The Art of Being What It Doesn’t Have to Be: An Interview with Ed Pien

Ed Pien’s drawn world is conjured out of equal parts marvel and menace. The marvel comes from both the variety and the quantity of his hybrid creatures, the menace from their character. This complicated reading is apparent everywhere in his prodigious output: whether in the attenuated blueness of his Liquid Beings from “Deep Waters,” the overlapping metamorphics of the figures in Haven of Delight, or the simple grotesqueries of the images in “Invisible Sightings.” Pien’s drawn world is in a constant state of transformation, in which all things seem to be in the process of becoming something else, in which any single figure is rendered at the moment when it is about to morph into another singular figure, and then another. Rather than producing a feeling of instability, the effect of this visual shifting comes close to magic, a sort of visual legerdemain, the hand tricking the head into all manner of wonderment.

Inside a Pien installation, you often feel as if you’re in a dream. It is a state of pleasurable perturbation. His exhibition at Canada House Gallery in London, uk, in 2007 was called “Tangled Garden,” and the naming embodies a double hook. The garden may be a fecund place, but its growth can be an entanglement, its delicate skeining simultaneously a nurturing womb and an enveloping web.

Ed Pien was born Taipei, Taiwan, in 1958 and emigrated to Canada in 1969. He says in the following interview that drawing “propels” everything he does and that propulsion was apparent at an early age. Pien began to create a fanciful domain as a child, and the medium for that uninterrupted invention has remained drawing. It has been what he calls an “unending, moving and very elusive process.” He sees each of these characteristics–the variety, the emotional engagement and the resistance to containment–as sought-after attributes. What he most admires about drawing is that it is a way of taking himself out of the familiar. This sense of estrangement is the necessary outcome of “thinking about drawingness,” which is how he broadly characterizes his approach to the world and the art he makes in it. It allows him an even-handedness in his subject matter. Pien makes no judgments about the nature of his drawn figures. When he describes making art as “wrestling with demons,” he is quick to point out that there is nothing pejorative in the monster or demon designation. For him, it is simply a recognition of Otherness, and that condition is his welcome inheritance. It is also one he cultivates.

The wonder of Pien’s art in the drawings, installations and the large “Paper Cuts” is in its rich layering of the various traditions he inhabits. In a single work he will pull together an infusion of influences, including Hieronymus Bosch, 1450-1516, Jacques Callot, 1592-1635, Francisco Goya, 1746-1828, and Inuit art. What these artists and art forms have in common is their use of the human body as the site of all action and reflection. Pien is especially drawn to Bosch (he has called one body of work “Earthly Delights”) because of his ability to “play with the body.” What he admires is that Bosch was able to explore the body and its complex sexualities in a moralistic period. The body, in its exquisite and gruesome forms, is also at the centre of Pien’s art, whether as charred victims of the bombing of Hiroshima or as sensual silhouettes in the labyrinthine treescapes of his paper cuts. His range, as he says, is to embrace things that are “unfathomable, but still possible.” The hybridized body has been his generator. The way I depicted bodies “made me realize that anything is possible, and the impossible is something worth investigating.” Ed Pien, by this marker, is the drawer as impossiblist.

Ed Pien was interviewed by phone on June 6, 2010. To read Border Crossings interview with Ed Pien, pick up Issue 115 on newsstands now or click here to subscribe.