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The Stranger - an artistic exploration of the Absurd and my own voice

This project explores art as a window to the artist’s mentality. When I read The Stranger by Albert Camus, I was stimulated by the contradictory apathy and intensity that the anti-hero Meursault experienced. I saw traces of myself in Meursault and all his bewilderment, violence and honesty that made him an alien to this world. So I decided to dedicate a series of artworks to Meursault’s war against the absurdity of the universe and to my journey of finding my own voice.

Project overview

Part I

Medium: fountain pen & ballpoint pen on paper

Part I presents a preliminary sketch visualising a morbid morass of emotions: confusion, frustration, violence, wrath, and misery. Instead of first creating a pencil contour, I directly drew in ink to exhibit the rawness and spontaneity of these emotions. I used a fountain pen as my primary medium because I often jot down my thoughts in the fountain pen in diaries, so the acts of painting and writing as expressions are connected by this common channel. I drew continuous lines to reflect the accelerating, unrelenting, and incessant train of thoughts that marched across my mind, leaving me no moments of rest.

Part II

Part II is a development of Part I. Compared to the previous continuous line technique that only required movements of my hand, gestural drawing in this work is more powerful and enlarged, recording the movements of my entire body.

I chose cardboard as a painting surface because it is a common commodity used for packaging and is discarded afterwards. The nature of this object evokes a sense of abandonment and reflects the frequency and normality of encountering dreary emotions in life. I used charcoal to darken the background and drew strong and sharp strokes to convey the erratic and chaotic state of mind.

On the bottom left, I drew an anonymous torso to suggest the divorce of the mind and the body and how we can feel alienation when confronting our naked bodies. I used duct tape to heighten this feeling of detachment, symbolising futile attempts to stitch the body and the mind together and implying that doing so would leave a permanent scar.

My work was influenced by Picasso’s blue-period paintings. The dominance of blue in the artist’s paintings naturally elicits numbness and misery and, when used in my paintings, conveys the conflicting emotions of absurdity.

Picasso, Pablo. Self-portrait, 1901. Oil paint on canvas. Musée National Picasso-Paris, Paris, France.

Part III

Oil, acrylic, charcoal, and ink on cardboard. Collage. 60 cm* 90 cm.

In “The Stranger, continued”, I furthered the artistic expression of absurdism. I chose a much larger cardboard (60 cm*90 cm) this time because I felt constrained by the surface area while creating the last portraiture.

The same agonised faces are in the centre of “The Stranger, continued” and painted in blue, the loneliest colour of all. I left areas on the faces blank to make the natural colour of the cardboard showing through and to elicit a haunting feeling of fragility and evanescence, like that of an old, translucent ghost. Their mouths are stitched tight by layers of duct tape, their voices are silenced. Only their eyes speak of agony. Around them, I drew aggressive, quick, expressive, and scattered marks in charcoals to convey the feeling of the world dissolving into nothingness and disintegrating into thin air when absurdism assails. Using a palette knife, I placed thick impasto of dark blue acrylic paint to create negative spaces that direct the audience’s gaze to the faces and heighten the unnerving atmosphere. In outer space, I used pipette and ink to paint two more portraitures, and their lightness and volatility contrast the oil-paint ones. Drops of ink cascade down the cardboard, leaving melancholy blue marks over the faces and magnifying the sense of despair. In the process, I ripped, tore, and repaired the cardboard with a cutting knife and tapes to visualise the feeling of decrepitude and abandonment.

Because of the imbalanced composition generated by the differently accented portraitures and the conflicting positive and negative spaces of tangled marks and forms, the piece seems incomplete. I like this feeling of something being missing in the artwork because it impeccably echoes the theme of “absurdism”: when everything seems just right, we start to notice the utter irrationality in the nature of things.

The Stranger, Finale

80cm*60cm, mixed media (oil, old denim, yarn, gossamer, newspaper)

As the final painting in “The Stranger” project, I wanted to express absurdism in a familiar yet new way that encapsulates an unprecedented intensity of emotions.

Unlike my previous works, I replaced cardboard with canvas to experiment with different mediums and their effects. The texture of the canvas is smoother than that of the cardboard, so the oil paint appears more reflective and dries slower, enabling me to create more realistic portraitures. Because of its whiteness, I fully painted the portraits in blues instead of leaving some spaces uncovered as I did on cardboard. I also changed the blue from ultramarine (in previous works) to Prussian blue, because the colour had a unique transparency that gave cool depths to my melancholic settings. I liked how the making of Prussian blue remained a mystery for a long time in history, adding a similar enigma and ambiguity to my work.

I changed the composition significantly in this painting – it is now horizontal, and the faces are positioned successively. At first glance, the composition appeared to be uniform and balanced, conveying a sense of stability which fractured once I integrated more materials, thereby imitating the false facade of security and equanimity, under which brews a ravenous sea of disquietude.

Initially, I planned to use red as the background colour to generate a theatrical visual contrast with the blue portraits, but I eventually decided to use blue to keep the cold, despairing, solitary atmosphere, making the painting seem as if the subjects are drowning in the encroaching darkness. Pablo Picasso’s blue paintings also contributed to my decision to only use blue. Then, I gashed the canvas with a craft knife and made sure the slashes went unrelentingly across the faces to visualise the feeling of abandonment, anguish, and fragility.

I cut out pieces of denim fabrics from old jeans and pasted them onto the portraits as futile attempts to protect the subjects like clothes often do, simultaneously creating an aura of desolation. Like the old jeans that no one wanted anymore, the subjects felt the sad absurdity of their existence. Likewise, I used a piece of white gossamer to conceal the portrait (right) to imitate the impenetrable barrier between one and the world.

Old newspaper pieces are another integral part of my painting. I’m most vulnerable to absurdism when I read the news – thefts, fires, outbreaks of disease, scandals, murders, wars… I read of all the horrible things while I’m sitting comfortably in my lovely house, safe from a dangerous world. I used old newspapers to create a frame that encircles the subjects, the same way as guilt haunts me.

The End


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