in the studio; Chico Leong

In the lead up to his debut solo exhibition 'Beautiful Chaos' at Wester, opening June 28th, we catch up with Chico Leong in his Melbourne Studio.

Images by Simon Grant

Hi Chico, firstly we're very excited about your upcoming show with us at the end of the month. To kick things off, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your artistic journey and what led you to the style you work with today?
My name is Chico Leong. Born and raised in Melbourne by a Chinese father and Australian mother.  I’ve always been creative. As a kid I would copy comics and cartoons, which I wasn’t good at but I tried anyway. When I got into my teenage years, I got into graffiti and was in and out of that for pretty much my whole life. I got into photography in my mid twenties and from that I got into making photography / graffiti based books, which eventually led me to start studying graphic design. After having a bit of a creative break for a couple years, I started a streetwear brand with my brother, called Common Dust. All the graphics we made for that were collage / cut n paste / punk inspired graphics. Which is one of the things that inspired me to create the work I make today.

Wester is all about the intersection of visual narratives and personal stories. How do personal experiences shape the themes you explore in your work?
When I was younger, I was quite narrow minded and negative. I
focused a lot on the things that weren’t working out for me, which eventually led me to being very depressed and reliant on drugs to numb any feelings I had. It was around the time I started making these collages that I started to change my mindset and see the good in life. Focus on the positive instead of the negative. So I always try and have some sort of positive message / images in my collages now.

We’re fascinated by the process as much as the product. Could you walk us through your creative process from concept to completion?
I usually start my collecting images and designing the posters I want to use. From there, I’ll sometimes draw up a rough sketch on paper and then take that into illustrator to get a rough mock up of how the collage may look if I put posters in certain spots. It rarely ends up looking like the draft but it gives me a rough plan to start off with. Not all my work is done like this, sometimes it’s completely made up as I go, but most of the time I start off with a rough draft. I just layer and tear the posters away until I’m happy with how it looks. Then I’ll add either aerosol paints or solid markers on top of the collage.

People often discuss the relationship between artist and space and people love to see inside an artist’s creative space. How does the physical space in which you create affect your output?
I’m a pretty tidy person so I like to have the space relatively clean and tidy when I’m working. Too much mess makes me anxious and I can’t relax and be fully creative. Right now though, the studio is a mess, as I haven’t really had the time to clean up properly because I’ve been busy working on the pieces for the show. It’s slowly getting to me, so a big clean up is due once I’ve shipped all the work out.

Music is a big part of Wester; we like to curate playlists for every exhibition, and it often plays a big part in setting the tone and pace in the studio. What’s on your playlist while you work and how does it influence the mood of your pieces?
A lot of Nipsey Hussle, Russ, Deftones, MGK, I love pop punk haha. My playlists are pretty random, most rap, some punk, some grunge, some EDM. Pretty much anything that makes me feel good. I need to be feeling good to be able to create work I’m really happy with. I know a lot go people like to listen to really chill music when they work, but I need music with energy.

We’re always interested in the diverse methods that artist use. Are there any unusual techniques that might play a key role in your works?
I wouldn’t say they’re unusual but obviously layering and tearing posters play a key role in all my works.

Inspiration can be found in the most unexpected places. Can you share an unusual source of inspiration that has surprised you with the impact it has had on your work?
Again, to me this isn’t unusual but maybe to others it is. I’ve been fascinated and documented street posters for ever, without knowing that it would turn into something one day. I guess it’s my roots in graffiti that drew me to this posters, The chaotic look, just got me. I’m not super into really polished designs so this to me was perfect. It was something new as I’ve never seen work like this before into I started getting more into it and connecting with other artists who share a similar style / process. I never thought I’d be so into these posters that I would pursue a career in art inspired by these. It was just something I liked looking at. The halftone patterns came from my time working in screen printing, again I loved the look of those fine dots to create an image. It was perfectly imperfect.

Many artists are deeply influenced by their environments. How does your geographical location or cultural background shape your artistic expressions?
I guess growing up in Melbourne, you’re surrounded by different cultural back grounds. My main one being Chinese, because of my family. I was always drawn and felt more connected to my Asian roots compared to me Australian roots. Very greatly that Melbourne is a multicultural city. Meeting knew people from different cultures can sometimes spark ideas and inspiration for new works. Lately I’ve been trying to incorporate my Chinese side but using images of Asian women in my work. There’s something really beautiful about that.

Many of the people that may come across our site and journal are artist themselves. Is there any advice you would give to someone just starting out in the art world?
Experiment, have fun while you’re trying to find your style. Look at a range of different artwork styles. Think about what it is that you’re trying to say or portray in your work. Don’t just copy someone else because you see they’re popping at the moment. Art is a long road, so be patient, be true to yourself, work hard, I mean really hard and whatever you do, don’t give up. It’s not an easy road, especially as you get older but if you quit now, you’ll never know what could have been. Keep a positive mindset and if it’s really what you want to do, you’ll make it happen no matter what. Just keep going. You’ll be talked down on by friends because they don’t understand, or they don’t believe in you enough to be able to make to happen. But you have to be you number one supporter, even if no one is watching or clapping on the side lines, you have to really know that it CAN happen, and it WILL happen if you don’t just give up. Visualise that shit, feel that shit, and don’t listen to all the haters, they’re just jealous trolls with no passion or ambition in life.

Sustainability and art are increasingly intersecting. How do you consider environmental or ethical factors in your practice?
When I can, I try to use recycled street posters off the street to work with. That way I feel like I’m giving those posters a second life instead of just printing new ones out and then throwing a bunch away.

Art can often challenge or comfort. Do you aim for your work to provoke, soother, perhaps a bit of both? How do you balance these elements? And are they at the forefront when creating?
I Like my work be to be abstract and not so obvious. I want the viewer to really look at them, like them or hate them, but I want them to make up their own decision about what the piece means or how the piece makes them feel.

Do you have a piece with a particularly meaningful backstory or significant value? Could you share its story with us?
No not really. Each piece is more of a bunch of stories but together some pieces like the Flowers pieces are just my way of showing positivity and happiness in the work. The more photo heavy pieces are almost documentation of the city I’d been to while making the pieces. If it’s a heavy type based piece then the lyrics used would share a story or again, positive, heart break, dreams. I want to inspire people and show them that there’s not just one way to live life anything is possible.

Looking forward, where do you see your practice going in the next few years? Are there new mediums, themes or challenges you’re eager to explore?
I’d really like to get into make bigger works, not so much murals, although they’re fun, my main focus is in the studio. So Larger scale collages. I’d like to get into making sculptures at some point. I don’t know what but It looks fun. I’ll continue to make skateboards, and introduce new materials to collage. Some t-shirts here and there and then photography books.

The art world is coming a bit more collaborative. Is there an artist you would love to collaborate with, and what would you hope to create?
Oh there’s too many! I really like JR so to work on something with him would be a dream. Also Jesse Draxler, that would be super cool too.. There’s a lot of artists I admire and look up to but If I met them and the vibe wasn’t there, then I’m not sure I’f like to work with them. I still very much like streetwear and the culture, so to collaborate with brands I respect would be great.

How has social media's transformation of art sharing and rapid image consumption impacted your career, and how do you navigate the commercial pressures of the art market?
I love social media. It’s a great way to connect with artists and other creatives all over the world. Majority of my work comes from social media and I’m very grateful for that. Although it’s very easy to get caught up in something another artist is doing, you also have to be mindful about not trying to copy and sticking to your roots. The right costumer will come along as long as you stay true to yourself. I’m not a competitive person so I try and support other artists friends when I can. Enough abundance and success for us all out there. You can’t be gatekeepers and try to hold people back cos you’re worries they’ll steal the work. Be friendly, like genuinely friendly to people, as long as your real and your intentions are pure, then go for it.

Finally, what’s next for you? Any upcoming projects or exhibitions that we should be looking out for?
Well, I’ve got the solo at Wester which I’m really looking forward to. There’s a bit of everything in this show. Some new work never been seen. It’s going to be great to connect with new people. I have some more things planned which I won’t go into just yet, but we’ll see what happens. Anything can happen in life as long as you keep a positive mindset and are open to opportunities. A few group shows happening, commissions, can’t really complain. Where I’m at right now, I dreamt of this shit a long time ago, it’s great to see things really coming to fruition. Hard work really pays off.

'Beautiful Chaos' opens Friday 28th June, 6pm - 8pm. and runs for 1 week only until 6th July