You’re not supposed to touch artwork in museums and galleries, and while this was still the case at Genevieve Chua’s latest show with STPI, grrrraaanularrrrrrr, I will admit that it was very hard to resist the urge to drag a finger through the various textures of the works on display.
grrrraaanularrrrrrr is the culmination of Chua’s third residency with STPI. The show also marks the first time Chua has worked with cement, a medium one wouldn’t usually pair with paper.
However, her intriguing materials, including unique cement-coated paper, and sculptural cement and paper forms, were made in-house by collaborating with the STPI Creative Workshop team. The results are glittering fine-grained surfaces, an unusual starting point for mark-making.
You would expect loud and garish marks to be the only way to compete with the textural quality of the surfaces Chua has created, but instead, her subtle hand gives a gentle quality to her works and complements the special surfaces.
Chua has called herself “a painter who works primarily through abstraction”, and I was curious to learn more about her practice and the artist behind these playful and witty works. She kindly answered my many questions regarding her process and the works on show–read on to find out more!
I noticed the title had been written both as grrrraaanularrrrrrr and grrr,,,.aanuular,,,,,,,] in the wall text, which also (much to the chagrin of designers everywhere) had each letter in different fonts and styles throughout. I wondered if there was a story behind the repeating letters, the multiple punctuations, or the word’s ‘incorrect’ spelling.
On this, Chua explained that she and the curator Reuben Keehan had discussed “onomatopoeic words as well as text messaging abbreviations and conscious misspellings in gaming.” She found herself considering these associations, including how “the legibility of some words can reference the nature of the word.”
“Granular, when articulated for example, has a resistance and a rolling ‘r’ that gives it throttle and percussion against a rough surface.”
Chua and Keehan have previously worked together on APT 10, The 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 2021, where she presented Artificially intelligent (2021), a work which dealt with the themes of language and technology. This former connection explains the synergy I sensed in the curation, which reflects in the rhythmic placements of works, functioning like musical phrases and refrains I could visit again in other parts of the show.
Familiar and Finessed
During this latest residency, Chua focused on playing with surfaces and exploring “the possibilities of manipulating the artwork’s size, material, textures, shape, the space it finds itself in and how it relates to other presences”—which led to her use of cement.
When I asked about her experience with using cement as a medium, as it was her first time working with it, Chua responded,
“When using cement, I was interested in creating a paper that defied the obvious expectations of a paper: one that would be hard, sturdy and strong, while also being porous, breathable, lightweight and soft at the same time.”
The process behind making cement paper involved coating paper with cement screed, resulting in “a surface that was dark, matte and light-absorbent with a tactile and sensual granularity. The cement paper reliefs then came as a natural progression to experiment with this everyday material that is porous, breathable, granular and light.” It was her first time collaborating with the paper room, but I’m sure it won’t be the last!
When I saw the show, I was struck by the mark-making and the drawing sensibilities (for our readers: drawing is a technique defined by making lines and non-linear marks) threaded throughout the works.
Reminded of the line-making, quiet gestures, and movement in Sol LeWitt’s and Eva Hesse’s works, I was curious to learn who Chua’s artist references were and where else she drew inspiration from.
Chua acquiesced, “artists’ works I am attracted to may not have any contextual relationship with what I do, but I can deeply appreciate when they think about works as realms, like Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth or Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing. I share values with artists who regard abstraction as reduction or destruction, and sometimes both.”
The sentiment of making atypical paper works resonated in Chua’s presentation. Some works also played with the idea of pausing mid-scroll on a phone, or in this case, scrolls of paper; reflecting Chua’s conceptual and yet also very material-focused approach.
“Like a breeze through concrete”
Chua’s delineation of her series of works is clear; they all correspond to each other and we can easily see how the works might have developed. Her Breeze Blocks have an intimate scale and have a unique sheen to them. Their glittery and gritty (but seemingly smooth) surface confirms that despite the multiple lines, edges, and seams, the canvas is, in fact, a singular plane.
I asked Chua how her process invited viewers to imagine the work’s tactility. She chose subtly toned, linen canvases to investigate “the concepts of light and shadow, permeability and permanence, and the relationship between the hardness of certain materials and the softness they cannot contain: like a breeze through concrete,” thus creating “concrete finishes you observe on actual ventilation blocks or concrete surfaces.”
Other series titled Spiral within a Bubble, Ellipse Facing Up and Sideways, Repeats within Leaf, and Repeats within Bulb all feature uniquely shaped canvases that have the same quality of surface as the Breeze Blocks series. Chua continued,
“The lines within these shaped canvases are concentric and [echo the] continuous lines of a spiral or of a kind of helix.
I was attempting to bring out the potentialities of each shape through a simple medium of graphite and a wash of watercolour. It was reminiscent of the last time I held up a conch shell to listen to the contours of waves.”
Gloss and Grit
Some silkscreened works, such as Early Arrivals and Amassing, use cement-coated paper, which results in high gloss black pigment meeting the granular-textured surface of cement.
It’s an intriguing combination of finishes, with the prints really evoking a visceral response of wanting to run your hands over the surface to feel the different textures. Chua tells me about the process: after creating the cement-coated paper, “geometric shapes were then screenprinted onto the paper and coated with UV gloss, which produced a sleek and glistening sheen.”
“Visually and haptically, a contrast is produced: granular versus glazed, rough versus smooth, dry versus ‘wet’.”
Much like an imagined gentle breeze that drifts through the gallery, I meandered through the works, all of which allude to and suggest the gestures and actions described by the titles of the pieces, without making any concrete statements.
There’s a playfulness to the works and also in the way the gallery walls have been painted and stickered with shapes and lines to reference the act of highlighting a word document and the subsequent errors of typing.
Chua is clearly interested in disrupting the drifting breeze she has conjured. There’s also a reference to ‘glitching’: in the wall text, the purposeful ‘errors’, and the shift in the viewer’s perspective to consider the illusion of multiple planes within a single work. It’s exciting to see how she explores these various themes in multiple series and to see them all converse with one another, in the same space.
Making her mark
The Typestracts series looks like non-functional maps to me, almost an exercise in navigating the medium for Chua and the viewer. Chua expands on how the abstracted type elements play with this idea of rhythmic mark-making, saying that “in word processing applications, the layout of text is linear, whereas they aren’t in the Typestracts series. I wanted to play out that contrast, in instances which may be erroneous or serendipitous.”
On how the type’s rounded and curved shapes shift our perspectives on typing and the legibility of text, Chua elaborates that the chunks of letters and numbers aren’t meant to be read traditionally. “They are a drawing, a mesh of layers as flat planes, hurricanes, or organic shapes. The Typestracts reference ventilation in the Breeze Blocks paintings, which in turn references the tonal palette of concrete walls and buildings,” she explained.
Chua’s use of repetition and unconventional arrangement of text on a page creates “texture through punctuation, numerals, and the alphabet,” explaining that “re-visiting free verse using punctuation, letters and numerals made on design software enabled [her] to integrate dimension, torque and weave in a way that would not have been possible with letterpress or the typewriter.”
Satisfying sculptural forms
A few standalone works, such as a mobile piece, Swivel #1; a free-standing object, Oscillating Object at Rest; and the laser engraved acrylic piece, Notes on Breathing, are more sculptural.
Swivel #1 reminded me of prawning (I saw lively prawns in the wooden forms and fishing lines), with Chua explaining that it “takes the logic of a compass and serves as a wayfinding object that guides and sways the audience along the space it inhabits. The guiding goes two ways – the artwork is swayed by the movement of the viewer, who is moving in accordance with the gentle breeze from the bodies that move around it.”
The custom pedestal for Oscillating Object At Rest filled me with immense satisfaction, mostly because the work seemed like a paradox of movement. It has the potential to move, but while remaining still, at rest. Notes on Breathing was almost like contained effervescence in the way the musical-note-like marks moved upwards within the acrylic housing.
“There is a track by Four Set titled My Angel Rocks Back and Forth [which] has an effect of white noise and a melody swaying like a pendulum, and culminates with percussion in the third minute. The three works imbricate on each other the same way, in taking time to find breath and rhythm,” reflected Chua.
Chua created the unmoving positioning of the untethered hooks in the Pathways series with magnets, with the threads used referring to a previous series, Tillandsia Usneoides. There are themes of wayfinding and suspended tensions threaded through the works which I ask about, but the artist demurs, “I am reluctant to expound on the themes mentioned as the work is quite open-ended for reading.”
She does reveal that “the spatial drawing made in these shallow dimensions is in dialogue with the sculpture Swivel #1, which suggests that a drawing or gesture in space is constantly in flux, against a hard wall or a white cube.”
And the way that all the works converse with each other is carried through the show, with the soft tensions in each series referencing an imagined breeze that never actually blows in the space.
After preparing and presenting multiple series of works, you would think that Chua would be taking a well-deserved rest. I am curious if this is indeed the case and I have to ask, what’s next for Chua?
She replies that she’s currently working on a commission for the Singapore Art Museum titled Prove you are Human. It will be a mammoth mural on the museum building at Tanjong Pagar Distripark that’s due for completion in the first quarter of 2023. “It is a design of CAPTCHA words encoded within, in further exploration of visual language,” she adds.
I suppose there’s no rest when there are so many exciting ways to explore these themes and I, for one, am excited to see how Chua’s work develops even further.
grrrraaanularrrrrrr is on until March 19 2023 at STPI. Click here to find out more.
Feature image: Genevieve Chua. Photo by Toni Cuhadi, courtesy of STPI – Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore.