In celebration of Frieze Los Angeles, Frieze’s global partner LIFEWTR has commissioned L.A. artist Tofer Chin to create a public artwork. Facing West 6th Street at The Standard, Downtown LA. Chin’s work is a mural, entitled Progression (2019). Hand painted in the artist’s signature graphic style, Progression is inspired, Chin says, by the play of light on the metallic strips in the architecture surrounding the site during L.A.’s famous ‘golden hour’.
Above: Watch Tofer's mural come to life on the streets of Downtown Los Angeles
Frieze: What first drew you to art?
Tofer Chin: Since I was a kid I was always drawing. And watching cartoons. I was really drawn to these animated formations in the backgrounds of the Looney Toons cartoons: the landscapes of Wile E. Coyote, the stalactites and stalagmites which – fast forward – I got to experience in real life, when my parents took me and my brother to National Parks. My parents would take us to museums and galleries too, so I was exposed to art at a very young age. I remember going to LACMA and seeing a Rothko for the first time. I didn’t know what it was at the time. I just remember seeing the color. It made a big imprint on my psyche. Having that access was really crucial.
Frieze: So how did you go from seeing that Rothko to today, being a professional artist?
Tofer Chin: I fell in love with painting, in short. I mean, right out of high school I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, other than something in the art field – photography, say, or illustration. I thought: I don’t wanna waste my parents’ money! But I convinced them to let me go to Junior College. And there’s where I fell in love with painting. Oil panting specifically. As soon as I picked up this brush for the first time I was like - yeah, I could do this for the rest of my life. I didn’t know about making money from it, of course. But from there I got into art school. I decided not to go to grad school – which wasn’t necessarily the easiest decision, but it molded me. I wanted to figure this stuff out on my own.
Frieze: Did you face any challenges?
Tofer Chin: The biggest challenge has just been deciding to really stick to this, and not bounce around. You have to have a really thick skin to just be able to expose yourself and your work to the world, knowing there will be criticism and praise. A challenge for an artist but which we all face in a way is how much information we’re being fed every day. We have to work out how much of it is pollution. I’ve had to learn how to focus and stay in my lane, how to pick and choose what I look at. I get really inspired looking at art. But I don’t go to all the openings. I decide where I wanna go and when I wanna go.
Frieze: What helps to build that focus?
Tofer Chin: I have a daily meditation practice - my wife is a meditation teacher. That has really affected my work and how I perceive it. The architectural shift that you can see in my work is in a way about going into internal architecture - your thoughts, your emotion, your ego. The work is asking me - and not only myself but the viewer too - to be present, and in the moment, and be aware of what’s going on and accepting of what’s going on. To know that there’s a world of possibilities and so much stuff out there, but to try to be grounded in the here and now for one moment and experience it.
Which is in a way what the LIFEWTR commission, Progression (2019), is doing – paying attention to a very specific location and a moment that occurs there…
Tofer Chin: Yes, it’s true. It’s all generated from this one, present moment - the light reflecting off the metal on the facade of the Standard in the “golden hour”.
Frieze: What appealed about this LIFEWTR commission?
Tofer Chin: It’s a collaboration with a brand – LIFEWTR - and an institution – Frieze - that I believe in. And I was down to be a part of that. What’s great is that both parties are allowing me to interpret my work as it is: I’m not a commercial artist, I just do what I do. And of course allowing my work to reach a wider audience like this commission does is really important.
Frieze: How do the more public aspects of your practice – like these outdoor commission – relate to the more studio-based work?
Tofer Chin: Right out of high school I did a bit of graffiti and street art, but I soon decided I didn’t want to do it, I wanted to focus on my studio practice. Being able to go inward in the studio practice – for years – meant when I felt able to expand it out into the public again, it was a really a natural thing.
Frieze: Is making work that’s publicly accessible important to you?
Tofer Chin: To have that interaction with people and spaces – people interacting with the work – in public is really important to my work as a whole. For me, that’s a constant, ongoing interaction. When you have a show in a gallery, it comes and goes, you get photos at the end. But when you do public work, you have so much interaction, conversation…
Frieze: How did you find your signature aesthetic? Have there been any key influences?
Tofer Chin: Working in the studio, developing a vocabulary… it’s a constant exploration and it’s constantly evolving. I do love art, and there are certain artists, from Pierre Soulages to Cai Guo-Giang, that are important to me. And brutalist architecture is important too. People like Tadao Ando and his use of light and space and concrete in particular. In fact, what I’d say has really influenced is my travels, and discovering architecture in real life spaces. As a kid I would sit in the street and draw people’s homes, but I never studied anything. It was going to Brazil for work one time that opened my eyes to architecture. I discovered Oscar Niemeyer for the first time. I was in heaven! It’s always stuck with me – now it’s like my second home.
In a way, space is my biggest influence. And really being in a city. How cities work and how they make you feel. How do you feel when you’re in a massive metropolis, with buildings towering over you, versus being on a tropical island with nothing? That sensation is part of what I’m exploring. And trying to deal with that in form and color and scale.
Frieze: You were born and raised here in Los Angeles and studied art here too, at Otis. Has the city itself influenced your work?
Tofer Chin: L.A. is a place I come back to. With all the other cities I go back to - they provide me with constant stimulation. So when I come back to Los Angeles, it’s a place where I can rest, gather my thoughts and create my works. There’s a certain isolation, because it’s so spread out. It gives you calm, and the space to do things in. You can make anything here – you can get anything done. Everything is at your fingertips if you need to fabricate a sculpture or make some clothing or shoot a film or whatever, it’s all right here. And the light here too. The sunsets are insane!
Frieze: Besides Progression, are there any other public artworks in the city you’d recommend to a visitor?
Tofer Chin: I’ve lived here for decades, but lately I’ve been seeing the city the first time, noticing things that I haven’t noticed before. Now, the freeways are art to me. When you’re on a freeway and you go under an overpass, you know? and you see all the intersections, sculpted out of this stark, cold concrete. Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall is art. Every time I go past it, it amazes me. Jason Revok is someone who started in graffiti and is now doing “fine art”. He has this apparatus of, I don’t know how many spray cans, but he engineers them, and they spray all at once in this amazing arrangement. How he attacks and approaches a surface is incredible. I think you can still find one of his works in the Arts District downtown, near the ICA. The big rock at LACMA is pretty incredible, too, I guess [Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, 2012].
Finally, what are you working on after the LIFEWTR commission?
Tofer Chin: I am doing a mural installation at LAX in Terminal 7. I have a permanent public project with the city of Los Angeles in Crenshaw, opening in 2020, in a huge sports complex.
Tofer Chin’s public artwork Progression (2019), commissioned by LIFEWTR, is on view at The Standard, Downtown LA, until the summer months.
LIFEWTR, a premium water brand committed to supporting and advancing emerging artists on a global stage, is the Official Water and Emerging Program Partner for Frieze. The wide-ranging, multi-faceted global partnership helps further the brand’s commitment to supporting artists through various touchpoints throughout the year including at Frieze Los Angeles.
Main image: Tofer Chin in his studio. Photograph: Joshua White. Courtesy: Frieze/Joshua White