In person Chu is gracious, poised, and carries himself in a way that is endearingly awkward but self assured. When the subject turns to his art, Chu’s demeanor changes to that of an enthusiastic child who can’t wait to share his secrets. He makes sweeping gestures with his hands, a warm smile dominates his face, and most striking is the joy in his eyes, which conveys an obvious passion for his work. He firmly believes that an image can transform something ordinary into something extraordinary.
Chu’s creative technique of photographing pigment in water has created quite a buzz in the arts community, but he remains grounded and focused on pushing the boundaries of his work. The first public display of his new work was at Artists of Utah’s 35 x 35 exhibition, in the fall of 2009. Among the more than seventy pieces exhibited, his “Part of Self Series #2” |1| attracted a good deal of attention and sold on opening night. Then earlier this year his "Dragon #2" won First Place at the Central Utah Art Center’s Utah Ties show, juried by Tim Hawkinson. |2|
In his work Chu says he wants to get away from photography’s foundational role of documentation. He says the process of sitting behind a camera and capturing doesn’t have enough of “the self” in it. “What I really want to do is create instead of capture.”
His latest incarnation, “Photographic Brushstroke,” takes the viewer on a journey that is an intimate look at the evolution of Chu as an artist. At the entrance to the exhibit are three of his earlier pieces from the collection, one that he began working on in 2008. Of all the pieces in the exhibit these initial three are the most reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings in their symmetry and deceptively simple lines. Each one shares a common element, a small unassuming tree that complements its surroundings but sometimes appears dwarfed by the world it inhabits.|3-4| Chu explains that this is a reflection of the isolation he felt when he first moved from Vietnam to the United States in 2001.
He left a close-knit group of supportive friends to come to America to pursue his education. It took some time but he became adjusted to his new surroundings, and this transition is expressed in his work through the small tree, which does not appear in the rest of Chu's exhibit: he moved past his sense of isolation. The viewer travels with him as Chu settles into his environment and enters the main gallery where the full expression of Chu's technique can be found.
Chu began college as a computer science major. When he began studying photography he did not purposely set about to incorporate the Chinese-inspired paintings that surrounded him in his native Vietnam. “At first I didn’t really know what my influence was,” he says, but as this new body of work started to develop “ it started looking very familiar and it became very clear . . . that the Asian part of me is really coming out. It’s projecting on every piece of photography I do.”
His minimalist style echoes an elegance that is unique to traditional Chinese paintings. Chu explains that the ancient art form does not illustrate something in detail but instead captures the essence of what is being depicted. In his exhibit Chu hopes to bring something new to the form. There is a seemingly calculated symmetry to it, and a balance that lets the eye wander comfortably over the image. This is a testament to Chu’s skill as an artist because it’s difficult to imagine how one achieves a look of concise, purposeful strokes with ink in water even though he only impacts the ink by blowing on it.
"Chinese painting has remained the same for many hundreds of years. I want to modernize it, to make it exciting again," Chu explains.
Chu succeeds in this effort. It’s tempting to initially see his work as simple images, but look closer. There are dark veins of ink bleeding in to water and fading as they become diluted. Then only small tendrils are left on the outskirts and those eventually disappear entirely. It’s a bit like looking at an aerial view of a canyon with smaller rivers playing on the periphery. In reality it is several photographs layered on top of one another or laid side by side, through a painstakingly long process.
In one case Chu spent almost a full week taking 1,000 photographs per day to produce a layered image titled, “Dragon.”|0| It’s a large intricate photograph where, like with most of his work, Chu relied on the pigment to provide the inspiration. He dropped the ink in water and waited.
“In every photograph there is a key moment that defines the rest of the work,” Chu said.
After the defining moment he goes through each photograph and chooses which one to use, the one that will express his inspiration. Chu said the ink is in control while he observes with a camera, but he reclaims the control by compiling the images into a greater whole.
His most recent piece, “Trees and Mushrooms,” is also a number of photographs arranged to create one image.|5| In the exhibit it dominates an entire wall, and with good reason. There is an enormous amount of philosophy and tradition that motivates Chu and it’s shown with great vitality in this image.
Plumes of smoke rise into the air, an apocalyptic image but a beautiful one. For this piece Chu found inspiration in the Ying Yang symbol, its polarity, male and female, the balance of cause and effect. The piece contains what looks like smoke signals or a mushroom cloud caused by an apocalyptic bomb. As Chu explains, the mushroom cloud is a symbol of destruction, balanced with the tree, a symbol of life.
As Chu completes his MFA at the University of Utah this year he says he has not thought too much about the future, preferring to concentrate on “defining the language I’m speaking.” More than anything Chu wants people to understand his medium and realize “the extension of the boundary of photography.” This hope is realized through the images in his latest exhibit.
Fortunately for us we will be seeing more of Chu. He acknowledges that this is the first of many shows he hopes to participate in.
“I just barely got into the art scene; I have a long way to go. And I will keep going.”
The Glory of Glass
Utah's Glass Art Guild
It's a brisk Sunday morning in March. We're in a large warehouse in South Salt Lake where Kerry Transtrum is demonstrating a technique that we can't properly describe in these pages without the fear of internet filters shutting out our site.
Transtrum is at the bi-monthly meeting of the Glass Art Guild of Utah, an organization he formed with the help of a handful of friends thirteen years ago. At the time Utah already had a group devoted to what is known as stained glass so Transtrum formed the guild to promote kiln-formed glass. The guild has since added hot blown glass artists to its membership, which has grown to over seventy individuals from all along the Wasatch Front and Back.
The third Sunday of every odd month the Glass Art Guild of Utah meets in Spectrum Studios, the South Salt Lake art space begun by Dan Cummings in 1994. Spectrum Studios is a multi-use space: each artist has their individual corner or room, but much of the space and equipment is open to be used for collaborations. It fits the Glass Art Guild perfectly.
About half the guild’s membership is on hand for the March meeting, sipping coffee and downing muffins and donuts, weaving through the rows of work tables, where glass projects and treats intermingle. As much as any technical or professional goals, the organization's meetings are about camaraderie and networking. As minutes are read and announcements made members good-naturedly kibbitz the speaker. Jodi McRaney Rusho's experience as an eighth-grade teacher becomes evident when she takes control of the crowd to talk about their exhibition schedule. She announces two of their upcoming shows, and encourages everone to participate: “We need to show we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
One guild show happens this month at Patrick Moore Gallery in Salt Lake. A Gathering of Glass, which opens May 21, is open to all members of the guild, working in all forms of glass. The following exhibit, which opens July 30th at Finch Lane Gallery, is a juried fine art exhibit with works by guild members.
As an organization the guild works because everyone takes turns doing their part. Cheryl Peterson, a graphic- and now web-designer, came to glass about four years ago when she saw a class at Western Art Glass. She says she “finally found an art form I loved.” Now she serves as the president of the guild. For her part of the meeting Peterson talks about the group's marketing and promotion strategies. She shows everyone their new bumper stickers and reminds them to post examples of their work on the guild's website.
The guild’s strength comes from promoting their artform as a whole. Peterson says people that attend are a total cross section, “left-brained professionals looking for a creative outlet, or people so creative they could never balance their check book.” Each artist has separate goals -- some making glass beads for jewelry, others working on large public art projects -- but everyone, professionals and amateurs alike, work together.
Though it is not the easiest artform to take up -- it's expensive, and requires a kiln and lots of technical training -- glass continues to attract newcomers in Utah. That's because, as Peterson says, anyone "looking for an [artistic] outlet will find plenty of people willing to help, and a lot of camaraderie."
Individual members are constantly improving their skills, and share their expertise with the group. Guild member Sarinda Jones has been invited to participate in the Northlands Residency in Scotland next month. She will study architectural kiln-formed glass, and is eager to bring her knowledge back to Utah.
Much of this knowledge-sharing occurs at the guild's bi-monthly meetings, where demonstrations can range from intense glass techniques to pointers on marketing. This particular weekend Kerry Transtrum has been teaching a class on "cane pulling," and for the guild's meeting demonstrates the technique. Using different colored pieces, he prepares his design in a 1 1/2 inch square space. This is attached to a long rod and placed into a small box furnace through a circular opening (the glass art term for this item has now shifted in common parlance to be associated with anonymous encounters in bathroom stalls -- hence the embargo on our opening paragraph). Once the square has been heated sufficiently it is dipped in glass, and then suspended from the ceiling. Next Transtrum uses pliers to pull on the glass while another guild member applies heat. They stretch the original design into a cane more than three feet long and place it under towels to cool.