One of my favourite artists is Kennis Chow, a native and current resident of San Francisco who attended the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, and graduated from Emily Carr University of Art and Design, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Chow’s art reflects great versatility, ranging in medium from painting to drawing to photography to digital art. Thematically, her art deals largely with the disorientation of urban life, imaginary creatures, and popular culture. In her art we are faced with the serendipitous beauty of small, oft-ignored cultural artefacts, jarring cityscapes, and hybrid animals; ultimately, we are forced to resume posession of our neglected, but highly powerful, imagination. The fact that her family hails from Hong Kong, and that she has visited that city several times, lends an even more cosmopolitan credibility to her works. (All images within this blog entry are created by Kennis Chow.)
One of Chow’s most striking works to date is a 3-dimensional self-portrait in two parts. In the piece on the right, we see her wearing a plain, old, domestic shirt beneath spindly, outstretched, E.T.-like hands which wrap around from the sides, and in the piece on the left the shirt has been replaced by a cityscape being embraced by the same extraterrestrial fingers:
I like the expressions in these portraits. It looks as if she is smiling in her sleep–or in her coffin–as if she knows what is going on and how she is affecting you. I also like the disturbing colours. I like the fact that on the left, her skin is a vegetable green and her eyeshadow crimson, while on the right, her skin is an icy blue and her eyeshadow a jet black, basically creating deep, black pits for eyes. I think the reason I like this work so much is that I am constantly surrounded by canned, boring, Midwestern, meat-and-potato standards of beauty, and this piece is just so refreshing in all of its disturbing cleverness.
Another provocative work by Chow is “Peacock Hunter”, made with acrylic and pen on paper with egg shells.
First of all, I love the fact that the pig-nosed face resembles that of Tubbs, the inbred, bizarrely fetishistic, northern English housewife from the BBC comedy series The League of Gentlemen. If anybody reading this knows about Tubbs, you’re probably already spitting out your blood pudding and tea in a gurgling and pathetic sort of hysterical laughter right now. But moving on from such obscure references, again we see the knowing, almost nonchalant expression on the face. Then the peacock feathers trailing away from the broken egg shells and into the mouth on either side, as if the “hunter”, if that is what she is, has eaten the contents. Now if THAT is not provocative, what is? I mean, where do you ever get to see a depiction of a woman eating peacock foetuses? It makes me think of Sylvester the Cat popping Tweety Bird into his great feline maw–but with a far subtler humour. In all seriousness, though, I think it’s the mark of an Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King of the darker, more shadowy side of the visual art world.
The following digital series perfectly epitomizes the urban disorientation of Chow’s work. In it, we see a mélange of characters juxtaposed in an unintelligible heap, with cut-outs of architectural motifs serving as a background:
These images remind me of my days working at an independent, single-screen movie-house in the well-heeled west side of Vancouver, which consists largely of single-family houses with front lawns and backyards. The movie-house itself is located in a strip-mall which includes a Chinese restaurant, a bowling alley, an educational supplies shop, a hardware store, a McDonald’s, and an upscale urban grocer. So, already, it is random. The theatre had a high turnover, quirky and eccentric employees–idiots savants–with clashing personalities, and a retrospective/vintage ambience. It was also a regular venue for the Vancouver International Film Festival. Boy was that a crowded, frenetic mish-mash of personalities on-the-go. To top it all off, a scene from one of the “Twilight” movies was filmed there, and the film crew added even more retro decor for the event. Afterward, the theatre occasionally entertained the small throng of teenage girls asking sheepishly if they could step inside upon the hallowed ground graced by Pattinson himself to take photographs of the teen heartthrob’s scary vampire lair. Normally they would have been filming in Forks, Washington, in the rainforest just west of the Seattle coastal region. So it’s the perfect depiction of that weird, hodge-podge coalescence of diverse personalities in an urban/suburban setting.
Finally, there is the most disturbing work I have encountered yet. I think it is my favourite. It is a monochromatic self-portrait of the artist wearing a mask, steeped in pitch black:
Have any of you ever watched the 1980 David Lynch film The Elephant Man, starring the renowned British actor John Hurt as the title character? It was a cenematic biography on the life of John Merrick, a disfigured Victorian intellectual who fought against prejudice to be treated like a human being despite his deformity. His deformity was so severe that he was forced to sleep upright, lest he suffocate; he ended his life one night, as the film purports, by choosing voluntarily to sleep horizontally–like “normal” people–as an act of ultimate defiance against his fate. Inevitably, as he knew he would, he suffocated to death. This is in the days when, according to rumour, people would visit insane asylums and poke sticks at the “crazy” people behind the bars of the prison cells in which they were sequestered. And then we have the black-and-white stripes of Chow’s shirt, which so uncannily resemble the bars of the padded cells that such social outcasts might be forced to call home. Except in this case, the elephant man is an elephant woman. This work also reminds me of that Twilight Zone episode in which a woman suffers a severe third-degree burn on her face, undergoes an unsuccessful surgery, and is found to be as ugly as before, yet the camera reveals the judgemental and prejudiced medical personnel to be uglier than she, because of their deep, dark fear of something alien. Look at the eyes. They are creepy and limpid, ugly and pleading–filled with the richest human emotion. Beautiful, in other words.
By the way, Kennis Chow and Modenski, Inc., have innovated on the now-utilitarian USB flash drive. They have created an environmentally sustainable version of this product which consists of an inherent technological core and an outer shell made of bamboo with what almost looks like dovetailing in the joints. So, basically, if you buy this product, you get the very same data storage as a normal USB key (I think in this case it contains the storage that would cost you about USD$50 normally), but you get a technological art-piece which has a natural warmth to it, the greater mass of which decomposes almost instantly upon disposal, thus aiding the environment. The device is called Bobo.
Anyway, I highly recommend anything by Kennis Chow. Everything from Elephant Woman to Bamboo USB Key. Now that is what I call provocative. Creative. Innovative. You can view more of Chow’s work by visiting http://www.kennischow.com. Last time I checked, she also sold t-shirts through her Web site.