characters such as bee orchids and whydahs trace the same solution and motives
as the black swan- to deceit with disguise for personal gain.
When I was young I loved fantasy creatures. My favourite dream is still the
one when I was a mermaid with a bright orange tail. I was in mermaid school
(school of fish!) and my last test was to swim up a waterfall. I recounted
this dream to my brother and he asked if I was actually a salmon. I was
disappointed at the time but really the salmon run is an amazing pilgrimage
that requires substantial morphological changes and an extra sense.
As I learned about animals and their bizarre behaviours I saw that
we already live in a world of such unexpected beauty and mystery, only we
can truly seek it and it is more intricate and enchanting than anything I
could imagine. In this way, I can see how the behaviours or themes I fixate
on are those that are phenomenal.
French White Peafowl, 2014, ink on paper, 18" x 24"
Replicators V, 2013, ink on paper, 24" x 30"
Odile 3, 2013, ink on paper, 18" x 24"