Following her exhibition opening on March 2nd, 2018 at IINNOO Gallery in Shanghai, Nissa Kauppila sat down with CNCREATE and walked us through her journey as a painter in the Chinese art world.
Nissa, a rural Vermont-native and Shenzhen resident, has quickly become one of China’s leading painters, being represented by galleries across Asia, the US, and Europe. Her work gravitates between realism and surrealism with naturalistic components that disintegrate into a dream-like glitch of colour.
There is an ongoing duality between serenity and chaos that is materialized through her collocation of traditional Chinese ink and gauche techniques with a contemporary style. Her work plays with a sense of reality as she paints her subjects as the focal point, mainly birds in flight, which eventually begin to unravel like coils and cirrus clouds lingering through the white space.
The inspiration behind the work comes foremost from the natural world. When describing her creative process, she states: “I’m a very curious person and I’m very observant. Part of my love of nature is to see the colours that come out in feathers or petals of a flower. It’s gorgeous and it’s coming directly from nature. With my works, I’ll start with that realistic part and I like to pull out those colours. You have the animal, but then you have the colour schemes going throughout the painting. So in some ways, I want to take that natural component and then pick apart those colours that make up that solid mass and body.”
During her art residency in Foshan, Nissa was taken under the wing of a master silk painter Lin Bo who taught her much of what she knows about Chinese ink and brush techniques. She recalls about her time with Lin Bo: “He would have me paint lines for like eight hours straight, that was it. To a point where my hand would cramp. I went to the Road Island School of Design. I know how art school is like. And Chinese traditional apprenticeship and master painters have a very different way of learning work. It’s all about repetition. He would stand over me and just say ‘No, no, no. Do it again!'”
Apart from the meticulous methodology, Nissa added that the biggest lesson she learned was the spirituality and meditative process behind painting, which was a notion she had not considered before but is now ingrained in her artwork.
“Painting is about meditation and using your whole body. It’s not just looking at something and using your wrist. You’re moving your whole body,” she explains. “When you start to do this more and more, the paint becomes an extension. It’s like a dance almost. What you’re imagining while you’re doing it is just as important. So he explained how, having some amount of water and ink mixed versus a dry paint brush, to imagine there’s a dream-like quality to more water. There’s a harsher reality to the drier. To move your body in ways that compare with that sense. So with something that’s watery and fluid you’re going to move slower and gentler. With something that’s hard, you’re going to move quicker. That concept to me was something new. And that’s how I paint now. And you can sense it in my work. That comes directly from those conversations with him and the meditation process.”
Nissa’s work challenges binaries like strength and fragility with images of a bird in freefall, where the viewer is not sure if the bird has surrendered in defeat or if it has been liberated and thus empowered by its decision to let go.
Or between life and death with flowers in blossom simultaneously disintegrating as if their moment of bloom was only a fleeting second, which the viewer was fortunate to catch.