Artsy Online Exclusive
YIN MY WAY OUT
March 8th - June 10th, 2021
Press release, March 2021
THE ART OF ILLUSTRATION... OR IS IT?
Including an artist interview with Claudia Chanhoi, by art historian and curator Alexandra Steinacker, for ARTPOWHER Contemporary.
ARTPOWHER Contemporary launches on International Womxn's Day, a new exhibition series dedicated to womxn illustration artists. Like photography and printmaking, illustration has often been questioned: is it commercial, is it art?
It is no secret that the term ‘illustration’ is an enigmatic one, and describing oneself as an illustrator can lead to a variety of interpretations in relation to what kind of work you do, how you do it, and who you do it for. Historically, we have come to recognize illustration as a form of expressing creativity within the commercial sector and it is often associated with advertising. Now, the definition of illustration has evolved, but there are still some who would reject the legitimacy of illustration as an official art form. Within this article, two factors that are intrinsically linked to the art of illustration and how they affect its reception within the arts and cultural sector will be explored, namely the space in which the work is presented and the impact of technology. This article is the first in a series put on by collaborative art project house ARTPOWHER Contemporary which examines female-identifying illustrators working in the arts. In conjunction with this, an interview has been conducted with illustration artist Claudia Chanhoi, aptly commemorating March 8th 2021: International Womxn’s Day.
Within art historical discourse, the space in which art is displayed has been discussed and written about in great detail. Making the transition into the gallery or museum space, and obtaining institutional support, remains a significant step in an artist’s career. Does the space in which the works are displayed thus inform what we consider to be art and what isn’t? As previously mentioned, illustration is associated with advertising, as illustrations are often found on the pages of magazines, visually communicating a product, text or concept on behalf of a brand. This seems to be the most prominent argument against the recognition of illustration as art: art is not commercial, or at least it strives not to be, and illustration sits happily within the commercial sphere. This discussion goes far beyond the scope of this article, with issues of “high” and “low” art, classist structures within culture, and more. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that the incredibly blurry lines between fine art illustration exist because the main critique of illustration – that it is inherently commercial – can be said of a multitude of artists and arts institutions, as well.
In the Middle Ages, illustration was a prominent means of communication, serving as a visual translation of gospel books, calendars, and more, for those in society who could not read the written text. Historically, illustration was also used for political purposes as a tool for encouraging desired interpretations tied to specific political parties, movements, or leaders, as a means of communicating to the people in the form of propaganda. Illustration and art were two sectors dominated by men, and later on in the mid-20th century, artists began merging the two together. One particular artist became unbelievably well-known for it, his works now found in galleries and museums around the globe, and was – you guessed it – a man. Andy Warhol used the notion of commercialism to his advantage and explored it within his artistic practice, and now he is a household name, his works recognizable even to those with no knowledge of his art historical significance. Although lesser known, the adaptation of an illustrative style and the playfulness used to explore concepts of consumerism and advertising are present in the works of female artists Marjorie Strider, Idelle Weber, and Ingeborg Strobl, to name but a few. Also active in the 20th century, they began to investigate the position of illustration and graphic design in their artistic practice, along with the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein.
Since then, the term ‘illustration’ and another medium it is linked with, the print, have become more prominent in the arts, and the way in which illustration is viewed, consumed, and displayed is ever-changing. Claudia Chanhoi, who defines herself as an illustration artist, has taken the leap into the gallery space with a solo exhibition of her works at the Mihn Gallery in Hong Kong in 2020. On display were digital prints, along with other works of hers in various mediums such as acrylic painting, sculpture, projected animation and tapestry. Her illustrations, rendered digitally and then printed, were presented amongst her other art forms and mediums, thus given the same importance and space as her sculpture or tapestry, demonstrating that her illustration is as much of an art as her other pieces.
Due to technological innovation, the impact the digital space has had on the arts is tremendous. It is one of the biggest influences in the arts, and more specifically in illustration, due to the fast pace of new developments in technology. Although not the case for illustrations done in pen and ink, through social media platforms and other software, digital artworks and illustration can be viewed in the way they were created: on a screen. It is no longer a necessity to view these works of art in person, as the art of digital illustration goes hand-in-hand with a digital viewership. Does the ‘aura’ that Walter Benjamin theorized a little less than a century ago, remain intact and impactful when the work of art is displayed and communicated in the medium with which it was created? Some may argue the opposite because a work created through technology is a reproduction in itself as soon as it is shared on any platform in order for it to be viewed. Some may go further to state that it is possibly void of an ‘aura’ all together, again pushing against the notion that illustration (only one form of digital creation, as there are many) is legitimized in art. This was a hurdle that photography had to overcome, as well, and we can now observe photography as a largely appreciated (and funded!) art form. Through digital innovation and its involvement in the arts, illustration has become an accessible form of art, accruing different meanings within the cultural and creative industries, and developing more every day. The question is not “how is illustration art”, but rather how is it not? Depending on how one defines “art”, this question may also lie outside of the scope of this article, but it nevertheless remains an important one to ask yourself. Even if the answer is not a straightforward one, encouraging the thoughts surrounding these topics is of great importance. A further question that arises regarding the contemporary position of illustration in art is one that relates to how relevant the work of the illustration artist is within not only an artistic but also a societal context, and to what extent does the work critically comment on sociocultural conditions while possibly reaching a larger audience. To further this dialogue, illustration artist Claudia Chanhoi discusses her artistic practice, her opinion on female representation within the arts, and her works in the most recent online exhibition put on by ARTPOWHER Contemporary.
ALEXANDRA STEINACKER: So, this first question is quite broad and you don’t have to go into great detail with it, because we will talk about the other works further in the interview, but if you could summarize it in a few sentences, what is the message you wish to convey in your works in this exhibition?
CLAUDIA CHANHOI: I think I actually have a lot of different topics for this show, I have Love and Desire and I have the Quarantine Series, along with the Body Ownership series as well. I feel like I wanted to talk about a lot of different things, especially when we are doing a virtual show it’s just because of the whole Covid situation. So the Quarantine Series will actually be quite relevant to the current climate! I don’t want to make my work too serious, especially when I talk about sexuality, sexual desires or dating. Normally, it can cause negative reactions from haters, because people can get quite mad when women talk about this kind of stuff. These are still taboo subjects, but I want to make it funny and I want to put a smile on people’s faces. I want to give people a space to think about the issues or the questions I address through my work. I am not here to tell you “We women should be like this or that”, I want it to be light-hearted, funny and easy.
AS: Why do you call yourself an illustration artist, not just an artist or just an illustrator?
CC: To be honest, there is no specific reason, just because I think sometimes I will tell people I am an illustrator and sometimes an artist, I don’t mind what people call me. To me, it is all accurate. I know some people who find the title of “artist” too pretentious, but to me it is okay.
AS: Yeah, the connotations connected to when you say you are an artist versus an illustrator and what these terms bring with it is sometimes a difficult space to navigate.
CC: I think that people think of an illustrator as only doing commercial work for clients, or they only do small spot illustrations and things, but I would say illustrators can go into all different fields, like fashion or animation or commercials, as well. And some illustrators do a lot of self-initiated projects, like me, and to me that sounds more like an artist which is why I call myself an illustration artist.
AS: What does the 8th of March, International Womxn's Day, mean to you? and if I may ask, as an extension of that, what does feminism mean to you?
CC: I think right now people can often perceive feminism as a one-dimensional thing, but to me there is no one-dimensional concept of being a feminist. I mean, there are a lot of voices and even though we identify ourselves as women, we all have different backgrounds and different experiences. For me, feminism is about having choices. Having the freedom to make our choices without judgement, without having the fear that society will tell us what to do and what not to do in order to seek approval.
AS: What do you think about the legitimization of illustration in art? Do you think there is still work to be done there in the position of illustration in the arts?
CC: I feel like “illustration” might not sound as professional as “fine art” to a lot of people so again it is back to the question of if I am an illustrator OR an artist - but if you call yourself an illustration artist, does that mean you see yourself as “above” an illustrator? I find these concepts interesting but I actually don't think we need these titles to classify, because we are all professionals in our career. I do believe creativity and art can come in a lot of different ways, it does not have to be traditional painting on canvas, it can be in digital formats or it could be a lot of different things, especially with the advanced technologies where people can create their art in a digital world.
AS: You mentioned before about how your work helps with addressing various taboos within society - how do people react to it, what are some responses you have had to your work?
CC: I think over-all, the feedback is always quite positive, but to be honest I am not a celebrity, so people don’t comment on everything that I say. I do remember an interesting comment when I posted a GIF, like a small animation. I had made a vagina and legs with the sun moving across the sky as if the female body represented a landscape, basically like having a sunset or sunrise. There is no hair on the illustration, no pubic hair, and I remember there was a person who said I was promoting white beauty standards as well as underage pornography because of the lack of hair. Afterwards, there was another person who attacked the first comment, and by the end of the day it became one of those typical internet arguments where people kept chasing each other and saying “How can you say that, you know nothing about feminism” and as a response “You feminists are crazy” and things like that, so I didn’t even say a word because I don’t know what the point of arguing is anymore because it strayed so far from the actual topic. I also think it is interesting that someone would say I am promoting a white beauty standard, maybe they don’t know who the person behind the creation of the work is, I don’t know, but it is interesting because I am not white but I also don’t have hair. When creating, I was just thinking about being playful, it is a way to express my sexual desire or expressing how I like to be pleased, because the clitoris emerges in the GIF. I have also had comments saying I sexualize women’s bodies or I objectify women, even though I am just expressing myself, so it’s pretty hard to find a balance.
AS: Speaking of being playful, I’d love to know more about your brand name i.e. artist name on Instagram: brainxeyes. Is there a background story there?
CC: My name is already being used for my personal account, so I wanted to create a new name for my work instagram. Brain relates to having to think, eyes relates to being visually pleasing. I don’t want to just draw body parts just for the sake of it, I want to give meaning and everything has to serve a purpose in expression. There needs to be brain work crossing over with something that is visually pleasing.
AS: Onto some of the works within this exhibition, I would love to hear more about your work ‘Yin Yang”, especially in the context of International Womxn’s Day
CC: I feel like people have been talking about female empowerment a lot in the last 50 years, especially since the rise of the internet, and it is great that people are addressing inequalities and creating awareness, but I find it a bit too commercialized these days. I have actually worked with brands who claim they focus on female empowerment but at the same time I feel like they are not really doing it for a good purpose but instead because it is trendy. Not that I am against it, because I am also feeling the benefits of something like that, but I feel like people are making the whole topic very one-dimensional. People and brands tend to make claims that empowering women is to connect them with masculine traits, but I feel that it is important to embrace our femininity.
AS: You think a lot surrounding March 8th is very commercial, why did you agree it is a good idea to launch this exhibition on this day, is it for the awareness?
CC: I do believe a lot of brands do commercial campaigns, but the reason why I wanted to launch it is because my work revolves around women and I don’t think I imagined doing this from a commercial point of view, I think it fits.
AS: I would like to go back to your statement about empowerment. Have I understood the message correctly? That basically, it’s okay to feel empowered in a frilly dress but it’s also okay to feel empowered in a pantsuit. It doesn’t have to be that you should only feel powered in a suit because it emulates what men wear.
CC: Exactly! or like with pink. When people say “Pink is just for women!” and no, it’s not, pink is for everyone, and if you like pink, go for it! Again, there is no one-dimensional image of being a strong woman. Women should have the freedom to choose whatever they want to.
AS: Now the work “Quarantine Relationships – Dog Years”, viewing that really threw me through a loop! What was your thought process when making that piece?
CC: A lot of these works are based on my personal experience, and because of quarantine we aren’t able to meet new people so we are sort of “stuck” with whatever we have. It is a new realm in the world of dating for a lot of people, especially with online dating because meeting people in pubs has become impossible. Covid is such an uncertain thing and no one will know when it is going to end. I feel like this is where people want to be safe, to have something certain, so maybe they will stay in a relationship even if the situation would be different if we didn’t have the global pandemic. With Dog Years, it is a similar concept because your physical social circle is quite small and you can spend large amounts of time with your current lover, bringing you closer because of all the time together, making you feel like you have been in a relationship for a long time.
AS: so, basically it’s like you are in a relationship for the year of 2020 and it feels like you have been together for 7 years!
CC: Yeah, something like that. There is actually research saying a lot of people have gotten engaged during Covid, and maybe in some situations it is because people feel safe in this very unstable climate, not just with covid but the political climate as well, and it makes you want to have someone around you who gives you stability.
AS: And finally, I have to say the two artworks that reference body hair on women really spoke to me, they are personally my two favorites in the show! Can you tell me a bit more about “Faux Fur Underwear” and “Quarantine Bush”?
CC: I think these are funny pieces, especially Faux Fur Underwear because basically, I had laser hair removal. I did it around four years ago, and afterwards I asked myself if I did it for myself or my partner, because women were told they should “go bare” and that was the women’s hair trend at the moment, which has changed so much from the 70’s to the 80’s to now. This generation is very focused on having no hair, and maybe that will change in the future but once you laser, it won’t grow back. Then, because of this, I was thinking that I wish there could be underwear I could have that I could change into if the “full bush” would return as a trend so that I wouldn't regret my decision to have laser hair removal. Society already has a set of ideas of how sexy and attractive women should behave, so it is hard to break the boundaries and feel like you have the freedom to choose. I mean I like pink, I like having long hair and I have shaved armpits. Is it because I like these things or because I grew up in a society that tells me what to do and defines my beauty standards for me? It’s really hard to think about, and at the same time I always try to question my decision making, if I really find something good or if I am doing something to please society?