In the middle of our conversation, Chie Fueki turns the tables on me. “What do you see in the painting, Jen? I really want to know.” I usually try to talk as little as possible when interviewing artists, but I can’t resist the game of identification in her work, and so I name: butterflies, ribbons, stars, hearts, the earth, a bouncy ball, feathers, symbols of childhood, a union, grids, zig-zags, pink stilettos, a reflection in a mirror that is more real than the person reflected.
Fueki’s paintings, made by collaging cut and painted pieces of paper onto wood panels, are humming, pulsating nerve centers. Disparate signs and popular symbols, patterns and grids, bodybuilders and birds, shooting stars and skulls, all congregate into one synchronous vision, contained to the verge of bursting. Still, everything within them — and the overall painting — has a laser-sharp focus, as if the act of precise cutting has held it there.
Fueki and I meet in Beacon, New York, where she now lives and works. When we settle into her studio, she places a covered basket on a bench, unties the ribbon around it, and opens it to offer ginger molasses cookies. I appreciate the drama of this small gesture and recognize it reflected in her work. Several of her paintings have depicted inlaid jewel boxes, and more recently, during quarantine, she created an “apartment project” in which she framed the view of Mount Beacon from her living room window with a monumental paper ribbon collaged from scraps of old paintings. Decoding her work is an act of wrapping and unwrapping, as we notice elements, patterns, and marks nestled inside one another.
Before I get on the train back to New York City, she takes me to the banks of the Hudson River. It is cold, but neither of us can resist snapping dozens of photographs of the postcard-perfect sunset. Her painting embraces the picturesque and the kitsch, the anxiety and exhilaration of moments of transition.
Chie Fueki (b. 1973) was born in Yokohama, Japan, and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She received her BFA from the Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota, Florida, and her MFA from Yale University. She also studied at Yale Norfolk School of Art. She had solo exhibitions with Mary Boone Gallery in 2006 and 2011. Her work was included in recent group exhibitions at Inman Gallery, Houston, Texas, and Miles McEnery Gallery and D.C. Moore Gallery, both in New York. She was the subject of a solo exhibition in 2014 at the Orlando Museum of Art. Her work is represented by Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Los Angeles, and Mother Gallery, Beacon, New York.
Jennifer Samet: You were born in Japan but grew up in Brazil. Can you tell me a little bit about this experience, and if you made art or drew as a child?
Chie Fueki: One of my earliest and most significant memories is my first day of kindergarten in Brazil. I was born in Japan and moved to Brazil with my parents and sister when I was three. When I went into the kindergarten I didn’t know any Portuguese, and neither did my parents, at that point. My mother taught us the words for “pee” and “poop” and pushed us into the school room, in hopes that we would pick up the language naturally. And we did. We learned quickly.
That first day in class, I sat next to a girl named Carla, who became my childhood best friend. She showed me how to draw a classic little kid’s drawing of a sun in the corner, a girl made out of circles and triangles, and a house with a triangular roof and square on the bottom, a grid for a window in the middle, and a door. When she showed me those, she also taught me the words for them: “Esse é a casa; esse é a menina.”
I had never drawn that way before she taught me. I hadn’t been exposed to it. But it was formative, because she was showing me symbols and simultaneously telling me the Portuguese words, which were unfamiliar. When I came home, I showed my mother my drawing. She was so disappointed. She loved the drawings I had made before being “taught” like that.
JS: I know you have spoken about Leslie Lerner (1949-2005) as an important teacher. Can you tell me about him?
CF: Leslie Lerner was my undergraduate professor at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. He was the kind of teacher who was willing to share his own practice as part of his teaching. We were reading books with many disparate ideas, and they seemed to come together and make sense in his romantic paintings. Before he passed away, he sent me a postcard with an image of a Gee’s Bend quilt. He wrote a short note, but it was all about painting and life, and his wife and daughter. I took parts of his writing and used them as titles for all of the paintings in my 2006 show at Mary Boone Gallery.
JS: You went to graduate school at Yale. Who were some of your significant professors there?
CF: Catherine Murphy is my mentor from Yale. She will go to any length for her work, even if it means digging a hole to drop her easel into the ground to control eye level. She makes me feel like a painter can figure anything out, and continuously challenges me to see painting in new ways.
Sam Messer was another incredible teacher. He is literally always drawing, and when you watch him in action, you can see an artist thinking with his hand — eye, pencil, and paper completely fluid. I was initially inspired to start painting portraits of real people because of Sam’s work, which for me is about human empathy.
John Walker always said mysterious things. There was a rainbow-colored interference of sparkly wrapping paper in my work and he said, “You can paint this for the rest of your life. And you will keep learning from it. Everything you want to learn about your painting is in this.”
JS: For many years, the repeating pattern of a chrysanthemum flower was the basis of the forms and shapes in your paintings. What was its significance, how did you use it, and how has this structure evolved over time?
CF: The ground of many of my earlier paintings was made with graphite rubbings on mulberry paper from a plastic placemat’s raised chrysanthemum flower pattern. These densely packed chrysanthemums aggregated into larger shapes of symbolic imagery, from skulls to eagles to bodybuilders. The individual chrysanthemums were also an outer structure for an even smaller-scale language of dot patterns, so there was a nesting of micro within macro in those paintings.
My process has gradually grown more open and organic, with less hierarchy in the structure and more of an equivalence between mark, symbol, shape, spray paint, pour, dot, collaged paper, field, or drawn line. I think of these as all being woven into each other and signaling an “energy version” of who or what I am painting. They are imagining what it is like to be a living body on subatomic and cellular levels, while also interacting on a human scale. Most of the paintings are large in scale because I draw each shape in relation to my body, and hopefully a person will feel it with their body too.
Paper continues to be the basis of my paintings on panels. They are constructed out of collaged paper and scraps from past paintings, which are glued together like a quilt. Each shape is a different piece of paper. I paint the paper with acrylic.
JS: I wonder if there are historic artists to whom you feel connected, or who inspired you, in this very unique painting process.
CF: Seeing a 1997 exhibition of Hannah Höch’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, when I was still a student had a big impact on me. I don’t use magazines or photographs, but the idea of collage was something I wanted to work with since that moment. Her most famous photomontage is called “Cut with a Kitchen Knife …” (1919-20). To be able to cut shapes and construct the image with them is important to me. Each part is separate, symbolically, but they come together as a whole.
JS: You refer to your paintings over a long period of time as “symbol paintings.” How do you define this, and how do symbols function in your work now?
CF: In my early works, I was often painting motifs that could function as metaphorical icons, like Mount Fuji, an eagle, a butterfly, or the sun, and containing them in an oblique box, like an icon painting wrapped as a present. I was considering how painting could be “read,” like hieroglyphics. Now, the symbols are within larger worlds, and become looser free associations. They are not as contained.
I am interested in the symbols that are flooding our world, which everybody can recognize, but which have almost no meaning. They might be from childhood — like a ribbon or a butterfly. I think about the common symbols used on stickers or emojis. The viewer can find a point of entry through recognizable symbols.
I think of myself as a mixed-language painter. I use multiple spatial configurations and multiple perspectival systems. I combine perspectival systems as a way of suggesting a pluralistic or optimistic future that I would like to see.
JS: Can you tell me about what interested you in using the image of Mount Fuji, which is almost a cliché and a universally understood signifier of Japan?
CF: In many of my paintings of Mount Fuji, I appropriated Hokusai’s representation of Mount Fuji. It is a very exaggerated image. In reality, Mount Fuji is not so pointed. However, I grew up in Brazil, on the other side of the world, so I would think about and imagine my home country through images, like Hokusai’s “Red Fuji,” reproduced on a calendar.
When my parents left Brazil after 20 years of living there and returned to Japan, they could see the actual Mount Fuji from their apartment building. They started to send me pictures of it. I remember feeling a disconnect, of not really understanding the appearance of it. Many people, when thinking of Mount Fuji, think of Hokusai’s version.
JS: The owl is also a recurrent and meaningful motif in your work. What is your connection to owls?
CF: The owl comes from personal life. I grew up living with an owl. I went to a Japanese school in Brazil, and the school rescued an abandoned owl. I was asked to bring her home because we were known to live with a lot of birds. I rode on the school bus with her. When I arrived at my house, I rang the doorbell and my mother looked at me through the peephole. She saw me standing there, with the bright yellow eyes of the owl, perched on my shoulder, looking back at her. The owl, Ponta, was very affectionate with us, although she didn’t like other people at all. She would stay close, and clean our eyelashes and eyebrows the way birds feather other birds. That is why I still paint her.
The form of an owl can be drawn with a group of basic shapes, and it is very recognizable as a symbol. In Japan they can be like good luck charms. Also, owls’ eyes are in the front of their heads, so they became a metaphor for the gaze of a painting. If someone offers their gaze to the painting, I want for the gaze to be returned.
JS: This kind of gaze is very present in your painting of a deer (“Deer,” 2004). Does it hold the same meaning?
CF: My partner, Joshua Marsh, and I moved from Brooklyn to Pennsylvania, where we lived for many years. Deer were constantly crossing in front of our car while driving on back roads at night. It was an unfamiliar experience for me at first, because I hadn’t lived in that climate before. Their eyes are the first thing you see floating in the darkness. Their gaze makes you realize that your car headlights are a kind of gaze projected into the unseen, too. Deer freeze at that moment, and seem to transform into a symbol for a couple of seconds: their eyes becoming a headlight. I knew what was happening on an everyday level, but I also saw potential for a magical realist embodiment of it: a moment of crossing paths with a spirit of nature.
JS: Gradually you introduced the figure into your paintings. How did it evolve from representations of “archetypes,” like the paintings of bodybuilders and athletes, to portraits of specific people, such as your friends and teachers?
CF: The first figures I painted were shown alongside paintings with other imagery. I exhibited paintings of birds, Mount Fuji, Bodhidharma, rabbits, a pine tree, a bodybuilder, skulls, and a butterfly all together. But the bodybuilder painting led into its own group of figurative paintings.
I made a series of paintings with symbolic imagery based on American football. They suggested mythological heroes and animal mascot spirits, rather than specific players. When making those paintings, I would ask friends to sit for me so that I could sketch body shapes. From this experience, I became interested in painting specific people.
There is something about painting someone you know well that opens the possibility for a deep abstract, empathetic connection. You try to paint that living person in all their complex dimensions. I knew I wanted those paintings to be a collaborative process with each of my friends.
Currently, the paintings I’m working on are based on real people and specific events, but the figures are even more abstract. I am open to the fluidity of symbols shifting: for instance, from the circle-head of a traffic symbol to a moon in a landscape.
The portrait paintings begin by going into someone’s space and drawing them in person. But when I come home, it is not really about the appearance of the person, but rather the whole experience that gets translated.
For example, one day when we visited Catherine Murphy, she was wearing a denim jumpsuit. The entire front of it was covered with paint. That was the starting point for my portrait of her. I collaged one of my old pairs of jeans onto the painting. I wanted the portrait to be a narrow vertical format. It is the presence of her standing, without a true representation of her. It also suggests a viewer looking over her shoulder to see the subject of her painting. That is so tempting when you come across a painter working outside. The edge of the painting is meant to be the surface of the painting she is touching.
JS: Which artists of history are you thinking about in particular these days?
CF: Recently, I have been thinking about Cimabue. When I saw “La Maestà” (c. 1280) at the Louvre I knew that it had all the elements that I wanted to have in my own work. I could feel Cimabue painting it too. The painting was talking directly.
On that same trip to Europe about eight years ago, I saw Titian at the Prado. Seeing Titian’s paintings in person shifted my understanding of time and space in painting. When I came home, I did not know how to even begin to try to understand what I had seen. But when I saw Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), it made me understand Titian better.
That led to me making the driving paintings and the painting of Ellen Altfest on a bicycle, “Ellen” (2017). It made me want to paint something that’s not singularly symbolic. It keeps evolving and changing meaning, as the person who is looking at it changes or has particular experiences.
JS: I heard you speak about an amazing process of listening to a single song only while working on one painting, and how it informed you of when the painting process was complete. Can you tell me about this?
CF: When I am coming up with an idea for a painting, I search for one song that sounds like the painting I’m trying to make. I am not synesthetic, but the song can help me imagine a color that the painting needs to be. Then I put the song on repeat while painting. I do this because I find it impossible to take handwritten notes or sketches for all of the things that need to happen in a painting. Our mind moves faster than our hands.
Instead, I train my brain to associate my ideas for the painting with sounds in the music. By listening to the song on repeat while painting, I am reminded of what I need to do. I know when the painting is finished, when I listen to the song and find there is nothing else to be done.
It is so difficult to focus in today’s world, especially with our phones around. Painting means a hand and a brain being together. And in order for that to happen, anything else that interrupts the flow is distracting. A single song helps to sustain focus.
However, I will say that in some ways I never feel alone in my studio, and I like it that way. There is that famous Philip Guston quote about how you begin in the studio with all of history and your friends. Then, one by one, all of the people leave. Well, I don’t want for them to leave. I always hear them. I hear every comment. I hear everybody. It is not only my teachers or art history. The friendship and the dialogue I have with my peers is really important. I learn so much from them. Josh is my partner, so he is the closest person to me, and we are in daily dialogue with each other. Without all of these people, I don’t think I would be making the paintings I’m making. I make the paintings for them. I know they are the people who are there for you, and who follow every move you go through.