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Chloë Manasseh — Using Wilderness, Psychology & Social Surroundings in Art

In the midst of the revival and celebration of renowned painters such as Van Gogh, Matisse and Kahlo, along with their styles, artists around the world are definitely challenging art norms by rendering their own additions and experimentations to contemporary art—dictating the ways in which they express best. In this interview, we speak to Chloë Manasseh on incorporating nature in art and how her observations of the world gel with her work.

Chloë Manasseh — Using Wilderness, Psychology & Social Surroundings in Art

by SAND Magazine

October 29, 2017

Hi Chloë, firstly — what are some of the greatest flaws of art making?
Personally, one of the greatest flaws is being self-deprecating and not trusting your vision as an artist. Once you start to doubt yourself it can be really challenging to work through the doubt, self-motivate and continue creating. I have to make sure that I paint or draw at least once a day. It may not necessarily be on a huge canvas—perhaps a small watercolour painting or sketch just to keep me grounded. It’s also a great way to work through ideas or get out of a creative rut. 

In a sense, making art is fairly egocentric and often incredibly personal. I think it can be a struggle for some artists to share their creations for this reason.

Back in my studio in London, I had the habit of turning works around once I had finished them, and only referring to them weeks later—it’s a simple mechanism which helps create a degree of separation and allows one to take a fresh look later. Of course with my role as Artist in Residence at The Winstedt School (TWS), it’s important for the kids to see that I take pride in my work and studio, so all my works are facing forward, ready for the students when they decide to visit. Initially, it posed a challenge having to work like this as I often struggle with new works and need time to digest them. This process also means that I have to confront my work every day, which has been a good experience so far.

How do you feel about making your work(s) public?
I try not to overthink it, but it is often a huge mix of emotions! Excitement, gratification, terror…

Art is so subjective, and there is always this nagging anxiety that people won’t like it, or understand the narrative behind the work. It’s important not take everything personally, and to allow mental separation between myself and my art. 

Social media has become an interesting tool for artists. You can keep everyone up to date with your every move in the studio, about upcoming projects, exhibitions, new works… At the same time, you are constantly bombarded by how prolific and productive all your peers are. It’s both a wonder and a form of motivation to get my work out there to a physical space. Of course, it becomes moot if the artist’s work exists solely within the digital sphere!

Do you see nature as an offering or something that’s rooted? How does that all come together to form your paintings and installations?
The significance of nature for me is multifaceted, and my focus within it is constantly shifting. There is of course an interest in the sublime power of the natural landscape, alongside notions that perhaps true wilderness can no longer exist for many people against the backdrop of the modern landscape and in the digital era.

My current focus examines the perceptions of identity and rootedness within a landscape. I ponder a lot about the impact of collective 'familial’ memory, and the move that both my maternal and paternal family had to go through across countries and cultures.

I’m of dual British and Israeli nationality and have often struggled with which country (and climate) I identify with more. While London has been my primary base, I find that a sense of ‘home’ sometimes eludes me—having family all around the world shifts one’s concept of home.

My mother was born in Morocco and her family is now spread over three continents, with many settled in Israel, Canada and the US. My dad’s family has Baghdadi roots, and were originally settled between Calcutta (India) and Singapore. My paternal grandmother’s family had roots in Portugal too!

Both my parents are currently based in Singapore, so when the opportunity came up for an artist residency here I was very curious to see how my familial and Jewish cultural connections, alongside my own experience and perceptions of Singapore and living in Asia, would affect my artwork.

As it stands today Singapore feels as much like home as London or Israel after just 6 months.

What interests me about nature in this context, is the trend for people to bring plants indoors, into their ‘homestead’ as an exotic escape of sorts.

The plants are displaced from their natural environment, much like people in transit, expats, foreign workers and so on. Both locals and guests of a country construct an identity and reinvent their sense of self within their domestic base, often with sentimental items, patterned furnishings and nature all interspersed.

However, my approach is multi-layered and I also consider all my own concerns for nature and the landscape in my work. Even though I work with video, fabrics, sculpture and photography, my paintings are my most candid artworks, and use a reduced visual language—often inspired by a single image I have seen or poems or books that I have read. I am a little obsessed with Matsuo Basho’s Haiku, and have read translations of them tirelessly. The Desire For Elsewhere by Agnes Chew has also really resonated with me recently, and I often refer to certain chapters during moments of detachment.

My installation and video work feels like a reinvention of my personal space. I have often been told that I have an innate talent to be anywhere for a day and make it look like I have lived there for years. This can definitely be said of my studio at TWS—where I disperse ceramic ornamental fish in my art. They are a tangible reflection of my paintings, domestic thoughts, and my direct experience of the type of nature around me. My current video work, for example, is filmed around Singapore in an attempt to navigate and orientate myself in a new environment.

With videography, I often combine digital footage and painting on a Super 8 films and whilst they come across as fairly abstract, they speak directly of my experiences within new landscapes. They often have absurd undertones with indefinable moments—almost mimicking my haphazard navigation skills.

Do you see yourself working with other elements, or would you like to explore and expand nature and the world surroundings through your art?
My practice is constantly evolving, and while I can’t see myself ever stopping to explore nature within my art, I can say with some certainty that other elements will continue to weave their way in. A few months ago I rediscovered a childhood book of mine on Indian folklore. Since then, I’ve been making paintings based on the characters from the tales, which was quite unexpected to me! I have also been experimenting more with different media which I think inherently expands both the ‘canvas’ and the elements you engage with.

How do you see your art gelling with other people’s emotions especially when you involve nature, something that’s widely favoured?
I think what often triggers an emotional response in my work isn’t just the imagery but the space, texture and palette. The work I make is very much linked to my emotional state, and I do tend to repeat imagery and motifs, sometimes a little excessively!

In psychoanalysis, it's suggested that the nature of repeating something is very much linked to one trying to master an emotion, trauma or mind-state, which is something I find fascinating but try not to overthink in reference to my own work.

By painting palms, flora, koi and other favoured imagery, I think it makes the work accessible and allows people to assign their own imaginative values and emotions to it. My paintings rarely have a horizon line or point of gravity. While they are contained within the inherent border of the canvas, they have no grounding which forces the viewer into confronting the reduced, recognisable imagery to locate something else—something personal—within the painting.

The power of our imagination allows us to see things from more than one perspective.

Recent observations shared from the staff and students at TWS are that my paintings make them feel calm and spacious. This has been very satisfying to hear because for the past 6 months, ‘space’ (within the painting) has become an intrinsic part of all my work. One student told me that my Palm Umbrellas painting looked like dogs on pogo sticks and he said it made him feel bouncy.

When was the tipping point when you knew you had or wanted to create?
I grew up in an incredibly creative environment. My parents are both film makers, and my brother and I were lucky enough to grow up surrounded by creatives from various industries. My grandpa, Leonard Manasseh OBE RA, was also a renowned architect and painter who motivated me to express myself through painting. My love of bright colours and flora definitely came from him.

I think, however, the tipping point really came after I did a semester abroad at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem during the second year of obtaining my BFA. I had two wonderful lecturers who both, in different ways, helped shape my career path. I did painting classes with an artist Jossef Krispell, who really helped me create my own visual language and develop as a painter.

I also met Eitan Ben Moshe, a multimedia artist who ran a class which discussed creating public artwork. It was my second week, and we were tasked with creating a maquette for an artwork that had an egg in it. I felt mine was a complete disaster and having to present it to a bunch of people I didn’t know felt strange. He just laughed (in a nice way) but the experience really helped me see the bigger picture, and find the artistic potential in everything. It’s a lesson I refer back to a lot. After that semester I came back to the London energised, very focused and determined to forge my own path.

What gratification do you get from art, and is it part of your goal to spread the knowledge and energy for creation?
Being a teacher at TWS while developing my own practice as an artist in residence has definitely made me more aware of the need to have a certain form of energy in order create and help other people do so. I find myself feeding off the students dynamism and creativity when making my own work, as much as I am sure they are feeding off mine. There is this unending potential in each student to be decisive, bold and fearless with every artwork they make, and I have found myself trying out different ideas at a faster frequency than usual—in part due to this wonderful school environment I have been fortunate to be a part of.

It is incredibly affirming when students are enthused about a certain project or artwork they have made, and when you hear a student saying that they want to grow up to be an artist it can be quite restorative! TWS is a school which caters for children with learning differences, and the significance of art as an emotional and communicative outlet for children (and adults) is clear.

What meaning do you find in fashion and textiles?
I have always been drawn to luxurious and natural fabrics such as silk and linen, and love the way my painting works translate onto fabric.

For the past few years I have been collaborating with a British menswear designer, Elizabeth Vale on Iza Vale Studios—an art-design collaboration that creates a dialogue between the masculine, the feminine, the object and the artwork.

The collaboration stemmed from several discussions about materiality, the relationship between art and design, man and woman. Our first edition of silk flight jackets are hand-made and hand-painted, and function both as a soft sculpture and wearable art.

There’s a symbiotic relationship between fashion, textile, culture and art. I am drawn to the idea that the art travels and yearns to and be lived in rather than lived with.

In the same breath, textiles and clothing are some of the most evocative and often immediately recognisable elements across different countries and cultures!

I am always looking for people to collaborate with on projects involving textiles, be it for fashion or interiors, as I think cross collaboration and creative input from multiple viewpoints generates the most interesting work and discussions. I would really love to work with Italian fashion house, Missoni one day.

Which artist(s) do you consider the most influential for artists of our generation?
I am not sure I can speak for our generation but personally, I admire Tacita Dean and Maragaret Neve. My grandparents had a few of her works, and I have always found them captivating. Also, Pina Bausch and her beautiful set designs by Peter Pabst and Rolf Borzic. 

A few years ago, I caught her piece Ahnen at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. A nonsensible stage filled with cacti—one of the most captivating sets I have ever seen. I’ve made a few paintings inspired by that set.

Tell us about your latest installations and exhibitions!
I have a few things coming up in both Singapore and London. 

In London, I have collaborated with Atelier Ji Fine Art Printmakers, on a series of new prints for The Woolwhich Contemporary Print Fair 17. In Singapore I am exhibiting a painting installation in The Working Capitol building as part of the Urban Ventures Street Festival along Keong Saik Road.

I have a solo exhibition, Palm Umbrellas, at NPE Art Residency and Gallery coming up from 10th November until 31st December. At the same time, I was also invited by Affordable Art Fair Singapore to create a multi-media installation that will include a live music and video performance (as part of my ongoing international 100 Sounds project) and a sculptural installation—happening from 16th to 19th November. I also have an upcoming artist residency at The Vagabond Hotel in Singapore where I will be setting up a video and artwork installation for a weekend of visual sound performances.

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