9 April 2018

The Mythical Nirvanas of Faye Wei Wei

Working from her home studio in South London, Faye’s large-scale dreamy figurative artworks are impressive in size, affection and prowess. With canvases almost the height of the room and a floor piled with drawings, the only way to describe the experience of encountering Faye’s work is to liken it to a reverie. Gorgeous and compelling in equal parts, it’s hard not to gush while getting lost in the romance of the pastel tones and buoyant mark making. Influenced by illuminated manuscripts, Fra Angelico and the symbolism of sea, the London born painter’s emotionally-charged and aesthetically-decorative work explores love, masculine tropes and the performance of gender.

do you remember the first person who encouraged you to make art?
I had really great teachers in high school and a really amazing art department. I always knew that I wanted to do it but I was really lucky to have people who encouraged me to do it too. I went to a school that was pretty much all boys and I felt really competitive. I wanted to be just as good as the boys or even better. So I’d always be quite obnoxious in class and make really big drawings and occupy a lot of space.

was there a pivotal moment when you decided to be an artist?
I was alone in the art studios in the basement at school— the studios were open late on Tuesdays and I devoured every moment. I remember placing many sheets of creamy off-white paper all over the floor and I did a kind of dance with black ink all over my feet. Very concentrated, very intensely I danced. I then went back in with the brush and worked into the painting figuring out the importance of mark-making and the furious, but enchanting concentration needed to make a powerful image. After, I remember feeling very pleased with myself and I rewarded myself by heating up a jam doughnut on the hot etching plates.


where do your ideas come from?
I hoard a lot of source imagery. I collect images of greek sculptures. I go on image banks. I also go to museums and draw. I love the Wallace Collection. Every room feels so old. Also, when I was in New York. I would go around junk shops and collect photographs that people took of the sea. This idea that people would try and stand before something so vast and as amazing as the sea, and try to swallow it in one picture on a disposable camera. I think it’s really sweet and human that we try to do this. It’s similar with painting. I see this vastness of landscape and life and you have to try and capture it. If you take a picture of the sea, it’ll never be as grand as the real thing. I love the symbolism of water, and the sea, because they’re romantic tropes. Read any poets work and they would have written about the sea or the moon.

can you talk me through the process of making your work?
I usually start with a feeling, line of poetry or an image that will stick to my mind and not let go for days. I try and get into a state of total commitment and concentration. I’ll draw a lot and sit and think for a long, long time. I think I have to be feeling quite brave that day. It takes a lot of nerve to make a mark that is convincing. Something the beautiful Nicole Wittenberg taught me in New York was how to hold a brush loaded with paint, how to push it with conviction and power on the surface of the canvas, to let it ebb and flow with the emotional logic of the form you are presenting and to never lose your nerve half way.

Nicole is the most wonderful human and would paint by my side and let me watch and absorb all her wisdom. We would spend afternoons just drawing lips together, or drawing the sparkle of someone’s eye she’d show me how to make them wink right back at you. The process of painting is always a lovely surprise, it’s always that beautiful, pleasurable moment where you step back and see what you’ve made and it’s quite an amazing feeling of wonder. I feel as if I’m dancing with something that beats and breathes, working to form a seductive image.

how do you know when a painting is finished?
Instinct. It just feels right. It takes everything out of me. I really put all of my energy and concentration into it. It’s really nice being able to work in my own space. At art school. It’s more performative. People would tell me that my work was really “pretty” so I would make it really brutal. But now, I have much more freedom to make stuff that I want to make. I feel so young on this journey of painting. I don’t think I’ll make good work ’till I’m 80 years old. But now that I’ve graduated, I’m just really trying to paint more. I just want to get better at it keep pushing myself.

what piece of your artwork would you like to be remembered for?
I’m very sure I haven’t made it yet. I’d want to be remembered for my best painting ever, that I will probably make when I am very old and much more wise and my hands are much stronger and my eye can see even more. Maybe then, I would make something good.


do you collect anything? your south london studio is full of treasures.
I am very very spoilt and lucky to have spent some time in Japan. I went just this summer for a month and came back with the most delicate beautiful glass and ceramic sake cups that I bought from all over japan. My very sweet friends Ura and Leo took me to their amazing high tech wonderland art school, Musashino in Tokyo, on our walk back to the station we passed by my dream shop. It was filled with desire. I bought back some very delicate objects—two feathered birds encased within a glass cage and a beautiful lady adorned with a kimono staring at herself in the mirror, also encased within a glass cage.

is there a favourite photograph or painting which inspires you?
I am so inspired by my creative genius friends that I am so lucky to have. I adore and treasure the art works they gift to me (sometimes if I’m good n’ lucky). My friend Oli Pearce is the most amazing painter, he drew a portrait of me on the back of a receipt and it’s the crown jewel of my messy castle. Oli has such a sweet sensitive eye, he has a very different gesture to me and can create such emotional faces with such a presence and solidity that I could only dream of doing, I’m very jealous.

which artist of the past would you most like to meet?
Cy Twombly.

how does your chinese heritage impact your work?
I want to be a strong female WoC painter. My heritage drives me to work hard and make a career for myself in order to make my immigrant parents who have worked so hard their whole lives to provide me and my siblings with education and love in this strange hostile world. I want to carry on making them proud of me.

what is your greatest indulgence in life?
Going to Tsukiji market in Tokyo early in the morning and eating sea urchins, which I scoop into my mouth and onto my tongue with only my hands.

if you could work within a past art movement, which would it be?
I’d like to go back to 1439 and assist Fra Angelico in painting the frescos for San Marco in Florence. His paintings are so moving to me, they have this reflective, atemporal, other-worldly quality that I've never seen before. The colours are milky and translucent like a kind of moonstone or a young opal cracked and healed. I adore frescos, the wet-on-wet painting onto plaster gives paint such a glow and presence. I would have sat obediently mixing his paints and crushing up quartz to add to Fra Angelico's paintings. He did this to evoke holy light. I also love Francesco Clemente’s frescos—so maybe after hanging out with Fra Angelico I’d also like to hang out in 1980’s New York.

what materials are involved in your practice? do you use anything unusual?
A lot of goo, that’s the secret.

what do you wish every child were taught?
If I were to dreamily answer this question I would say that every child should be taught poetry and painting. Yes, in a perfect world, but there is the deeply sad reality that around 65 million girls globally will never attend school. I am so so grateful to my parents for giving me the gift of education and every day I realise how lucky I am. I wish to empower those girls and give them all the opportunities I had as a little girl.

what is your favourite art gallery in london and why?
The Wallace Collection, because of the Rembrandt.


do you prefer to work within a community or independently?
Both, I need the community of the art world and all my talented friends to survive and stay inspired. I chose painting because I really like being able to do every part of the process on my own from start to finish. I don’t like having to rely on other people. I love having my own studio, but at the same time if I couldn’t show anyone the paintings, I would wither.

do you love what you do? if so, why?
There’s nothing like the feeling of making something. It is the highest form of romance.