Strange Paradise is a new series of atmospheric exterior paintings which capture elements of the everyday. Chai’s paintings evoke a sense of introspection, capturing the essence of the human condition and the impact of the modern world on individuals. Despite their often stark realism, Chai’s masterful paintings have a an eerie sense of the surreal, inviting viewers to contemplate the themes of alienation and our longing for connection & meaning.
Chai’s use of shallow space, high contrast lighting, combined with the theatrical arrangements of objects, infuses the ‘seemingly’ mundane subject matter with sense of subdued drama. His new compositions typically depict isolated or solitary figures in the landscape. Their exquisite detail and formal arrangement, make stylistic connections to the theatrical arrangements of the Flemish and Renaissance painters. Chai’s employment of traditional painting techniques – even to the point of making his own paint from powdered pigments & oil - show an accomplished use of light, composition, and colour.
Figures in several of paintings are stylised and faceless, emphasizing their anonymity and perhaps a sense of alienation. They are typically passive, depicted in contemplation, further enhancing the enigmatic quality of his works. In other paintings we see characters with more clarity and harmony with in their environment. This is perhaps most notable in Beach People, Chai’s largest work to date, composed of three linen canvases, each set to a musical structure depicting the trajectory and relentless cycle of life. In this respect the painting acts as a tableaux of collective experience; celebrating both the ordinary and mysterious relationships between people, place, memory and time.
Chai’s attention to light, shadow, along with the play of textures and detailed brush, adds to an overall sense of mystery and serenity. Evocative lighting is a prominent feature of this series, often conveying a sense of hope, as if to offer small glimpses of utopian dreams and divine intervention. In Strangers – a particularly striking work - we see an intense shaft of light break through the alleyway, fondly bathing the pavement and embracing the figure paused in contemplation. This almost celestial like glow offers an interpretive clue to the objects and happenings distributed across the painting. The items and scenarios give a glimpse of both universal and autobiographical narrative - yet the reading is cryptic - challenging the viewer to build or question connections.
Gavin Chai (b. 1997) is based in Auckland Tāmaki Makaurau. He graduated from Unitec Institute of Technology in 2016, and AUT with a First Class Bachelor of Visual Arts in 2020. He was recently the recipient of the Zinni Douglas Merit award at the Walker and Hall Art Award (2021) and was the first artist to ever receive three awards at the National Art Awards, Otago (2021). Recent exhibitions include the Adam Portraiture Award, (2019), Character Study: the figure in action and inaction, Arts in Oxford, Oxford (2019); and Accept each word spoken with love, Northart, Auckland (2018). His works are held in public, corporate and private collections across the country including The Stevenson Collection, The New Zealand Portrait Gallery., The Wallace Arts Trust, Porirua City Council, Citadel Capital and The Fortland Trust Collection.