Tessar Lo was born in Indonesia and has lived and worked everywhere from Los Angeles to Amsterdam. His instinctive style emits a raw energy in which the boundaries between dreams and reality are fused into one. Spontaneous brushstrokes and collage techniques create a surreal world in which nature merges with being and children play amongst abstract stars and animals. Tessar has had works exhibited everywhere from Berlin to New York to San Francisco and has a solo show coming up this January 31st at Cooper Cole Gallery. Not long ago I payed him a studio visit and had an amazing conversation about dreams, change and tapping into the inner child.
How long have you been in the city for?
I was born in Indonesia and came here when I was four. Raised in Scarborough, I went to Oakville for school, and moved to L.A after graduating. Having finagled a Visa, I spent two years represented by a gallery there before coming back to Toronto. Soon after returning, I got contacted by Cooper Cole and Jaski, about a year apart, saying they had been watching me since graduating and were interested in representing me.
From Indonesia to Canada and the States to the Netherlands! How has that worked out?
Jaski Art Gallery reached out to me in 2010 to see about putting together some paintings in a show for late that year. Prior to this year, I’ve gone every year to Amsterdam for a show and because it had been so regularly scheduled, we decided to take this year more casually to process some things. For the past three years it’s been two major shows a year. Honestly, it’s something I can handle, as I work every day, but it doesn’t allow for incubation. There’s no time for me to make big mistakes. I’ve been fortunate to have this past year to have even more time to figure some things out.
Having travelled to and worked in various cities, how would you compare Toronto’s art scene to those of Amsterdam and Los Angeles?
There’s a lot of really creative people in the city and I’ve been lucky enough to know a handful of them, which is really inspiring. Having said that, I also think there’s a certain resistance to change which makes people a little afraid to create their own thing. That has sort of given me the push I needed. It’s still a really young city, and I think a lot of people still look to others for approval. Other major hubs have stepped up and created their identities in saying it like it is for them, without waiting for the ‘ok’ from elsewhere.
What inspires you the most?
I used to source a lot from my dreams. I’d be inspired by images that are juxtaposed and kind of odd and unsettling…But these days I’m looking more at the tone of dreams rather than the visuals themselves. Do you ever sit sometimes and look at a wall or a clock and have to assure yourself that that’s a clock? Or when you repeat a word until it becomes unrecognizable. That abstraction and change is more of what I’m into now. Identity, I’ve realized, also takes a major role both in the need to make work and what’s in the work itself. What all of us have in common, artists, or not, is the need to find purpose.
I’ve noticed a number of your sketched works somewhat resemble children’s drawings. What’s your first memory of art as a child?
I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently actually, it’s funny that you mention it. My family moved to the city without knowing how to speak English and I remember being in kindergarten class, not getting a single thing of what anyone was saying. I started drawing a series of diagonal lines on paper, cut out the first shape and before I knew there was a line-up of boys wanting me to make them these little paper daggers. Soon enough, the class was full of kindergarteners brandishing paper daggers.
The teacher was thrilled, I’m sure! Some of your works also remind me a little of Jean Michel Basquiat’s.
Basquiat’s willingness to create has been a big inspiration for me. I don’t think he had any preoccupation with what was good and what wasn’t…he just wanted to create. Obviously there was work of his that was better than others, but I think a lot of people get caught up on what is “good” way too much. Kids don’t think like that, they think about what they need to do and they do it. If you give an accomplished artist a 10×10 ft canvas, they might sit and think about it for a bit. If you give a kid that canvas, “Where are the crayons?!”.
Do you incorporate aspects from your Indonesian background into your work often?
It’s similar to what I said about dreams. The tone of what Indonesia has been for me is currently what interests me. Prior to last year I had a more romantic, nostalgic view towards the country and I hadn’t been back for eighteen years. Being there for three months made it more real and very different than what I remembered. I ended up wanting to convey that feeling of tension and necessity more than just the colourful visuals, traditional dancing and flowers. There’s an undercurrent of something else, and if you just sit and watch how people function in various parts of Indonesia, you’ll realize some of these places depend on tradition and culture for identity and economy, but their interests lie in things more material, modern.
Was there a certain moment that made you realize you wanted to pursuit art?
My dad is a photographer and growing up he’d pull me aside and point out little things to me, which has in some way helped mold my perspective on how I see things. One significant moment was in sixth grade. As elementary school dramas sometimes go, I found myself having friends one day and none the next. For a couple of days I was by myself and thought: “I have to do something, I can’t just sit around and watch everyone else have fun”. So I got a sketchbook, started drawing X-men and realized I was able to create my own reality, (laughs) It gave me a sense of gratification and power, you can create the world you live in.
Is there any technique or medium which you haven’t delved in yet but would like to?
I’ve always done a bit of sculpture here and there, but would really like to pursue it deeply at some point down the road. I also love taking pictures, though I’d be reluctant to call it photography, maybe archiving. Is archiving a medium or technique?
What’s your work process like now?
It changes a lot, even within mediums. I’m sometimes asked why I’m working on something different month to month. It ultimately is a process of finding, evolution, excavation- I try many things because exploration is imperative to making good work. I think what remains consistent, though, is that I try not to do too much planning. I don’t like the idea of over-planning or knowing too much. For me, the process is as important as the result. If I’m making something and I’m not learning/inspired from it, then others won’t either. I need to be discovering as much, if not more than those who will eventually see the work.
Photos by Lexiquette and tessarlo.com