Fortnight Institute, a space that opened last year in the East Village, has an area of less than four hundred square feet, but that’s enough for visitors to Chris Oh’s solo exhibition “Plays” to behold canonical Renaissance and Baroque works by Caravaggio, Sofonisba Anguissola, Da Vinci, and other Old Masters, perfectly recreated on an idiosyncratic set of objects that Oh employs as his canvases: a bed sheet, the inside of a soccer ball, and the sole of a boot.
Oh’s technical mastery, irreverent imagery, and offbeat surface materials are all impressive. In addition to the art historical canon, Oh’s large-scale appropriations have borrowed from trade paperback covers and internet memes (his favorite features an alien saying “ayy LMAO”). While Oh’s subject matter reflects his taste, which spans the Renaissance and Reddit, he also notably mixes old and contemporary modes of image circulation, slapping a snippet of an Old Master painting on a shoe, or putting an internet image on a canvas.
His paintings may veer toward the absurd, but Oh’s skill is so undeniably advanced that his inventiveness never feels like shtick. In a phone conversation and over email, Oh and I discussed how he stays original while stealing familiar imagery. We also talked about his exhibition at Fortnight, which is open through February 2.
ZACH SOKOL How would you describe your practice?
CHRIS OH I paint imagery appropriated from different types of ephemera and art history. Grouping these seemingly disparate images together informs my aesthetic sensibility. I see myself as an editor as much as I do a painter.
SOKOL You seem hesitant to use the term “photorealism” when describing your work, and have mentioned an aversion to being pigeonholed. Could you expand on that?
OH So much has been done over the centuries with representational painting, so it’s quite difficult to be a truly contemporary artist using such traditional techniques. My technical abilities have always come easy to me so I dismissed them for a long time. One of my biggest fears as an artist is to be stuck doing the same thing for the rest of my career. The main reason I like to appropriate imagery from such a broad range of artists and genres is to stay flexible in the way I translate an image. My painting process can get tedious so the variety of content keeps me engaged in my work.
SOKOL I like that you’ve described your work as an extension of your taste. At the same time, your subject matter is incredibly diverse. Can you talk about how you pick your source material?
OH I think of style as being informed by one’s interests, but possibly even more so by one’s limitations. I’ve always had the ability to render quite accurately and because of that my biggest problem creatively has been finding subject matter and deciding on what to paint. Originality is the strongest trait of an artist. So how can I be original while copying all my imagery from found source material? It’s a bit of a contradiction, but for me the core of that originality lies within my personal aesthetic sensibilities as defined by the imagery I appropriate.
In the past, I spent a lot of time feeling bored by the tedious process of photorealism. I was taking myself and my subject matter too seriously. I started painting sci-fi book covers out of a desperate need for a change in direction, which subsequently opened up the entire world of book cover art to me. Switching between genres has been invigorating because they can differ so much stylistically. It also allows me to practice new techniques, which is great because, ultimately, I love the act of painting. Appropriating imagery from Renaissance masters has been an even bigger technical challenge. I see those works as operating on the other side of the cultural spectrum from the cheap paperback covers.
SOKOL How did the show at Fortnight Institute come about? Was the work made specifically for the exhibition? And can you talk about how you curated the work within the space?
OH Before Fabiola Alondra and Jane Harmon opened Fortnight, they would hold Salon Society gatherings at Fabiola’s apartment. People would come together to look at art and discuss ideas, and I had shown work there. Some of the work in the current show was already in my studio, and some pieces, such as Nook and Achilles, were made with Fortnight in mind. It was liberating working with Fabiola and Jane because they encouraged me to engage the entirety of the space, and offered some great ideas on how to do so. For example, I don’t think Shapeshifter was fully realized until we installed it in the corner of the gallery (it was originally flat on the wall). Many of the works took on a new life because of the way they were curated within the space, so this installation was very much a collaborative process.
SOKOL You mentioned how the materials you used for the paintings in “Plays” are deconstructed in such a way that they lose a sense of their functionality, and that there’s a tension between them and the subject matter. How does that concept inform the substrates you chose to use?
OH I’ve developed an eye for objects whose forms can be manipulated to fit my artistic pursuits. I’ll look at a piece of fabric and think, “How can I transform this object in as few moves as possible?” So I’ll do things like pin a blanket to the wall or remove the seams from a bag and turn half of it inside out… I want the viewer to be drawn in by the familiarity of these objects, but then realize that something is amiss-like seeing a soccer ball on the shelf, but then realizing that it’s cut open with eyes painted all over the inside; or viewing a boot mounted ten feet up the wall only to see a face painted on the sole above you. The reveal is important to me.
SOKOL What challenges do nontraditional surfaces offer you? And is it freeing to use these materials?
OH There is a lot of trial and error involved when I work on these surfaces and I don’t always know how the paint will react. I embrace the unexpected results because they give a fresh interpretation to the images I appropriate. I started painting on nontraditional surfaces because I was bored by the predictability of working on canvas. It felt limiting. To be liberated from the picture plane and work more sculpturally was a real creative release. I fold, rip, bend, and drape these pieces all over the studio. There are so many more possibilities of presenting the work than just hanging it on the wall. And I feel a deeper connection to my work because I am more involved in the way it inhabits space.
SOKOL You said that you’ve only begun to consider yourself an artist in the last few years, despite painting for much longer. What changed? Is there anything different about your practice now that led to you accepting “artist” as your occupation?
OH Turning thirty about five years ago really made me reevaluate my life. I decided that I wanted to make art for the rest of my life, and that was a very inspirational decision. I definitely feel an urgency now to explore my ideas as fully as I can before I die. I want to make as much work as possible before time runs out.