The back of the leftover concert posters from his parents were Yi-Shuan Lee’s firsts canvases when he was just 4 or 5 years old. Now based in Toronto, that young Taiwanese-Canadian boy has turned into a multidisciplinary artist whose practice spans painting, sculpture and film. “I am simply making works with the most genuine approach possible”, he explains. With the goal of producing authentic work, he also introduces South East Asian perspectives in his work as “Being aware of the stereotypes and misinterpretations on how the world sees East Asia is my way of understanding my place in the world.” Delve into the mysterious, cigarette-crowded universe of this artist and learn more about his paintings.
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Your practice spans painting, sculpture and film. When and how was your first approach to art?
My first approach towards art was through drawing on the back of leftover concert posters from my parents, whom at the time were practising musicians travelling and performing, living their dreams of artists in their own rights. I would say that was around the age of 4 or 5 years old. I remember the posters were very big, and I had a lot of freedom in terms of the surface I was working on. That period of time introduced me to the feeling of success when completing a form of art. Sculpture and film came into my life during later years.
You are a multidisciplinary artist. I have noticed that this is a tendency in the creative world right now. We live in a world where we are exposed to a lot of stimuli. Do you think it is possible nowadays to focus just on one field as an artist?
Yes, I do agree that being a multidisciplinary artist is common among my contemporaries. I credit the rise of the Internet and social media as the source which enabled people to learn from each other in a way that was unprecedented in the past. The information overload that we are receiving on a daily basis definitely fuels creatives to act on their practice. However, too many options may lead to distraction and loss of focus. In general, I would say that my generation of artists battles with distraction on what they would like to put their time on, not to mention dedicating focus on one singular field of art.
As a Taiwanese-Canadian artist based in Toronto, how do these different cultures/heritage inform your work?
It’s honestly a blessing that up to this point I was able to spend half my life living in Taiwan and the other half here in Canada. The knowledge of both the culture and its history, furthermore the ability to speak two languages, challenges my perspectives every time I step foot into my studio. I would say I have two voices speaking to me when I make my work. And for that, I have to thank my parents.
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You are also aware of the stereotypes and misinterpretations of East Asian culture, that’s why you try to educate your audience with terminologies through the artworks’ titles. How is art a tool for education in your case? Do you feel the need to do so as an artist or more as a person because of your personal experience?
Before I answer this question, I would like to propose my understanding of ‘education’: sharing something that one has discovered, studied, and experienced with hopes of love and joy to the person who is receiving the education. With that said, I don’t feel the need to educate my audience through my artworks. I am a student of the art as well as an art maker. And if an artist approaches me with the idea that becoming educated in his/her art is the only gateway for me to participate, I would feel a lot of pressure. The education factor is there through the process of art making and completion of an artwork. Whether the viewer wants to accept the education or not, that is solely up to them.
Being aware of the stereotypes and misinterpretations on how the world sees East Asia is my way of understanding my place in the world. I must understand popular culture in order to produce the most authentic works possible. I must emphasize the fact that I am doing art for myself. The reason is that if I do allow other people’s comments interfere with my self-education, my thought process would be swayed into a direction that is otherwise not genuine or authentic.
Related to this, Dalí once said that “a true artist is not who is inspired, but one who inspires others”. Is this what you look for in your work?
I will have to respectfully disagree with Dalí. The quote you just gave me sounds like the artist is referring to a final solution, which I absolutely do not agree with. The idea to be inspired and to inspire others works in both ways. I do think the ability to inspire others is a great accomplishment for any artists, but at the same time, I feel like there are many roles in the art world: some are meant to spark inspiration and others are to be inspired. And neither should be defined as a ‘true artist’.
In your paintings, you explore ideas that pop in your head. Sometimes it’s easy to self-censor your own mind. How do you deal with this?
Not quite hard, to be honest. Not to sound cocky, but if you are a practising artist who is rolling deep into this lifestyle you have committed to, you must continue to invest belief into your own thoughts. Self-checking myself once in a while on whether my mental state is confident or ignorant does help me continue this journey I am on.
You’ve also said that to create scenes you get inspired by what’s going on in the world. It’s not a secret anymore that we are living a difficult moment with coronavirus pandemic. How are you living this moment?
Yes, I am constantly updated on the current situation around the world, as that is my key source of reference for my work. I actually have been following the coronavirus since January; the main reason is that my parents live in Taiwan and geographically, they could be the first to be affected by this pandemic. My honest answer would be that I am currently living on the edge, and I guess I am referring more so to my mental state of mind. On the other side, I am very inspired by how the world is reacting to this pandemic. For any art makers who would tell you that what they are currently working on during this tough time isn’t inspired by this pandemic, I would say that is a lie.
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Because you identify yourself more with surreal artists, what are your main references?
My identity could be seen as surreal. Your average boy born in Taichung, Taiwan, could have never dreamed of travelling the world, making art, and gaining appreciation from doing so. Other than my life story, I guess language is a huge reason for my interest in surreal subjects. Most of the works I make, I don’t see them as surreal. It may seem surreal for people who don’t speak Mandarin though. The truth is, a lot of my works are based off word-play with Chinese idioms, and they translate quite well in an oriental perspective. I think I took advantage of people’s curiosity when approaching imagery that is lost in translation.
Like other surreal artists such as Dalí, Magritte or Kay Sage, your paintings have a dark atmosphere. In literature, the sunset or the sunrise are often magical moments. Is that what you’re looking for in your paintings?
I want to thank you for putting my name among these greats. Magritte is one of my favourite artists, but let's not forget Tetsuya Ishida, a once-in-a-generation artist that most people don’t know of. Though I do start seeing his works appearing on the art market as of late. And I am glad that you could see the dark atmosphere within my works through layers of pretty pastel palettes, which I enjoy working with. I would like to think that I am on the same page with the great artists you just named. But the honest answer is that I don’t think I am there yet in terms of knowing what I am looking for in my own works. As of right now, I am simply making works with the most genuine approach possible.
I’ve noticed that in your paintings, there are certain constant elements like cigarettes, for example. Do they have a special symbolism?
Yes, there are many repetitive elements that I constantly play with. The cigarette is something that I personally picked up at a young age. I see my younger self when starting the habit as an act of naiveness or foolishness. But as years go by, the act of smoking tobacco went from naiveness to a battle with my own ego. And as artists, we constantly battle with many egos; the cigarette is only one of the many egos I have. As of late, the cigarettes in my paintings have grown into trees, bigger and more powerful than ever before. I depict these young characters in my works peeing on the cigarette trees, allowing the ego to continue growing out of control. Feeding the ego in the most disgusting way possible.
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I’ve also seen references to Crayon Shin Chan in your paintings. Childhood plays a big part in defining our personality. Do you think that your art is informed by your childhood years?
Oh, for sure. My childhood is what keeps me in check of the person I have now become. Crayon Shin Chan was, and still is, a great inspiration to me. Growing up in the ‘90s, there weren’t many cartoons that allowed the youth to think beyond what they were already seeing. Crayon Shin Chan is a character who always did the abnormal, even the wrongful you could say. But his intentions were always so genuine and so real. I credit Crayon Shin Chan as the source of how I started to question sexuality.
Instagram can be a powerful tool to share art. I’ve seen that sometimes, you publish the work of other artists through stories. From your point of view, which artists should we start following?
Instagram is very powerful indeed. And I encourage people to realize its true powers. At the same time, understand that the power is also in your hands or on a tablet that’s in your hands, I should say. I love sharing art that I come across whether in person or online. And it is always because I truly appreciate what I am seeing to a great extent that made me I feel the need to share it with others.
I don’t often suggest what people should follow or to believe in. But I guess I can offer my point of view on what certain media outlets not to follow. Don’t follow media outlets that make you feel bad about yourself, that are constantly lying to you, that make you feel like you could never achieve something that is clearly presented in front of your eyes, and media that tells you to do things that are obviously wrong or hurting others. Try focusing on things that make you feel educated and energized – that goes for both the real world and the online. Without a healthy mindset, even when good art is presented in front of your eyes, you will not be able to appreciate it.
You’ve exhibited in China, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, France, the US and Canada. Do you have any projects in mind at the moment?
I have many projects in mind – I always do. I have learned in this field of profession which I devoted to that nothing is guaranteed. But it’s also made me become a very adaptable person. Right now, I am working on a body of work that is scheduled to be exhibited at Mark Christopher Gallery here in Toronto for August of this year. This would be my first solo show in Canada. Whether the exhibition will end up going through or not, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we shall see. But I always stay ready, just like I was for this interview. Thank you!
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