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Art AND: Yam Chew Oh

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Yam Chew Oh is very easy to talk to. So easy to talk to, in fact, that over the course of our two-hour-plus conversation, I had to keep reminding myself that my sole purpose in his light-filled home studio was not to eat the spread of snacks he had thoughtfully prepared and then fall in love with Roger, his human-food-obsessed rescue beagle—my goal was to learn more about Oh’s life and studio practice.

It’s not just that Oh is personable, or even that he is a good engager who lobs thoughtful questions back at the interviewer—it’s also that storytelling itself is both a part of his work and who he is as a person. As his practice is focused on mixing materials, it would be easy for viewers to see an installation of Oh’s and assume the narrative begins and ends with a meditation on the life of the found and collected materials such as plastic, wood, metals, and post-consumer packaging bits that make up many of his three-dimensional works. But I found there is more than the single story of the material; there is usually a personal tie-in, a cultural or historical reference the viewer can also pick up on if they engage with it.

Given the layered meanings his work evokes, Oh—who is also a writer and teaches writing at the college level—has incorporated text descriptions into the presentation of his work. Yet he does not insist that viewers digest his words in totality. One piece he made, while pursuing his MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York, incorporated cassette tapes. A viewer told Oh the piece reminded him of being a child in his mother’s car and the feelings associated with that flood of memories he had not considered for some time. For Oh, this one person’s experience of the work made it hugely successful. “It managed to move this one person completely on his own terms and through his own experiences,” Oh says. “From that moment on, I decided that everyone’s going to have their own interpretations and encounters with my work, and I’m totally cool with that.”

Perhaps Oh’s personality makes him so open to the viewpoints of others, but he has undoubtedly also been influenced by his global lifestyle, living everywhere from Brunei to San Francisco, and two decades of working in the corporate world. Originally from Singapore, Oh has moved across the world more times than he has fingers and had several other careers before he moved to Baltimore with his partner in 2015. 

On a sabbatical from work to attend MICA’s Post-Bac program, and then as a grad student at SVA, Oh began developing work that addressed the 2001 death of his father who was a karung guni man, or junk collector. Oh intended to make paintings at SVA but felt stuck in that modality. So he turned to gathering materials from the streets and reimagining them as ready-made sculptures and installations—a practice that his dad would have found very strange, he tells me. But it’s a way of working he has since folded into his studio practice that helps him feel connected with his natural inclination towards collecting. Sitting in his studio, I took in the stacked shelves laden with boxes with labels such as “small things with text,” “dice,” and “laundry tags.” He explains that sometimes, he’s in the studio “just mucking around” when the idea to use a thing he has been saving for years strikes him. The delicious assembling of on-hand materials for such a moment has become an important element of his practice.

Oh has founded and been a part of a couple of artist collectives and recently joined Atlantika, which has nine active members located all over the world with a concentration in the DMV. Collaborating with others to exhibit work and discuss art has been essential to Oh post-school. “We’re such solitary animals; isn’t it crazy that as artists we constantly open up ourselves to the world, with all our vulnerabilities, all our animal thoughts? I just find that absolutely crazy. But I don’t think any one of us would do anything less than that,” Oh says. “As artists, we are so privileged. I always feel it’s such a privilege to feel this way, that there is this creative impulse that leaves you no choice.”

In Oh’s Mount Vernon studio overlooking Baltimore’s Symphony Hall, we talked about the fickle nature of creativity, the challenge and excitement of working with college students, and how we try every day to be the people our dogs think we are.

The laundry handicap, 2020, used laundromat hangers and foam protective packaging, found bike bottle cage, approx. 17 x 19 1/2 x 20 inches
Yam Chew Oh, portrait by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt Issue 13: Collect

SUBJECT: Yam Chew Oh, 48
WEARING: White T-shirt and light-grey jeans
PLACE: Mount Vernon

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading? 

Yam Chew Oh: The most important book I’ve read is Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir (1988) by American author, poet, and activist Paul Monette. It tells of the love and struggles that he and his longtime partner, Roger Horwitz, shared in the final 19 months of Horwitz’s life, beginning with the day the latter was first diagnosed with HIV. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking book that first exposed me to the extraordinary love between two men and the AIDS epidemic; it made me cry. It also drove me to volunteer as a counselor at Singapore’s only HIV anonymous testing clinic for several years. Monette’s words and stories moved me tremendously—that’s what I hope my work does for my audience.

You’ve lived all over the world including New York, London, and San Francisco. What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist? What about the slower pace here appeals to you? 

As an artist, I love Baltimore’s people, size, and texture. There’s an endearing civility among its inhabitants—on the first day of my arrival, a dapper gentleman greeted me “good morning” on the street with a tip of his hat—that I still often encounter across social strata. People are open-minded, which allows me to be my true self. The city is not too big, making it more personal, less crowded and noisy. I appreciate very much the physical and mental space Baltimore provides. Sure, it has its problems, but the city is also full of fodder for art-making, and I love the palpable feeling that many are trying to make the city better, and the arts are very much a part of these efforts.

You’re an adjunct professor at SVA, have taught in the pre-college program for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and have taught writing at MICA. What’s your favorite part of working with college and pre-college students?

I love that I can influence young lives that are changing and finding their place in this world. Teaching is more than just imparting knowledge—it is also very much about shaping and molding human beings; you’re giving them the tools to think for themselves. I enjoy nudging students in specific directions and getting them to think beyond what they know or is comfortable for them. 

Double Happiness, 2021, used airline face shield, found wood, mother’s vintage yarn, double happiness bead from brother’s wedding, chocolate foil, approx. 20 x 4 2/8 x 11 3/8 inches
I enjoy nudging students in specific directions and getting them to think beyond what they know or is comfortable for them.
Yam Chew Oh

You seem to think a lot about creativity. You’ve mentioned when you have an idea for a piece that comes to you, you have to act on it. Are you familiar with the author Elizabeth Gilbert? She’s most famous for the book Eat, Pray, Love, but she’s actually written a bunch of different books since, including Big Magic, where she writes that being a creative person means working without inspiration sometimes and that creativity will come to you if you’re patient, but it will not stay forever waiting for you to act on it. She gives an example of an idea for a novel that she had but due to circumstances in her life, she didn’t have time to write it. A year or two went by and she was having coffee with a friend who told her, “I just got this idea for a novel,” and it was the same idea, with a lot of specific details. Gilbert believes the idea was transferred because she didn’t act on it. Do you think we have a limited amount of time to make our creative ideas a reality?

I do think a lot about creativity, particularly from a process standpoint. I’m not familiar with Elizabeth Gilbert, but her point that you mentioned makes me think about my ideas, although they’re not necessarily the same as inspiration. I have more ideas than the time and capacity to act on them; the best ones come to me when I’m having a shower. I always feel compelled to write my ideas down. And those that I don’t act on soon enough go away a little bit after some time. But I wouldn’t say they do so totally—they’re still in my sketchbook somewhere, or they’re in something that I touch, which I put aside intentionally to come back to. 

The risk in waiting is that ideas could change or wane over time. I’m not sure if that’s the same as what Gilbert said about creativity being impatient, but I would agree that we have a limited amount of time to realize ideas because we and our ideas do suffer mortality. Yet once an idea presents itself and I write it down, it will always be there. I do revisit “old” ideas and have executed some in better or more evolved ways.

You have a box in your studio you call “Enjoy Your Thoughts” where you store short written phrases on index cards as a way of saving them for later works. It’s a collection within your room of collections. Why did you start doing this?

I’m very interested in the quotidian and think the many thoughts that go through our minds every day are beautiful if we just pause and consider them a little; I write a lot of them down in my sketchbooks, sometimes with drawings. I bought the said blue box of index cards from a thrift shop and had planned to make something interactive with it. Then, I came across this beautiful quote about creativity, “Gardening, not architecture”—it is from a card in the Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) deck created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, with a variety of prompts and constraints to help artists and musicians break through creative blocks. I wanted to do something similar with my own thoughts, to use the box of ideas with my audience, or myself when I face creative obstacles.

You came to art later in life after a professional career. How have you defined success for yourself as an artist? Has this definition shifted at all with time?

I used to think that being a successful (exhibiting) artist meant having gallery representation, living sustainably from selling my work, and having my work collected by museums. These are still important goals to me, but success has evolved to be very much about whether my work moves people. 

 

The Ol’ Sniff Factory, 2021, used food packaging and clothing price tag fastener, 9 3/8 x 6 7/8 x 4 1/2 inches
Yam Chew Oh and his dog Roger in the studio

Do you pursue any hobbies in addition to your work? Do you think that these hobbies have any influence or impact on your work or do you view them more as a stress relief or way to unwind?

I listen every day to a very eclectic mix of music, from house, ambient, and opera to English and Mandarin pop/ballads. I like the sad and have been told that my music is dark. I choose the shuffle play mode on my music apps a lot—what comes into my headphones randomly has influenced my mood and thoughts and, consequently, what I make. But it’s not always doom and gloom; I do listen to “happy” music to unwind and relax.

You work across mediums, making paintings as well as installations and photographs. On your website, you intersperse your writing about the work with your presentation of the visual work. Have you always done that? What led you to putting the two elements together like that? 

You’re the first to notice and ask me that, so thank you. I started doing that in grad school, where I became fascinated with text-based art and developed a body of work around that. I love languages and speak several of them; etymology is fun to me. I’m a bit of a stickler and still text in full sentences. LOL. That’s such a fuddy-duddy thing to do, but I love it.

I’ve been thinking about how much text to include with my visual work because so much of it is about storytelling. I am of two minds: On the one hand, I don’t want to insult those who prefer not to have labels tell them what to think; on the other hand, I want to be sensitive to the broad audience interested in the stories behind my work. I used to agree with Duchamp that the audience completes the work. Now I go back and forth between that and thinking, no, I decide when my work is resolved.

In your previous career in corporate communications, you used to work for Shell International Petroleum Co, which is an oil company. Could you talk a little bit about your relationship with plastic? What attracted you to it as an art material? Do you think at all about the work you used to do with oil when making works that use plastic?

Like many, I have a complicated relationship with plastic. It’s such a hated material in the context of climate change, yet it’s so ubiquitous and used in so many vital ways (e.g. food storage and healthcare). Having been in the chemical industry before, I am grateful to have the benefit of different perspectives, which help me to understand a very complex issue. I feel conflicted that the non-biodegradable longevity of plastic supports the archival challenges that I face in my work, because I tend to use delicate and fragile materials. Yet I’m currently making a sculptural installation about the excessive consumption of bottled water for an upcoming exhibition focused on the climate crisis. Therein lies my dilemma with plastic. 

 

Mother III, 2020, stainless steel food storage container, plastic pill bottle, plastic bag, vintage yarn and ribbon from mother, secondhand frame, 16 x 13 1/2 x 4 inches
Kindred, 2020, vintage cloth and white tie from mother, found frame, artist’s bed and pillow, approx. 50 1/2 x 29 6/8 x 1 1/2 inches
I think style comes to all of us eventually, after a lot of making, playing, and experimenting. Ultimately, you will be able to see a red thread running through your work because you made them, and a part of you is in there.
Yam Chew Oh

One of those eternal questions I get from students is “how do you find your style?” Especially in your case, where you engage so much with found material, what do you think unites your work as a single aesthetic? Does having a unified style matter to you? 

I don’t consciously strive for an aesthetic but have received grateful feedback that my work is identifiable through my material choices, a spare approach, and the use of modest means. I think style comes to all of us eventually, after a lot of making, playing, and experimenting. Ultimately, you will be able to see a red thread running through your work because you made them, and a part of you is in there (if you had indeed and truly invested enough in the work). The things that unite my work include my material choices (e.g. everyday items, humble objects), a formal approach through abstraction, and a quietude that results from an interest in minimalism and mindful attention. It’d be lovely to hear someone encountering any work of mine saying, “Ah, this must be a Yam Chew Oh!”

Inspiration comes from everywhere but a body of work is likely to be put into context with other people, at least posthumously. Whose work would you like yours to be read in context with?

I would be so very honored if my work were to be compared with Agnes Martin’s sublime paintings and my hand with Richard Tuttle’s poetic touch. I’m striving to be as good an editor of my work as Martin was of hers (she burned her paintings at the end of every year during the early part of her career), as well as her austere lifestyle—she’s a true artist’s artist. I was fortunate to have met Tuttle in New York—he was so gracious to speak with me and told me that I must believe in my materials and work, and to persevere in them because not everyone would.

What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?

🤣, 🙏🏼, and ❤️. (How does punctuation work around emojis?) I find them helpful in conveying emotions in a time of super-short attention spans and a general lack of mindfulness, where, unfortunately, messages could be easily misread or misinterpreted.

You belong to a dog named Roger. What do you think you have learned from having him in your life?

Roger came into my life at the end of August 2021. He’s a rescue, and I believe he was sent to teach me a thing or two about life. Through him, I’ve learned to be more patient, pay more attention, and be more mindful. For example, I don’t just walk him—I walk with him and do my best to be present, not check my phone or be distracted by something else. He makes it known to me if he senses that I’m not “there” with him, but he also respects my space (such as the need to listen to the news or music) and expects the same in return (that he’s allowed to smell whatever he wants). He went through a lot in the 1.5 years before being adopted but has adjusted unbelievably well. He’s only two years old, but I continue to learn from him about resilience, unconditional love, and forgiveness. He’s both my muse and guru.

What would your teenage self think of the direction of your life so far?

I suspect he’d be proud that I followed my heart and chose the creative path despite the precarity of an art career and the overhauling of my previously more “comfortable” life—he would know that this has been the best thing I’ve done for myself in over four decades, and that I am happy.

 

Portraits by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt. Art images courtesy of Yam Chew Oh.

This story is from Issue 13: Collect, available here.

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