Maria Farrar (b. 1988) was born in the Philippines and raised in Shimonoseki, Japan. At the age of fifteen, she moved to London, England where she currently lives and works. Coming and going between two countries, Maria combined both eastern and western visual languages into her paintings. Instead of restricting her artmaking process to a particular technique, she includes elements of Japanese calligraphy and techniques of oil layering in her paintings.
Growing up in Japan, manga became a key influence on Maria's paintings. Its humour and lightness allow Maria to adopt a more light-hearted approach when her paintings take a serious turn. Ultimately, the feeling of joy is what Maria hopes for people to take away from her paintings. During the Marie Kondo apocalypse, we were taught to throw our possessions away if they do not “spark joy.” Maria, however, has a different mindset. Instead of discarding a used piece of linen and replacing it with a new one, she employs the process of layering and learns to work with her mistakes—treating both triumphs and errors equally.
In this conversation, Maria speaks about painting as a form of escapism, her love for manga, and how being a painter is a great solution to capitalism.
Maria Farrar. Image courtesy of Ota Fine Arts Singapore.
Let’s start with how you began painting.
I have always painted. Even as a child, I drew and painted. When I went to a friend’s house and they didn’t have any paint, I asked "oh, so what do you do?" because I was puzzled that people could live without painting. Even now I think that everyone else is strange for not painting and this is the norm.
Were there any artists who inspired you?
At a young age, that would probably be Marc Chagall. There is a painting that I can never find the title of but I know exactly what it is. It depicts an upside-down couple and a dog's face on the left. There is also Emil Nolde for his watercolour portrait of a woman in yellow which I saw at a local museum in Shimonoseki when I was little. For photography, it would be Man Ray. Even as a young girl, I found the black and white pictures of women to be surreal and beautiful. During my teenage years, I liked female portraits, especially Girl with the Pearl Earring. I really like that painting and looked up to Johannes Vermeer. I also like still lifes and the Dutch Golden Age paintings, which I find breath-taking. Recently, I have been looking more at contemporary artists. I like Dana Schutz because she is energetic and has no shame, and I think I need to get rid of my shame.
Tell us more about your time in Japan and how it has influenced your art practice.
I never really think about doing particularly “Japanese” painting, but at the same time, I’ll be lying if I said I’m not influenced by them. As a young girl doing calligraphy, I was told that the calligraphic mark, in the way one does it, adds to the symbol that’s directly translated. For instance, if I think of the symbol of kindness, power or love, the way you execute them would be very different in the brush strokes. If you do [the character] “love” in a powerful and hurtful way, as though you are holding a knife, you might cut the paper. It is going to be a different kind of love as compared to when you were feeling tender and decide to go slowly. I think the same with colour as well. How does something feel? Painting with feeling and response to the subject matter is engrained in my background in calligraphy.
When I was a teenager, I read so many mangas. My friend and I used to camp in the local park. There were 37 volumes in a manga called Hana yori dango in Japan and we would read all night just to get through the entire series in this tent. I wanted to be a manga artist, so I bought lots of pens and specialist materials. However, I guess it is also about the identity to do that. You can draw manga with a pencil but you need that actual nib that professional manga artists have. I think [manga] would never leave me because even in my paintings now, manga lightens them when things get serious. People can’t live without a sense of humour and I try to bring that in through manga.
Maria Farrar, Too late to turn back now, installation view. Image courtesy of Ota Fine Arts Singapore.
Growing up in Japan and moving to London, do you find that early works of yours have set the tone for how you approach your practice today?
Definitely. It’s a combination of the two but I also struggled a lot when I first arrived in London because of the culture shock. It is almost like therapy to heal myself from this massive culture shock and bring it into something positive. The reason I continued painting is because I can't think of anything else that is a hundred percent positive—to push something and create something beautiful. My experience of coming to England and being lonely to begin with—leaving all my friends, not knowing any of the cultures, with mom and dad back home—it was hard. Bringing that experience in Japan together into a painting is making something positive out of a hard experience. Many artists now work on this theme of travel—coming and going between continents—so this theme has become easier and many people make it their subject matter. In a way, I feel contemporary, like I’m part of a multi-cultural movement. Those are big words but in a small way, I think that is how I contribute.
After moving to London, that was when you started to incorporate both eastern and western visual languages to your paintings. What was the transition like? What were some of the challenges faced?
I can relate to this question directly. I was doing my MA and a teacher saw some of my light-hearted drawings on Japanese paper of sushi that was done in Japanese ink. I had loads of them which I didn’t take seriously because I thought they were too simple and easy. I was also working on oil paintings, layering them, and it had taken me maybe a couple of months to finish one piece.
However, my teacher didn’t like them. I remember her saying “this is boring.” She looked at the sushi pieces, which took me maybe ten minutes to do, and said, "this is what you should be doing." I could understand what she meant: there was something about the lightness of the touch, the humour, and the enjoyment because she talked a lot about the joy of painting. So, that became my project for my MA. I started thinking about how do I combine these two heavy oil paintings. I adapted the way I have approached this sushi piece into the oil painting by leaving a bit of the painting blank but focusing on lines. At first, it was quite a difficult subject matter in terms of putting it on the canvas. I made many mistakes on the way. That was how I went into combining the two: focus on lines and the oils, and not being too fussy about layering or finishing them.
Maria Farrar, Too late to turn back now, installation view. Image courtesy of Ota Fine Arts Singapore.
This exhibition shows a new painting style of yours. How did the current style develop?
The pieces I have done a year ago were darker because I didn’t cover much of the canvas. There was a lot more colour this time around. Colour has always been my love but also my difficulty, as it’s quite difficult to make things look bright. It seems like such an easy project but the more paint you use, the darker the painting gets. If you mix blue, yellow, and red, they end up being brown. It has always been this desire of mine to bring it into colour—but I have never managed it—so it became a project to work on love and colour for this show.
I started filling the canvas with more colour but it wasn’t that straightforward. Before, I knew that colour felt something to me. For instance, the colour red would feel angry, energetic or something strong whereas the colour blue might be calming. These are very simple words that probably don't describe the feeling of it because there are hundreds and thousands of different tones of red. The Chinese vermilion is very different from a more orange-red. I knew that the feeling is different but I wasn't present enough at the moment to feel it. This time, I was able to plough on. When I was painting a mango, I wanted it to be realistic but also, it was about the particular tone of yellow that reminds me of home. I had to concentrate a lot.
Which painting would you say marked a turning point within your practice?
There is a painting that was done recently and I feel it was quite a turning point. It’s called Flamingo (2019) and it is really pink! I remember a funny quote that went “I wanted to paint shoes and cake because I was annoyed about the fact that I was a girl and I couldn’t paint it so it stopped me from doing it.” This time, it was quite a similar thought of “I can’t make a pink painting.” Maybe that is a turning point because I’m having a little break at the moment and I haven’t painted as much as I had when I was doing this. But finishing off with Flamingo gives me a chance to think about what I want to do next. Flamingo is certainly the brightest of them all; there is green and pink so it is a great starting point for the next works.
Maria Farrar, Flamingo, 2019. Oil on linen, 180 x 130 cm. Courtesy the artist, mother's tankstation Dublin | London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / Singapore / Shanghai
What about the other painting that is shown for the first time in Singapore?
Picnic (2019) was a very calming and natural development for me and I enjoyed every challenge of it. It’s the most grown-up, “I’m over 30 years old now” sort of painting. I once thought it was pretentious that in creative writing, you are meant to follow a character as if he or she were real. I sort of understand the meaning of it now.
Fiction has a life of its own. Even as the person making it up can see it unfold as if you were a spectator; it’s a similar sensation to the way dreams surprise with the stories that your mind could come up with. That is how I feel about the mask. A woman who was not very remarkable became somebody more interesting. I thought of the mask on a yoga retreat far away from my studio incidentally, when I was failing at meditating. The thought of the woman in the butterfly woods came. It was an interesting way of working—to not be painting at all.
Maria Farrar, Picnic, 2019. Oil on linen, 180 x 130 cm. Courtesy the artist, mother's tankstation Dublin | London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / Singapore / Shanghai
Let’s move on to the narrative side of your works. Within the paintings you create, there seems to be an emphasis on moments derived from everyday life. Why are these moments so important for you to create?
I intensely feel that as a painter, you have so many directions you can go in. Even as a writer, you set the rules for a book. For instance, Harry Potter is in a world of fantasy. There are rules in the real world that there are no witches. You have to escape the real world to be able to go into the witches’ world and that’s where the novel makes sense because of these rules and boundaries. As a painter, you end up setting rules and boundaries. One of them is when something starts to enter into fantasy. I want to bring it back to a place where it could make sense in real life. For instance, the birds or the crane in the paintings could be fantasy but it could also be a narrative that someone could relate to. The bird could just be on the bed, it could have flown in in real life or just be there. It is not merely a bird that is made out of magic. I’m still trying to figure out the reason but I suppose predominately because I’m interested in realism and the colours we see in everyday life.
Maria Farrar, Writer, 2019. Oil on linen, 180 x 130 cm. Courtesy the artist, mother's tankstation Dublin | London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / Singapore / Shanghai
Can you share how you put this selection of paintings together?
The only difference from my past ones is that I did not allow a selection process. At that point, I felt for the environment and realised I was wasting a lot of materials, trashing many canvases. The Japanese technique is doing it once and that only a single line matters. If the canvas goes wrong, I’ll take it off the canvas and start again with another linen. I just thought, very practically, this is not the way to live in 2019 when everyone is talking about climate change—look at the bags I’m throwing out of the studio! I got tired of wasting them, it was environmentally bad and I felt I was being dishonest—not that dishonesty is necessarily a bad thing in painting—but including the flaws, shortcomings, and supposedly “completely stupid ideas” seem to improve it.
I don’t know what the calligraphy artists in Japan did with the papers, whether or not they recycled them. I was pragmatic and thought I’m going to employ the Western layering process and work with my mistakes. When an error happens, I just plough on it, and that brought fruitful results. If you see an error, add something else and then paint over it. When you come back again, it starts to look like something else slowly. The example in point would be Bluebells (2019). That's a thick painting. There used to be a woman on the tree but it disappeared. Various other things happened and they were all capped. No canvases were wasted which was a real climate change achievement for me. In that sense both Flamingo and Picnic are the direction I’m going to go in for my next series of work—painting not what I think I want it to be but what it naturally becomes with all the triumphs and errors treated equally.
What do you hope for people to take away from your paintings?
That’s an interesting question. I think what I want people to take away from my paintings is joy. I think I selfishly leave all that work to the viewer because I, myself, as a painter am a viewer as well. I don't know what's happening in the painting and I entertain myself looking at it.
Maria Farrar, Stroopwafels, 2019. Oil on linen, 180 x 130 cm. Courtesy the artist, mother's tankstation Dublin | London and Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / Singapore / Shanghai
Last question. What about Stroopwafels (2019)? Were you craving for a snack?
I went to this exhibition on dresses in Amsterdam and that was how the dress in the painting comes in. When you go to a nice place for a short time, you have the urge to buy everything. There are souvenirs, and then there’s cheese, waffles, clothes, and clocks, which makes you think “I want to buy everything. I love it so much!” But I told myself “Calm down. You can paint it, so you don’t have to buy anything.” I guess it’s a great solution to capitalism as well because I end up making stuff. Perhaps in a small way, this is how souvenirs are to me. I don't have to fill up the suitcase. I can just confine it into this space on the canvas. That was a really fun one to do because the pictures came from a vase that I saw at a museum. Of course, no one could take a vase from the Rijksmuseum. You can’t steal a vase! But I think I’m so lucky as a painter to be able to steal a bit of it.
Too late to turn back now is Maria Farrar’s first solo exhibition in Singapore and Southeast Asia. The exhibition is on view at Ota Fine Arts Singapore at Gillman Barracks from 5 October 2019 to 9 November 2019. For more information, please click here.