As “Centennial Bloom” solo show by Luke Gray, a truly outstanding collection of portrait paintings from the last two years of the artist travelling through Asia, is drawing to a close, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to interview him and share more insights on his live, work, and future plans. This very well received exhibition explores the surreal aesthetics between native indigenous cultures and traditional high society of East and SouthEast Asia.
British artist Luke Gray is a perpetual traveller and multimedia fine artist specialising in surrealist paintings and large scale augmented reality murals. Born colour blind he was forced to use an almost exclusively monochrome palette, working with patterns and textures rather than colour.
Growing up mixed race in a multicultural family, since childhood he had an interest in different cultures and began to explore ethnography and world travel. Early in his career he lived in abandoned buildings in London’s squatting community and would make money busking by drawing on the street with chalk in Trafalgar square. In 2013 he started an 8 year journey of hitchhiking around the world painting murals for hostels and bars to support himself, collecting influences and techniques as he traveled.
After visiting over 50 countries he became an established painter inspired by a wide range of multicultural art styles and traditional mediums combining and integrating techniques and patterns from different cultures and religions into his work. His work focuses on the unconscious archetype and surrealist symbolism. Often exploring the concept of the female body-landscape through esoteric symbolism, he weaves together themes of religious ritual, occult mysticism and hallucinogenic visions.
An aspiring ethnologist when travelling, he often visits indigenous tribes; spending time to live with them and learn from them, taking meticulous notes on their textile patterns, tattoo markings and sacred symbols. Whether its living with weaving tribes in the Philippines, drinking psychedelic cactus juice in Peru, dodging missiles in Palestine or milking cows with nomads in Mongolia, he tries to immerses himself in a culture in order to draw inspiration from the world.
His works are in private collections in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Luke had also work commissioned by notable clients and institutions such us of Google London, Oxford University, King’s College and Peroni. When not in London or on the road, he lives in the village of Dali, China and is currently renovating a traditional house with his wife turning it into open artist studios for other artists to live & work.
If you are in London or coming soon, don’t miss “Centennial Bloom” exhibition at RB12 design space in Shoreditch, until 1 November. You will be amazed.
How did the idea and title of Centennial Bloom came about?
The title Centennial bloom was partly inspired by the centennial blossom which only blooms once in its lifetime, or once in a hundred years. I thought this was a fitting title for an exhibition of portraits of women, whose beauty is transient also. The collection of paintings was made over the course of 2 years travelling through Asia and being inspired by the various aesthetics and styles native to that region.
How is art and artists perceived in Eastern cultures compared to the West?
Art is perceived slightly different in the East than it is in the West, and of course it is radically different from China to Japan. But a few things that stuck with me were the dominance of ink over acrylic and oil paint. When painting with ink on paper, there is higher stakes because you cannot paint over your mistakes with white ink. Some of the most priceless artworks are just blank ink paintings on white paper, as opposed to the rich grandiose renaissance works of Europe. They also have a different relationship with colour. In China, white is the colour of death, black is not necessarily seen as dark, and red is good luck.
Is there a message in your art?
In my work I try to create a harmony of multicultural influences. I use a lot of textile patterns and references to traditional world cultures from different continents. I want to create a style that incorporates all of the world’s cultures into one visual style using techniques and tools from different cultures such as Chinese ink brushes, Moroccan pigments, and American spray paint.
“My subjects tend to be women, because I believe there is a sublime mystery and a beauty in them that does not exist elsewhere in nature that I am forever inspired by” – Luke Gray
You paint murals in many remote and also cosmopolitan locations across the world. What is the typical reaction from the people to your work?
People are generally very encouraging in both cities and in small towns but I think they appreciate it more in small towns; like when I was painting a village high school in Opuzen, Croatia, the locals would come out their houses bringing me chocolate and inviting me into their homes to have dinner with them, it was very touching. I would get arrested for the same thing if I did it in Canary Wharf.
Cultural appropriation is a much talked about topic these days. In your walls you incorporate mythology, religion, and diverse cultural influences. What resources should the artist use, if any, to avoid this label or stepping into taboos, stigmatisation or perceived disrespect? Have you ever encountered these situations?
I have never encountered that reaction from people with my work. I’m from a Caribbean/English mixed race background and I live in China half the year so I have never really believed in the existence of ‘cultural appropriation’ and I’m not sure if it’s even possible to do in art. I believe we are all connected, and when you travel you see similarities in every culture from eating, and partying, to religious rituals and ceremonies. We are so similar we don’t even know.
As I travel I take note to incorporate a lot of different cultures into my work in order to explore the beauty these other countries are so rich in and to experiment with it. Whether it’s Islamic calligraphy, or Amazonian textiles I want to draw on these ancient crafts to create a richer body of work that celebrates these aspects of our planet as a multicultural place. I’ve never encountered someone being offended by that.
Please tell us about your life in China? What is a typical day for you and your wife?
I am in China maybe half the year. Our house is a traditional hundred years old courthouse. My days differ from day to day, but if I’m in the house I will wake up and have green tea on the porch while doing my emails before my wife wakes up. Feed the cats, then make breakfast, usually noodles or steamed buns. Then I will sweep the yard and start to do any repairs or woodwork needed on the house. If that’s all done before lunch time I will start to paint and will paint until dinner time or we might go out with friends to a bar. Eating out is a big thing in China, it can take half the day.
China is a strange place, it’s between worlds, it is both futuristic and ancient. It’s basically a cashless society at this point, you do everything with your phone. Fruit sellers, vending machines, restaurants, homeless people, everything is paid for in two seconds with your phone. Everything is fast and convenient (if you understand Chinese). Yet this world exists on top of an old one, street vendors can sell anything anywhere, and you can still see old ladies with bound feet walking the streets. So it’s complicated.
How is street art considered in China? What are the hurdles to pass in order to do a wall?
Street art is highly illegal in China, as it is in London. All the works I have done are organised with galleries, festivals or business owners beforehand. The sentence in the UK is up to two years, in China they have the death sentence, so I don’t want to find out.
Tell us about the creative process, from idea to execution
My creative process usually starts with an idea inspired by my travels or something I think of in an altered state of consciousness. I will write the idea down generally, then think of the best way to paint it. I paint quickly throughout the night. Most paintings take a day to one week to complete, but I have spent up to a year on one before.
Which artist/s would you love to collaborate with?
Tadanori Yokoo, Gustav Klimt, or Bernini, but they are all dead now. Maybe some psychedelic rock bands like Tame Impala… I would love to work with a music video producer or a very skilled Indian wood carver who makes Hindu statues, they can make magic happen.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently preparing for a large solo show next week in Chengdu based on an ancient book of Chinese mythology called ‘Between Mountains and seas’. It will feature twelve large ink works and two murals , all animated with an augmented reality app. 18th October – Origin Gallery
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