Nomi Chi, a visual artist and tattooer based in Vancouver, British Columbia, creates microcosmic works that stimulate broader thinking similar to how scientists look at our genetic makeup to inform our evolutionary past and future. In November, 2016, Chi held her first solo exhibition Shed Yr Skin at Hot Art Wet City, an art gallery in Vancouver. There she presented a collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures that begged further examination. In every frame was a cellular mixture of large, twisted human/animal depictions and small, escapist details.
Suffice it to say that many artists have associated the female figure with nature, but Chi manages to combine them by likening the skin of her female figures to the texture of wood. By closing that gap between humans and nature, she’s able to hybridize them and the resultant transformations, while initially disturbing, gradually offer clarity about the way of life. Even the small—seemingly insignificant—details in her illustrations, which recall organelles or the planet Saturn, remind us to put things into perspective, because while organelles are constituents of cells and planets are giant celestial bodies, both need different lenses to see them up close.
Chi also draws from Japanese art and media to imbue the style of her work with a sense of history and culture, while the content of her work relates to feminism and our obsession with the strange and macabre.
Read the interview below as Chi talks about her influences and the details in her art.
How did you get into illustrating?
I do not think there was a particular ‘aha’ moment: I’ve been making visual art for most of my life. At some point, someone offered me money for my work. I was considering getting into animation or game design, but illustration is such a flexible umbrella term for a variety of visual arts practices. It gave me the most legroom for my eclectic interests, so here I am today.
The lines in your illustrations evoke a slow, oozing movement and I can’t help but think of the afflicted animal gods in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Is your work influenced by Asian art? Or, perhaps, is your Asian identity a factor in your art?
Most definitely! I would resist specific ‘Miyazaki’ readings in my work as it’s such a specific reference and my influences span across a variety of medias. In this new body of work I want to be much more transparent about the impact Japanese media has made on my work – specifically, Anime from the early/mid 90’s. My tattoo practice also ensures that I have my finger on the pulse of a lot of traditional Japanese visual art.
The red dots on your illustrated females’ cheeks make them come off as rather doll-like and—in some cases—the lines in their skin give the appearance of wood or tree bark. Are these to create a distance between the human or human-like figure and its macabre surroundings?
The red ‘cheek dots’ is a design element that gravitated towards early in my drawing practice, and have consistently featured in my work since circa high school! They serve different functions, depending on the context in which I am making the work – that is, if they serve a function at all. In a way I want to resist naturalistic readings of my work: I want to highlight the fact that I am in no way trying to depict real people, maybe it’s a cop-out? As for the textured skin: in this, the hope is to bond the character to their environment, rather than create a separation. I want to explore the idea that the boundaries between the self and not-self are often arbitrary.
Is there some sort of interaction between human and animal elements in your illustrations or tattoos that feature both?
I like to use humans and animals as stand-ins for personal experiences, feelings, and interactions. I often don’t want to be too specific as I think the magic in visual art is often made within a space of ambiguity. Shed yr Skin is a body of work that explores boundaries and binaries – one of the biggest tropes within these categories is the nature/human dichotomy. Depicting humans/animals and mixed anthropomorphic figures are my way of navigating these concerns.
You’ve done some pretty large scale tatebanko-like installations and sculptures, like the one you made for Dirty Knees. Why did you decide to work in 3D?
The specific piece you are referring to – titled “魚の女の子” (fish girl) – was made to address sensory experiences, memory, and the body – so it called for a physicality that a painting or a drawing (at least, mounted in a frame/on a wall) could not offer. I would really like to make more installations and large works, as my work is often concerned with space/bodies/boundaries etc, but they really do take a lot out of me.
Some of the colours you use seem to follow a pastel palette, but they are at once ethereal and.. strange. Is there a reason for this effect? Why do you use these shades?
My work aims to be emotionally charged and often dramatic, so I feel like pastel palettes neutralize this energy and makes it more palatable. Also, like you said, it adds a kind of strangeness to the atmosphere.
There is so much more detail in your illustrations. Some are so small that they make your work seem cellular, in that you’re fitting a lot in a small frame. It makes me wonder if there’s a larger body these cellular works will eventually constitute or play reference to. How do you think you’ll evolve as an artist? What’s next for you?
That cellular analogy is really lovely, thank you! I did not think of my work in that manner but it seems fantastically accurate. To extend your metaphor: the work I do is, at the moment, much like a prokaryotic organism that is coming into being, shifting and dying and molting and I am still unsure what it should look like. I don’t have solid plans for the future. I hope it will be spectacular and terrifying.
Images Courtesy of Nomi Chi.