There is sly method to the madness of Mark Chu’s apartment. The stacks of philosophy books and paintbrushes, the bed covered with stuffed animals, the food labels taped across various surfaces and the apocalyptic kitchen sink are all perfectly cluttered. It’s as though the piles of books and art supplies were curated into perfect disorder. If such a thing as Zen mess-making existed, Mark would be a master.
The writer, painter, and musician is a freakishly articulate native of Melbourne, Australia. Mark played piano with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as a young teen, is in the final throes of finishing his first novel, and has been producing abstract portraits for years. Despite his best efforts to conceal it, a real human warmth pervades much of Mark’s thinking and work.
At the tail end of a shared bender, CONVICTS caught up with Mark in his Lower East Side apartment. We got his word on artistic exploitation, the creative enrichment unique to NYC, and the philosophical import of Minions.
What’s happening man? To start, can you introduce yourself?
My name is Mark Chu and I am from Melbourne, Australia.
When did you decide to become an artist?
For me, the choice between doing something creative or not was basically not a choice. I wasn’t skilled in anything — maybe I’m not skilled to be creative either — but I was very unskilled at conventional jobs and it sorted me out that way. My parents are fucking helpful, my dad is a musician and my mum’s dad was a painter so maybe on top of me not really being good at anything else, it’s genetic. The way I wanted to live — you could only really live that way being an artist.
You were in music for a bit but moved away from that. What happened there?
I started playing piano when I was three and then became an alright writer. I was recording with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when I was about fifteen, but there was something about classical music that seemed incredibly backward. It uses all these instruments from a different era which makes all these avenues of creativity unavailable. I got out of that because it was just fucking annoying being trying to talk to people about the pervasiveness of electronic music and having them just nod smugly then go listen to Mozart and probably not understand it that well.
Right on. Changing gears a bit, can you talk a little bit about your relationship to New York?
Mine personally? There is the tactile stuff that makes everybody’s day to day life here a bit more difficult. You got fucking alarms out on the streets going off at 4AM every night. You’re living in a much smaller space, there is not much greenery or physical space to feel free in the way you move. That kind of pressure is a very good kind incubator. That level of anxiety is very very helpful and productive. It’s a bit of an unusual thing in America how people see anxiety as something that should be prevented. Friction in life can make for a deeper understanding your work or your way of seeing the world.
City life does bring the anxiety. What’s up with you painting only faces?
Faces are so full of abstract potential, they make for a very good technical platform. You can really go hard on color or go hard on form. One thing I’m really loving at the moment is finding shapes in peoples faces that aren’t necessarily associated with faces. For instance like, you think of the eye as an eclipse and you think of the nose as a triangle. A shape you don’t look for is the line that goes from your nose through the fringe of your hair down to your ear and then down your collar. Imagining that shape in 2D is a very stimulating visual exercise. There is an awesome, kind of magical feeling when you see that in a face because you are so used to seeing faces and thinking about them in a normal way. But then you say: “Fuck, it was that shape. I didn’t know there was a weird triangle was like that. I didn’t know an ear could double as an eye. I didn’t know a mouth could be all the way out here, yet still know it’s a mouth.”
Walk us through your process a bit.
People often think of artists as people who go into some kind of like emotional trance. That might be the case for some people, but it isn’t the case for me. Making art is labor. You have all this emotional stuff inside of you, you have all these relationships going on, but at the same time you just need to steady your hand and draw this line here, and place this line here and think about shifting the nose 5cm across and what effect will that have? This line goes here and that means the nose will be shifted across 5cm and that is gonna have that effect.
Alright, let’s talk philosophy. I know you’re into metamodern philosophy. Can you explain what that is?
I was thinking about this a lot today because I knew you would ask me. So what is postmodernism? so That was basically when hierarchy gets thrown out the door and value systems that are reframed. Metamodernism is the thing that comes after that. It combines postmodernism with modernism. In postmodern art, there is a lot of levity and a lot of undermining of things, it’s got a humorous, almost sarcastic tone. For instance, people might wear certain clothes because there is a humorous effect that’s part of why they wear it. For instance, a paisley shirt is kind of the hipster uniform because of that delightful playfulness. It embraces the distance between who one really is and the other thing that one is wearing as a mask. Metamodernism takes those references and adds weight to the bottom of them. A good example of metamodernism is Minions, which I do like. Minions is like, it’s this thing that’s funny has this cutesy element, but there is also something deep and really sentimental about them. When I see Minions sometimes they makes me tear up and it is kind of this beautiful. Their language is this cute imaginary language but the cutesy element has a real emotional tug. They’re not just being sarcastic, the Minions produce a real full emotion. It’s all over art, these references to that shade of pop culture. Like Spongebob Squarepants. On the one hand, it’s playful but on the other hand it’s pretty serious. People are paying that amount of money for avant-garde outfits with Spongebob Squarepants. Money, the financial aspect is an anchoring aspect of the work. Whereas, I would say in postmodernity, that ironic feeling wasn’t that tethered to more serious content.
Can you talk about irony more generally?
There are two hidden facets to irony in political culture at the moment. One, is people who think they are being ironic and light hearted are actually being a lot more aggressive than they believe. They are drawing their lines and saying “I’m apart of this political faction,” in a very walled way. The other facet of irony is unintended irony. I think people who-for instance-are committed to going to a march and they genuinely believe in this grave change but are still taking Instagram photos at the march. It’s introducing levity to this serious thing, and people can’t help themselves because they are so addicted to irony, which has this kind of has this undermining quality to serious political stuff. Irony is like basically the air we breathe these days but people don’t know how addicted to it they are. They also don’t know when they are being ironic and when they are not. Sometimes, it doesn’t have to do with your own motivations. Like with anything in life, you can not intend to be something, but be that something anyway.
Talk about this apartment. It’s a bit cluttered…
I don’t think it is really clutter. People say it’s cluttered, but it’s just my stuff. It’s my books, I’ve got my asthma inhaler, I’ve got cling wrap for when I need to fucking wrap my cooking. I think it’s just natural. It’s like the natural way that I feel I should I live. Sometimes, you have to clean it but I like that feeling of being in a nest and all this stuff like makes me feel cozy. I see a lot of value in having a messy room. I know that is a very adolescent thing to say but I don’t really understand people who spend money on cleaning products when it is not a matter of hygiene. People have all these strange traditions as to where they have to put this thing and that thing. It’s like they have their parents in their head when it’s just a waste of time. You could be doing something else.
Lastly, how do you see the relationship between art and social media?
There is no one who doesn’t feel good after getting a like, but being liked or being popular isn’t always good for making art. Context isn’t valued. One thing about Instagram is that it gives us a lot of familiarity with vivid colors. Everyone is wearing more colorful clothes, everyone is seeing these glossy pictures. So for my paintings, it is a bit harder to have vibrancy because vibrancy is readily available. You have to work a bit harder to find an original set of balanced colors because everyone is seeing a lot of beautiful stuff.