Low Art, High Commerce: Clara Chon and Blue Blank

We welcome our new art columnist, Daniel Satele to the Pantograph Punch. This month, he talks to University of Auckland MFA grad Clara Chon about installations fit for retail (or vice versa), art she likes and hates, and childhood.

1 image of Clara Chon

Originally from Seoul, Korea, Clara Chon has lived in Auckland, New Zealand, since she was ten. In 2011 she completed a Master of Fine Arts degree and began her fashion label, Blue Blank. You may have seen some of Clara’s Blue Blank items around: they include leather harnesses; harness-inspired leatherwork bags; and hand-painted, hand-studded, leather jackets. But before Clara began taking wearables to market, she was exhibiting them in art galleries as components of larger installations. Her interest in making things that are wearable, and in fact eminently sellable, didn’t always go over well at art school.

“Some people actually gave me really negative feedback,” she says. “They were like, ‘Oh, have you stopped making art now and you’re selling craft?’” This attitude stems from a persistent tradition in the fine arts: you have the pursuit of “high” cultural objects on the one hand, and the output of mere “commercial” fodder on the other. But as Clara argues (and I, for one, agree) this outlook on culture is dated. “This type of demarcating runs counter to progress and innovation."

Describing her Blue Blank items as “tangible oxymorons,” their wanton mix of soft with hard materials and motifs mirrors the pulsing tenor of Clara’s artistic output as a whole. Her work characteristically calls forth a tension between the ostensibly opposed sensibilities of cynicism and romanticism. I’m fascinated by the way her work is by turns flippant and meticulous in technique, echoing the way its emotional tone swings between a bleak misanthropy and an almost naive playfulness. Encapsulating two seemingly contradictory viewpoints into one bracing experience is the point of art, since “what it means to be human,” Clara comments, is to experience a “sort of unjustifiable logic with conflicting emotions.” So it's a messy sort of truth, and one, she says “that I really feel only art can frame.”

[caption id="attachment_6086" align="aligncenter" width="500"] "This Is Total Fucking Bullshit", Clara Chon[/caption]

2 This is Total Fucking Bullshit by Clara Chon

Can you tell me a little about your childhood and adolescence?

I spent the majority of my childhood trying to stay invisible, largely so that I could keep my doodles going. Most of the time these all had a grand storyline, probably a weak rendition of whatever cartoon I was watching at the time. I would continue the saga by incessantly drawing on any piece of paper I could find and this trail would eventually bleed its way onto the backs of textbooks; desks and chairs. Sometimes I drew repeatedly over a drawing on the same paper and all the lines would mingle into this big inky blob.

Adolescence was equally uneventful, except that I spent lot of money on CDs.

[caption id="attachment_6087" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Excerpt from Blunt Sessions[/caption]

3 from Blunt Sessions by Clara Chon

When did you first consciously decide to show your artwork in public? What makes you want to keep showing your work

I don’t really make art with exhibiting as an end goal in mind. Showing my work is only really a by-product. However, I would love to keep on making art because it actually keeps me stimulated and interested in what’s going on around the world.

[caption id="attachment_6088" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Selection of Clara's Blue Blank handbags[/caption]

4 Blue Blank bags

When have you felt best about yourself as an artist?

When I knew how to stop myself while working on a piece. In other words, when I knew something was resolved enough that I could stop working on it and I was happy with the end result.

Who is an under-rated artist you admire? Why does this artist deserve more recognition than she or he currently gets?

I love Martin Kippenberger. I wish he was being shown more because I think his work is absolutely amazing.

[caption id="attachment_6090" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Calvin Nymon models a Blue Blank jacket[/caption]

6 Calvin Nymon wearing Blue Blank

Name an artist whose work you despise. What’s the worst thing about this artist’s work?

There isn’t one particular artist whose work I necessarily hate on, but I can’t stand this particular referential method that I’ve been noticing in a lot of contemporary art. It’s like, with enough poise and appropriate historical references to maintain its “relevance,” this kind of artwork relies on borrowing and rehashing iconographies of modernist art aesthetics (for example, Bauhaus; arte povera bordering on poor man’s DIY) for an instant gravitas. It doesn’t seem to say much apart from its self-explanatory stance that the past has been re-appropriated into the present, hence its anachronistic merit as a differing point of view on past history. I’ve actually used this method a lot myself as a last-minute resort and I always get away with it somehow. So there.

[caption id="attachment_6091" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Detail from Clara's University of Auckland MFA submission, 2011[/caption]

7 Detail from MFA submission by Clara Chon

Can you name three historical figures that inspire you and tell me a little about what each of them means to you?

I like Nietzsche. I like that he was human and contradicted himself but each time he had something interesting to say. He is also an easy read.

I love Alexander Scriabin. I would love to have someone describe my work as being like a “bath of cocaine, ice and rainbows,” having that other-worldly, cosmic quality in something, so tactile, like music.

I thought really hard but I can’t think of a third, sorry.

[caption id="attachment_6092" align="aligncenter" width="500"] "Plurality Is Here", Clara Chon[/caption]

8 Pluarlity Is Here by Clara Chon

What projects and/or shows are you working on over the next 12 months?

I started on a range of accessories last year and I plan on continuing with this, hopefully on a bigger scale.

I’ve just been in South Korea and felt inspired by the sheer insanity and painstakingly meticulous level of customer service there. Walk in to buy a pair of shoes and you’ll have a spineless best friend for five minutes. I think customer service is a bewildering, concomitant phenomenon of capitalism – all this bizzare, compassionate theatricality and emotional labour just for the sake of making a sale. I would love to push this idea and turn it into a project. Buy everything in a store and take it all back for a full refund.

11 Aggregate View by Clara Chon

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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