Gavin Chai: The Light Within

The paintings of Gavin Chai can be viewed as poems, each one reciting a sensitivity to space, light and memory.

Words: Camilla Wagstaff

Gavin Chai likes to think of himself as a poet who dabbles with paint. The Malaysia-born, New Zealand-based artist’s poems – mostly oils on canvas and wood panel – are elegantly composed; a delicate balance of line and colour, light and shadow.

His interiors and domestic scenes – an abandoned tea towel on a kitchen counter, a forlorn group of chairs, an unmade bed, a beam of light creeping through a panelled window – are rendered with a delicate softness that makes them feel intimate and emotionally charged. He also paints people, mostly alone or in small groups, observing or contemplating, rarely interacting. “I paint people, even when I’m not,” says Chai. “Much of my ongoing themes of loneliness and isolation, though inexplicitly portrayed, come from my own struggles with people. It’s easier for me to talk with a vase than with a person. Yet, I have always found people the most fascinating.”

Chai is also fascinated with light. He believes this particular preoccupation was born from his ongoing mental health struggles. “I’m constantly yearning for clarity while dealing with my struggles, which I think has led to my obsession with light,” he says.

Growing up in a Christian family, he’s also familiar with light-adjacent spiritual ideas of hope and spiritual renewal. “Light, for me, is not just a visual motif. It is a power that can transcend, unite and harmonise.”

Chai now expertly works and reworks light into his oils. Slowly, gracefully, he builds it in layer by layer, until the painting appears to radiate from within. “Without a doubt, light is my favourite thing to paint.”

For his forthcoming show at Page Galleries in Pōneke Wellington, Chai is striving to paint light with a renewed sensitivity. His new works are driven more so by intuition and feeling than by trope or symbolism. Many of these works also push the boundaries of colour by way of sharp cangiante, a technique that sees one hue unexpectedly replace another to create an area of shadow or light, instead of simply mixing the original colour with white or black. His experiments here have reaped interesting and diverse results.

Like previous bodies of work, the coming Page presentation will shed a little more light (excuse the pun) on Chai’s idiosyncratic vision of the world, filtered through his own hopes and dreams, desires and failures. There will be stars in the sky, the kiss of light, some miracles and some melancholy. And yes, there will be people.

Featured image: Gavin Chai, Interior 46, 2021. Oil on Poplar panel, 25.4 x 30.5cm. Courtesy: the artist and Page Galleries, Pōneke Wellington.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 106, October-December 2023. 


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