BIG INTERVIEW // Local Artist, Nicholas Tay

The artwork of Nicholas Tay is charged with intimacy and raw emotion – at times verging on erotic and dangerous, compassionate and loving at others.

Tay is currently preparing for his new solo exhibition, Amateur Cartography, which will be up in the Massy Arts Gallery (upstairs at Chinatown’s Massy Books) from April 17th to May 24th. Tay will also be leading an online artist’s talk on April 18th at 2pm. (Further details here.) Leading up to the opening, we caught up with Tay to discuss, among other things, his art practice and how the images and themes of Amateur Cartography – several produced years ago – translate into the context of our current pandemic era…

First of all, is it possible to describe Amateur Cartography in a short, single sentence?

At its heart, Amateur Cartography is a personal exploration of immigrant experience.

This series pre-dates Covid and yet the images feel very timely. What was it like revisiting these works to put together the show? How has it affected you or given you a new perspective on the work?

I think the work feels even truer now than when I initially made them. When I first started this series in 2017, I’d already been meditating for 14 years on how the western lens viewed Asia and Asians post SARS. So, at the time of initial development, there was more objective distance, and a degree of perspective. Going back into the work now there is a great sense of burning immediacy. This very much propelled me to revisit the paint process in the work, to capture and connect with the relevance now.

The human figure features prominently in most of your recent work that I’ve seen, including your sketches. What makes the body such a compelling subject for you?

I feel the body is such a powerful, complex and subtle vehicle for telling a story. It both is and contains an entire universe. The body has memory, the skin bears a shifting document of time, it feels both foreign and intimate. The image of the body can allow your observation to rest on something that feels like a familiar home before the emotions of the work flow over you. Further, the body tells a story in its own universal language that engages emotions beyond the conscious mind. It is a deep language, blessed with nuanced simile and bursting with metaphor.

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What is your first memory of encountering and/or making art?

My first memories of making art would be as a little kid in Singapore. My Mom would throw my brother and I outside in a shaded patio, and unleash us with pots of paints. This would mostly devolve into the sheer joy of mess making – a corner stone of my current practice.

I think like most children, the vibrancy of paint and the raw pleasure of colour was deeply affecting. I remember just the pleasurable luxury of paint. This is something that I feel has become even more precious the more time I spend on a computer.

What have been the most difficult or exhilarating personal discoveries that you’ve made during your artistic career, so far?

The most difficult personal discovery about my artistic career is how an honest approach to the art-making process will find its way to my hidden, shame drenched trauma, then bring it to the surface while releasing me from its burden. It is my hope that my work helps others feel seen with compassion and without judgement. It is that connection through compassion and empathy that is most exhilarating.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be quite prolific with your sketching…As an artist, how do you keep disciplined? Are you disciplined?

I am pretty disciplined…having two small children means that I kind of have to be! I only have a couple of hours of free time a day, and my wife and I take shifts with the kids on the weekends. I try to do a little bit each day, and make sure it always feels un-pressured and pleasurable. Some days are for sketching; other days are for research. I try to do a little something for my practice each day so that I know that I’m growing.

This past year has been such a strange and strangely dichotomous one – simultaneously both static and in flux. How has your practice or intention changed within the context of Covid? Where will it go from here?

I think Covid has stimulated a greater urgency in my work. Prior to Covid, I feel the themes of Asian identity in the west that I deal with in my work were deeper below the surface. Covid has brought everything to the forefront. Moving forward, I’m hoping to keep honestly exploring my Chinese immigrant experience and keep pushing my work to show the commonality of human experience.


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