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In the Studio: Kanchana Gupta Reflects on the Urban

Picture of Artist Kanchana Gupta

“The studio is where strange magic happens, as much for the artist’s imagination as for the public’s. It’s the conjuring place of new concepts, styles, or forms.”

George Philip LeBourdais

This article is part of a series of interviews with artists in their studios, in which we attempt to explore artists’ working habits and the places that nourish them.

Singapore-based Kanchana Gupta turned to art in her mid-thirties, after more than a decade of doing full-time consultancy work for corporations. Since then, the artist has gone on to create various series of works, from the two-dimensional to the sculptural. Behind these different works lies a constant – her focus on what she calls “the materiality of materials.”

Later this October, Gupta is one in a line-up of creatives who will be opening their doors for an inaugural island-wide open studio event called Walk Walk Don’t Run, organised by Grey Projects. I chat with the artist ahead of the event to find out more about the materials that take pride of place in her practice, her creative processes, and what her studio means to her.

When I made my way to your studio, I passed by places like a workers’ dormitory, and a carpentry shop. Stepping into your studio, I see construction materials like tarpaulin! How has this industrial estate affected your art practice?

This environment has indeed influenced my work. When I moved into this studio space, I started walking around the industrial estate, and I began to respond to the colours, processes, materials, and people here. There are a lot of industrial materials like wood and cardboard. And I’ve met people like migrant workers, cardboard collectors and carpenters. Some of the boxes in my studio are what the carpenters have thrown away!

Street view of road  outside Kanchana Gupta’s studio.
The street outside the building of Kanchana Gupta’s studio.

I feel that the colours and industrial processes that I see in this area have seeped into my work. If you look my series 458.32 Square Meters, the dominant colours of my paintings are industrial grey and blue. My sculptures in Compressed and Cut were made with a hydraulic press, and the steel frames for my upcoming show in January are designed and fabricated by a steel factory. The people who’ve made them have done a fabulous job. They have become my collaborators, and have contributed to my artworks as much as I have.

One of Kanchana Gupta artwork - Compressed and Cut
Compressed and Cut_001, 2019. Image courtesy of Kanchana Gupta.

I paint, but you won’t find canvas in my studio. My canvases are materials like jute and tarpaulin, and my support structures are wires, clippers, and eyelets fixings.

Sheets of tarpaulin in Kanchana Gupta studio.
Sheets of tarpaulin in Kanchana’s studio.

Speaking of tarpaulin, the material has such a graphic presence in your studio. Huge sheets of tarpaulin are either taped onto the walls or lying on the floor. Are you more drawn to their symbolism or appearance?

Both – I am drawn to their symbolism and their colour. I am fascinated by how much I see tarpaulin in the urban environment. They are so visible that they’ve become invisible. I started noticing them more when I moved into this studio – I find that they lend a very painterly aesthetic to the city. Many shops use tarpaulin as their doors too, and it has become symbolic as a separator, a divider. That’s fascinating to me, and I wanted to respond to that.

I’m working with a printing shop to silkscreen tarpaulin patterns onto layers of oil paint skins. These pieces will then be fitted with eyelets and I will work with handypeople to stretch and attach them to steel frames. To me, the combination of an artist’s hand, studio processes, and industrial materials in a work is interesting. It is a representation of the urban environment in which we live.

Kanchana Gupta Artwork, ‘Tarpaulin #126, Red and Blue’
Kanchana with her new work Tarpaulin #126, which was created by having tarpaulin patterns printed on layers of oil paint skins. Image credit: Sullivan + Strumpf.

Oil paint skins? Can you explain to me how you make that?

I have been making oil paint skins since 2015. The material has lent itself to my practice very beautifully – I can manipulate it to express myself, and I feel I can push it even further. It’s the base material for my different works.

What I do is I paint layers of oil paint onto the sheets of tarpaulin on the walls. When one layer has dried, I paint the next layer. After I’ve painted 30 layers on a single sheet of tarpaulin, I heat it up with a heat gun and use a knife to peel or tear the oil paint away from the tarpaulin behind it. Each resultant piece is made up of 30 layers of oil paint, and each is bigger than me. My whole body is involved in this process. It’s physical labour.

Markings done above a painted tarpaulin sheet.
Markings above a painted tarpaulin sheet. Each mark denotes two layers of oil paint.

For Compressed and Cut, I wanted the oil paint skins to take on a sculptural form, so I compressed them into blocks and manually cleave them into smaller blocks using a handsaw. There was one work that took me a week to saw all four sides! Now, I want it to be akin to fabric, and I’m printing on it.

There are strong parallels between the physicality of your work in this studio and the labour of the blue collar workers in this industrial estate. I also feel that the physicality of your creative process and how time-consuming it is also allow you to build intimacy with your works.

The idea of a physical connection is important for me. It can take me months to make one work, so for a long time, I am with my work. Sometimes, I just sit on the sofa and look at my work. Sometimes, I look at the tarpaulin on the walls of my studio. I find that being able to make something bigger than me, touch it, and move it around, is important to me. It is a very intimate, primal process for me.

One of my favourite series of yours is Edges and Residues, which is currently on show at the multi-concept space Appetite. I find the surfaces of some of the works beautiful, but they also feel a bit violent. It’s as if the works are testimony to the rather destructive processes you described earlier – burning, peeling, and tearing. What drives you to make such works?

Yes, some of the surfaces of my works look violent. When I first started this process of making oil paint skins six years ago, I was going through a psychologically intense period in my life. In response to that, I found myself interested in separating paint from its support structure and asking questions like, “Can it be complete on its own? What happens when we separate two entities? Do they leave their marks on each other?” My works for Edges and Residues are physical manifestations of these quests and explorations.

Kanchana Gupta Artwork - Edges and Residues
Edges and Residues 21 – Raw Umber, Burnt Siena and Burnt Umber on White, 2020.

I made the oil paint skins using jute, not tarpaulin, but the process of making them is the same. The only difference is that with jute, the skins cracked. When you separate two things, say paint and jute, there is never a clean separation. They carry traces of each other which become reminders of a process that they have gone through. You can’t see jute in my works in Edges and Residues, but I like the suggestion of their presence through their absence. The cracks in my works feel violent, but if not for those cracks, the works would not look as beautiful. Cracks lend a sublime character to these works.

I find some of your works visually appealing. Have your works been criticised for their aesthetics before?

Oh, yes. I was criticised before as to why I am more inclined towards making beautiful works. People have also asked me if I am a performance artist, a process artist, a sculptor, or a painter. Sometimes I feel pressured, because I don’t believe in such labels.

I feel that my studio is my hiding place. I’ve also come to realise that I make art primarily for myself. It feels very satisfying if my quest finds a connection with the audience, but I try not to think about it while making work. As I grow older, I feel less inclined to explain why I make a certain work and prefer to be in the space of ideating, thinking, creating, experimenting, trying, and failing. My studio provides a refuge to me to indulge in these processes.


The open studio event Walk Walk Don’t Run begins on 23 October 2021 and will run for four Saturdays in October and November. To find out more, click here:

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Kanchana Gupta standing in front of her artwork - Red and Blue.
Kanchana Gupta with her work Red and Blue. Image credit: Sullivan + Strumpf.
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