by Mollie Kaye, October 2010

Chin Yuen helps us visualize energy on a human, and planetary, scale.

As soon as we hear, touch, or lay eyes on something, we’ve got a story about it; it’s unavoidable. This is the nature of our human experience, and also what makes art, in all its forms, so subjective. Before us is the text or image in its literal or physical “truth” (whatever that may be), but within us is the subtext and meaning, informed by our collective experience, based entirely on our minds’ and hearts’ interpretation—an infinite number of interpretations, because inevitably they change as we evolve, moment by moment.

Seated at the black glass dining room table in artist Chin Yuen’s home (which features one of her square canvases cleverly set into a curio-style cavity in the centre), it becomes clear that my initial interpretation of her is evolving every second. In fact, with each new rivulet that branches from the flow of our conversation, more and more is revealed about this artist, her process, and her passion to stimulate and communicate with both words and images.

Her current painting style evolved from her lifelong, fiery determination to meet challenges and stretch herself away from the familiar. In fact, exploration and embracing change seem to be what feed Yuen’s soul as an artist. Born in Malaysia, she spent her early years in Singapore, moved to Portsmouth, England, and then to Canada in the 1980s. Later, she roamed to Italy. Although now working in the abstract, as a young artist, she started out firmly planted in the literal, and says that even from her pre-kindergarten days, she had “almost an obsession with realism and representational art.”

When Yuen was a teenager, her mother decided to move the family to Edmonton “because she thought the quality of life would be good.” And was it? “Yes,” the artist replies emphatically. After years in England enduring racially-themed cruelty, “...we had developed this huge armour...we’d be really tough.” She and her sister started out on the defensive in North America, but “the armour slowly dissolved. There were wonderful things about living in England, but Canada was far more accepting and diverse.”

A longing for yet more diversity, and beauty, led her west to Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, where she graduated with honours. There, in the school’s conceptually-driven atmosphere, she worked out some of her issues around racism and sexism through pieces that drew heavily on her well-honed drafting skills. This politically-motivated work, she says, was “exhausting...As a kid, the artists I enjoyed were not political artists. They created beautiful paintings with texture, colour, and mood.” 

After moving to Victoria and completing a master’s degree in English at UVic, she realized she could relate her conceptual ideas in writing, and release visual art as her all-purpose vehicle for self-expression. She is still giddy as she remembers the freedom she felt at the time, asking herself, “‘Why don’t I keep the painting side of me as a celebration of life, and if I have anything to complain about, I will write about it, or talk about it?’ That solved a huge problem—I was able to enjoy the different sides of me.”

For a few years, Yuen then produced a more ebullient brand of representational art. But true to her feisty spirit, which showed itself in high school when a beloved art teacher told her that square canvases and circular imagery were too difficult to work with (both continue to be major themes in her pieces), “After so many years of drawing or painting realistically, it was just not challenging enough. I wanted to...move beyond the literal. Now I celebrate shapes, mood, colour; there’s no literal story, but moods that are created by movements and textures.”

In a written description of her current collection of paintings, entitled “Wavelengths” (opening this month at Fernwood’s artist-run Collective Works gallery), the artist says they are “a series of acrylic paintings that visualize the emission of energy that we can’t see with our bare eyes: be it the energy in conversations, ideas in dreams, or the interactions of stars in our galaxy.” I will add that I found worlds within worlds in these complex pieces, often created by the serendipitous behaviour of the paint as it was applied—there are suggestions of continents and planets, and distant landscapes that evoke in me feelings of melancholy and wonder, awe and contemplation. I’m stunned that she’s using acrylics, as some of the dispersing effects of the pigment look like those only achievable with oil. 

In her piece “Calm After the Storm,” Yuen explores the emotional state following personal upheaval, conflict, or hardship. “I was just coming out of a storm with my family; it was the right time to paint that sense of settling energy, finding a semblance of peace.” Having endured my own internal hurricanes in the last few years, I see in this piece the clouds parting to reveal clear blue sky (still slightly fragmented by shrapnel) and a dripping, freshly-washed structure of “ground” below those ever-present circles, floating in a line, each their own entity, but now sharing some sense of harmony, perhaps after bouncing all over the damned place and slamming into each other.

Driving home from my afternoon with Yuen, “Goodbye Stranger” comes on the radio. I smile, remembering that she told me she’s hoping to see the 70s supergroup Supertramp in Berlin in a few days. She’ll be jet-lagged, but going to concerts like these is what she loves about her German husband’s hometown, by her definition “a place where things you thought were long dead and gone are still alive”—including this relic of a rock band, of which she is a big fan. Singing along, I think of the blur created by this artist’s stunning pace of evolution, and imagine this must be one of her favourite songs. It was early morning yesterday/I was up before the dawn/And I really have enjoyed my stay/But I must be moving on...

Wavelengths opens at Collective Works, 1311 Gladstone Ave, on October 22 at 7pm, and runs until November 4. 250-590-1345, www.collectiveworks.ca.

Mollie Kaye is an avid connoisseur of interpersonal energy.