In her recent exhibition, Like A Melody, Charlotte Mei invites the viewer to escape into her enchanted world. It is a realm of excavated artefacts depicting life size action figurines to chainmail bikinis. As she invokes the western male dominated fantasy genre she simultaneously subverts it, drawing inspiration from anime and feminizing notions of defence. The artefacts seem “unearthed from another reality” according to Mei and that reality becomes the landscape of a hero’s journey embarked upon by both Mei and the viewer, in an exploration of selfhood and identity.
Charlotte Mei is a London based artist and illustrator, whose work has been commissioned by brands such as Hermès, Nike and Rimowa. Like A Melody: Myths, Memories and Fantasy will show at NOW Gallery from now until 2 June 2024. The gallery is renowned for championing early-career talent and is celebrating its 10 year anniversary with a year long programme that commences with Mei’s exhibition as the gallery’s Future Space commission.
Your upcoming exhibition, Like a Melody explores themes of myths, memories and fantasy. Could you expand a bit on why you chose to explore each of these themes, and how they relate to one another?
For as long as I can remember fantasy stories from literature and films have captivated and inspired me. The first ones that infiltrated my consciousness were Lord of the Rings and Pokemon. I wanted to live in a world of beauty and poetry where there were magical creatures and enchanted caves, and forests that come alive. As a kid, fantasy stories provided me with escapism when things were tough and also helped me make sense of life.
How do you imagine the viewer’s role in the exhibition? What do you hope they take away from it?
I think that viewing art is always very personal. It’s a combination of my world and your world. I wanted the exhibition to feel something like an immersion into a fantasy landscape with large expansive paintings and sculptures that seem like artefacts unearthed from another reality.
The works in the exhibition are crafted through a range of mediums including large-scale paintings, giant figurines and sculptures. Have you always worked across a range of mediums, and why did you decide to do so for this collection?
I really enjoy playing with materials, and it’s a privilege to be asked to present them all as part of the exhibition at Now Gallery. Whether I’m using paint, textile, metal or ceramics, it all feels like part of the same practice to me, everything is part of the same story.
I’m also interested in the large scale of these works. I imagine the experience of working on a painting that spans multiple canvasses is somewhat different from the smaller illustrative work you also do. Do you approach these larger works differently? How does the creative process change on such a big scale?
I was inspired to make the large multi canvas painting (which is 7 meters long) after seeing a Monet piece in Naoshima Japan. It was one of the most moving art experiences I’ve ever had, and I really felt like I was absorbed into the world that it created. In my painting, I want to be like a melody which is an homage to Monet’s painting, I wanted to create a scene which envelops the viewer and feels like it is materialising around you.
The exhibition is also inspired by anime, does this inspire a lot of your work? Are there any features of anime that are absent from European artistic traditions, that you are particularly drawn to?
My art practice work is inspired by anime in so much as I was raised on it, and watching these Japanese cartoons I was moved by their sincerity and lightness, and also boldness, which I didn't see so much in American or British cartoons. My mum bought me a lot of manga and cute merchandise from Hong Kong, where she is from, and it was so charming and magical. I started copying the artwork, drawing characters from my favourite anime series, and making my own comics out of weird old printer paper with holes punched down each side, and I handed them out to my friends at primary school (who were not particularly bothered!)
Being British-Chinese, and living in London, does this dual identity influence your work?
Straddling two worlds at home and in my exterior world created something in my identity which at first felt like a fracture. I felt that I wouldn’t be claimed by either of the cultures that I was spawned from, and it wasn’t possible for me to seem neutral, which I craved.
As I grew into an adult I became grateful for the richness of references and influences and experiences with which this duality served me. The sword sculpture (with its references to Lord of the rings and Sailor moon) is an example of the place where the eastern and western parts of my identity meet.
How have you found navigating the London art scene as a young artist? Have you found it to be more positively collaborative or competitive?
I have always enjoyed making and working with other people, and I think one of the great things about living in London is how many interesting and inspiring people make up its creative scene. Many of my favourite projects have been collaborative, such as a Lord of the rings fan zine I made with artist Chris Harnan. In my exhibition Like a Melody I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with some very inspiring artists and friends such as Calum Bowen who composed the song that will play from a mechanical music box. My art practice is often solitary but bringing others in creates new perspectives and makes me feel refreshed and energised.
What do you think of the debated divide between commercial and non-commercial art, since, I think, you could be considered to make both? (though correct me if I’m wrong!)
Art can express feelings in a way that words don’t do justice. That has always been the motivation behind my work, I think. But having started out with no money and no industry connections, I had to find a way to make a living. At the beginning, it was unrealistic to expect that I could make art in obscurity and make enough cash to pay my rent so when I was starting out I would often think about how I could position my practice in a way that it could be bought or commissioned. Because of this, the line between personal and commercial work and the question of what is authentic is something that I’ve always been conscious of. In the end, it’s always been helpful to remind myself that honesty and sincerity speak to people in a way that any kind of strategy or algorithmically designed approach probably won’t.
That debate always reminds me of a Warhol quote that “being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art”. Would you agree? How does business feature in the life of an emerging artist in a culture, especially in the UK, that is funding the arts less and less?
For me, I don’t find business very interesting, and I don’t like hustle culture very much. I love to paint and make and I hate having to think about what might be a commercial success. But I live in a society! So business does feature in my world, and I enjoy the social side of that, making relationships and meeting people.
Finally, could you tell us three artists we should know about whose work is particularly inspiring to you?
Yes! I would love to big up my collaborators: Calum Bowen who composed the score for the music box, metalworker Fred Thompson, who fabricated the sword and bikini, and Charlene Man of Noodle baby who has created a sweet rice snack wrapped in a leaf to compliment the show (Think Lembas bread, but make it Asian) which will be available at the launch event!
Also: Sarah and Gus Bonito of Kero Kero Bonito, and Danny L Harle who alongside Bo En will perform at the launch event. Their music is a huge inspiration to me.