Yage Guo: Battling a Blank Surface

Interview / June 2023

Yage Guo: Battling a Blank Surface
by Phin Jennings

I originally came across Yage Guo’s paintings and drawings in her MFA degree show at the Slade in 2021. She was showing large scale oil paintings and a small book containing drawings of fairy-like characters. I was struck by their ambivalent expressions, often rendered in just five or six lines. In a group show at Herald St earlier this year, I encountered another such face in her painting Magic Mirror (2023). I recently visited Guo’s studio, where we spoke about how Magic Mirror came to be, some of the artists and words that inspire us, and the temptation to paint too much into a picture.

Phin Jennings: When we first spoke about your landscape paintings, you quoted Casper David Friedrich, the 19th Century landscape painter, who said “the painter should paint not only what he has in front of him, but also what he sees inside himself.” How do you think this idea comes out in your own landscapes?

Yage Guo: I think “landscape” can always be a grand theme — when making a landscape painting I am thinking how I may deliver a world, or at least suggesting an entry to another space. The subject embraces a wide range of elements: the understanding of natural species, the universal principles, my way of seeing When engaging with landscape, I think of the unknown distance between nature and myself — the fact that growing up and living in urban environments is forming an “unfamiliarity” with the natural environment. My impression of landscape was constructed by the looking experiences of the Old Masters’ landscape paintings — here I think of English countryside paintings and Chinese Shanshui paintings. I believe these were created based on the painters’ observations of and devotion to a particular landscape. With my distance from nature, my landscape paintings are instead supported by personal imaginations, emotions, and curiosity. As I don’t see natural land daily, I treasure every engagement, and then reliving those experiences, questioning why a certain tree or the pattern of the water’s flow amazes me. On the other hand I like a Chinese quote about landscape, “寄情于山水 / Placing one’s emotions towards landscapes,” landscape painting is a metaphoric gesture to me.

PJ: Howard Hodgkin once said “my pictures are finished when the subject comes back.” Timothy Hyman, who introduced this quote to me, explained it as a reference to how easily a painter can lose an image by overworking it and the idea that the real struggle is to find it again. It reminded me of your painting Magic Mirror, and the story of how it came about. Could you tell us that story?

YG: The quote you mention makes me reflect on my working process. I think that a painting destined to be “overpainted” stands at a crossroad. The struggle comes from the frustration of losing its freshness, at which point many things start to feel wrong. In a fleeting moment it could have been finished but instead is opened up to a new beginning. I feel every painting has its unique potential, some I can just let them go along with the new direction, some I have to help find their way back. But neither way can I make it how it was before it was overpainted. I believe the experiences encountered during this process are crucial. It goes beyond creating a final visual image; it encompasses the entire journey from battling a blank surface.

Creating Magic Mirror was a journey of going back. The lines of the face appeared naturally and flawlessly. It was so smooth that I wondered if it needed more, so I spent a significant amount of time adding unnecessary elements and redoing everything, repeatedly. At the peak of frustration, I finally saw the painting for what it truly was, and I realized it should remain simple. It's quite similar to what Hodgkin said — the subject came back, and I saw it once again.

PJ: Paintings like Magic Mirror feel almost like drawings to me. There’s this sense of economy and quickness in the way that you use so few and such thin lines. I wondered how important drawing is within your practice, and where the boundary is — if it exists at all — between drawing and painting for you?

: Drawing is direct; I enjoy the sensation of lines flowing at my fingertips. Creating Magic Mirror involved scratching lines on a wet painted surface, which I guess can feel like drawing on linen. But I did not intend to define it in such a way. Lines are crucial in every piece of mine and I want to explore various techniques. In terms of methodology, I don't impose a strict connection between my drawing and painting. I prefer them to exist as individuals, or sometimes intertwine to enrich each other's context.

: Many of the artists who inspire you paint an incredibly wide range of subjects. I know you love William Blake, and you recently showed me an incredibly chaotic picture by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Huys. Your paintings, on the other hand, tend to contain very simple images: a face, a bunch of flowers, the moon. Do you consciously try to pare down your subjects?

: I admire those two artists very much, as their remarkable ability to construct magnificent worlds resonates deeply with me. Grand paintings like theirs require an immense dedication of time, honing techniques, and accumulating experiences. I greatly admire their devotion, and within my heart resides a world akin to theirs. Not every work of mine is consciously pared down; simplicity sometimes emerges organically, influenced by factors such as size, my current life state, or the directness of the subject matter. Certain pieces harmonize as series, resembling pages of a book. Gradually, I am building these narratives, one brushstroke at a time.

PJ: I want to talk about some more formal aspects of your paintings. Firstly their surfaces are always very flat; even when they have been reworked, scratched at and overpainted, you wouldn’t know by looking. Is this on purpose?

: Currently, I find myself drawn to working on a flat and smooth surface, although my preference may evolve over time. Somehow the more tranquil or serene the artwork appears, the deeper the emotional intensity within its context — a delightful contradiction that fascinates me. I believe that a work of art should be experienced in person. In this digital era, a painting should strive to surpass its photographic representation, allowing its details to engage in a lively dialogue with the viewer.

: Are your paintings and drawings all set in the same place? Is it our world, an imagined world or are they not connected in this way?

To a certain extent, yes, I do find myself daydreaming certain narratives, akin to drafting mangas. In this imaginative realm, I see knights, magicians, fairies, ghosts, the moon…These characters and various elements are intertwined within parallel worlds. However, not all of my works are interconnected, as they contribute to the creation of distinct stories. I have a lot in my mind simultaneously.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Courtesy of the Artist and Phin Jennings
Image 2: Yage Guo, Magic Mirror (2022, Oil on linen, 50.6 x 45.7 cm); Courtesy of the Artist and Phin Jennings
Image 3: Courtesy of the Artist and Phin Jennings