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"If I Radiated a Colour, It Would be Blue." - In Conversation with Chen Shitong [Part 1]

Little People, Little Places (Ultramarine), 2021, Collagraph and Screen print on paper, 70 x 104 cm

By The Pedestrian.

Utilising the printmaking medium, Chen Shitong’s works feature the motifs of a weathered rock formation and tiny, delicate human figures portrayed in various states and postures. This creates subtle narratives that explore the interaction between people and places, and the multitude of stories unveiled through the most ordinary of interactions.

It was a sweltering hot Saturday mid-day when I visited printmaker Chen Shitong at his studio located within an industrial estate. Between the relentless heat beating down my back and having to avoid becoming roadkill to the large construction vehicles that zipped by, Shitong’s studio surfaced as the perfect oasis. Except, it is an oasis without air-conditioning – woe to my life, I thought.

Yet, the studio still managed to offer a sense of tranquillity. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the soft jazz music that lulled in the background, or the fact that the space was spacious and spartan. Save for the random memorabilia, sheets of colour swatches and artworks, as well as printmaking tools that dotted the bone-white walls, the space was dominated by a couple of desks and shelves, as well as the two metallic behemoths that are the printing presses. But one thing I was certain of was the laidback and collected demeanour of Shitong that provided the cool and calm that I needed, which could possibly explain why he attributed the colour blue to his ‘vibes’ when asked what colour best matches his personality. Armed with a cup of cold water and the set of questions intended for the printmaker, I embarked on a foray into Shitong’s technicoloured world of printmaking.

When the Brush Became the Press

The printmaker was initially trained as a painter at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) but it was during his numerous visits to the Central Public Library, where he encountered books on printmaking techniques, that opened his eyes to the artform which he would eventually come to practice. (Image by AC43 Gallery)

The Pedestrian (TP): Having formally trained as a painter, what attracted you to printmaking after graduating from NAFA?

Shitong (ST): I like that I can incorporate painting and drawing into printmaking, something that I do a lot in my own sketchbook. Then, I thought maybe it's not just about carving but it's more than that. You can use other things that you have done before. It opens up a lot more things that I can use in my own ways.

TP: What do you think sets printmaking apart from other mediums, especially considering how you switched from painting?

ST: I don't think there's anything special that sets it apart. Printmaking is just another medium that I like… I can look at something from a printmaking body of technique and anytime that I am bored with a certain technique, I can move over to another new technique or something that I've not tried and practise that. It's quite flexible to switch from different techniques and continue it in my own works.

Printmaking just suits my character… the experimental part. I can slowly do the work, don't have to sit on the easel to paint. I will just sit down and slowly paint, slowly draw... Something more laboratory? Even when you said that printing the silkscreen and sitting down to paint the figures sound laborious, I actually like that leh (sic). I find that if I don't have that part in my artwork, I'm not doing something that's useful.

TP: I realised that printmaking can actually be quite the scientific process too. Do you enjoy this scientific aspect?

ST: I don't think I like the scientific part; I enjoy the history of the medium. I'm actually very bad with the Chemistry part. [laughs] I'm more interested that when you are doing this, you are doing something that has been done many, many thousand years ago. On Inspiration (And the Occasional Spousal Influence)

Swatches of colour beautifully embellish a corner of a wall in Shitong’s studio. These swatches provide a glimpse into the artist’s technicolour world where a colour is more than just its shade or hue, but the potential to express one’s emotions where words might fail. (Image by AC43 gallery)

A leaf out of Shitong’s sketchbook. The printmaker goes through sketchbooks frequently as it is both a professional and personal medium to express his artistic prowess as well as intimate thoughts. He admits, in jest, that most of his drawings and paintings are channelled into these sketchbooks instead of prints to be produced. (Image by AC43 Gallery)

TP: Where do you draw your inspirations from? ST: I think I am very inspired by colours. Most of the time I'm just experimenting with watercolour. I don't know, maybe I'm just looking for a certain mood in the piece.

TP: Do you care a lot about what the viewers take away from your artworks? ST: I do care how the viewers feel about the artwork, but I usually don't think about what they will think first. I think about how I feel, how do I look at the colours, and how do I feel about the overall artwork first before I think about how the viewer feels. To me, I think the shapes and the colours are very important. I have to be satisfied with the colours and shapes that I produce first before I'm willing to present it to others. I don't know what the viewer takes away from my work, but I hope it's something positive.

TP: With colours, if you make a slight adjustment, it changes a lot. How do you ensure that's the right level you want to achieve?

ST: Yah, that's the thing. With printmaking, it's very hard to see what colours you are trying to print. I can apply the colours that I like but it gets mixed together with the materials that I'm using or maybe, printing over and over again can change the colour. So, it's quite hard to predict. But the area that you cannot predict is also the fun part about printmaking. When you print something, it's going to be so different every time. Which is why when I print, the result has to be something that I like first.

TP: But you are always prepared to see something different after printing? ST: Yes, and I'm also prepared to fail. A lot. [laughs] I'm always prepared to waste like a big piece of paper. The other time when you were here, I showed you a lot of pieces that were rejected right? I have to first accept that those are... I have to find something that I like about the piece before I can say that it is successful.

TP: Does this philosophy also translate to how you live your life? ST: I think all along doing this, the more I collaborate with people, I realised that it's ok to fail. Keep trying lor (sic). I think printmaking is always like that, trial and error.

TP: Do your works carry a particular narrative or theme? Or do they usually reflect the printmaking process more? ST: I think they usually have a story to it. A lot of times I don't really know the story until it is printed. Once the shapes are completed or printed, I still have to add the little people. I think that's when I think about how to add the story to the artwork. Is there a narrative that I can produce from that shape? All these have to pass first before I can say that "Oh, this is not going to be in the reject pile." I have to decide whether I can fit characters inside.

TP: What is your thought process like when you are trying to add the little people? ST: In the past, there used to be a lot more people. Nowadays they are more isolated, there are lesser people. They are more spaced out also.

TP: Is there a reason for that? ST: I think I am more interested in playing with space, the paper, and the image itself. I tend not to overdo too much. Maybe character also? I am quieter of a person in real life. I don't like crowds.

Some of the photographs taken by Shitong himself, both as a reference for his prints and a hobby. Shitong muses, “In the past when I first started out, there was a tendency to put as many people as possible to make it as crowded and messy. But in the recent years, I started to pick up photography as a hobby. I like how the placement of human figure corresponds with how I make the prints also. As in, how I arrange the figure in the photograph is also very similar to how I place the human on the landscape of my prints.” (Images by Chen Shitong)

TP: I’ve noticed that your artwork titles are very interesting. What is the thought behind that? ST: A lot of the times I ask my wife to come up with the titles. [laughs] I think she comes up with it very fast... "Little People, Little Places" is by her, but I was like "Wah, very nice. I like the name. Let me use it." A lot of times when I name an artwork, I will usually ask her first.

Little People, Little Places #1, 2021, Collagraph and Screen print on paper, 60 x 50 cm

TP: Does she have any particular vetting criteria? ST: I think she is just very quirky. I don't think she thinks a lot leh (sic), she will just say "Ok lor, can. Can try." [laughs]

TP: And you trust her a lot with the titles? ST: Sometimes I will change lah (sic). Not everything I will use, but most of the time it's by me. Like The Beginning was because I felt like it was a departure from the previous series of works.

The Beginning, 2021, Collagraph and Screen print on paper, 48 x 62 cm

For someone as placid in disposition as Shitong, it was unsurprising that by the end of the interview, what was revealed to me came mostly from the unspoken. From the paintings in his sketchbooks that represent the intimate corners of his mind to the prints that eventually make it through the press, the printmaker’s fascination with how we, as humans, interact with the surrounding spaces and the affective states that we experience is laid bare for us, as viewers, to witness.

Just as colours flit endlessly within a spectrum, so, too, do the range of human emotions, moods, and feelings. What possibly spurs Shitong to continue creating is the limitless possibilities of experimenting with printmaking techniques in order to grasp the ‘right’ mood and its corresponding colour at a particular moment; but even then, what is ‘right’ is merely fleeting.

To continue reading the second part of this interview, click here.


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