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Gavin Chai is fascinated by the old and the ancient.
"I ... have stolen much from the techniques of the northern Renaissance artists. In terms of fine techniques to depict surface reality, they are simply unsurpassed."
Those techniques Chai (23) has "stolen" have stood him in great stead with National Cleveland Awards judge Jenna Packer who says she finds the youth, excellence and supreme award-winning work Howick "intriguing, frustrating, almost unique, and very skilfully painted".
"There are so many reasons why this painting works well, but it has something so much more, and that is the thing. I was continually drawn back to it, and in the end it is still as enigmatic for me. I’m still asking why, and what, and how did the artist, through his skill, make me care about the why and what. It almost feels like a riddle set for us."
For Chai, the work took a considerable amount of time to paint and its story is " both personal and universal".
Howick is near where Chai lives and he and his mother have been regular visitors but he found, after lockdown, it, like many other places, emptied out.
"I wanted to put my imagination and feelings into Howick, making it a new garden of Eden, a heaven on Earth in biblical proportions."
He sees part of his practice as an artist is to revitalise ordinary and mundane things into new creations, "aligning with my eschatological belief that one day the world will be reborn".
"Vermeer did something similar with Delft, a couple of years after the famous explosion that killed Carel Fabritius. He painted Delft in a way that elevated the place."
The work Howick is part of an ongoing series by Chai "The Strange Paradise: In Ecstasy, Fantasy and Reality".
Chai’s fascination with old masters began after he started painting when he was about 12 years old. He came across their works online and in art books .
"They set my dream wide and high."
Before he discovered those artists, his knowledge and understanding of art was limited to the local and regional scenery paintings seen in his home town in Kuching, Malaysia.
"My Christian upbringing also has played a part in my thinking and worldview as an artist."
Chai describes the Old Masters like friends or as he calls them "soul mates".
"They share, build upon and enlighten my understanding about art, and one of which has been Rembrandt. Soul mates come although some like Rembrandt continue to stay."
In recent times he has also found inspiration in the works of Fra Angelico, Vilhelm Hammershoi, Johannes Vermeer and Edward Hopper.
"I no longer look at the impressionists. Like Hammershoi has said, ‘I think I will learn more from the old art than the new.’ I, too, find it the same."
While he has taken lessons and has great tutors — he gained a bachelor of visual arts degree at Auckland University of Technology last year — he believes there are no contemporary artists who know Renaissance techniques better than the Renaissance artists themselves.
"I must learn directly from them and now many of them, including Piero della Francesca and Rogier van der Weyden, are my soul mates.
"I copied their techniques faithfully, reinterpret them and reinvent them."
He usually works with a series of paintings simultaneously in his bedroom at home and switches between them as he paints.
"I cannot bear waiting for one painting to finish before I move on to the next, because that will simply take too long. Before adding final touches to a painting, I would give it a bit of a rest so that I can come back with fresh perspective and momentum."
At the heart of Chai’s practice is his "obsession" with painting and its ability to "communicate a thousand words without needing to utter one single word, compressing a complex story into one single frame".
"Painting for me is a language. That language, coming from different individuals or cultures, carries different weights, personality, meanings and sentiments."
While Packer described his style as already well defined, Chai says he is not conscious of having a style.
"I believe it is something that only the spectators are aware of in catching certain working patterns of an artist."
Another influence on Chai’s work has been his interest in classical music which he was "into" long before he began painting. He now plays classical guitar.
"Classical music has had a big impact to my feeling and understanding about colours, especially polyphonic music from the Renaissance and Baroque eras — classical music actually belongs to the post-Bach era, so my preference of music is much earlier."
So although he prefers absolute quiet when he paints, he listens to music when he studies the Old Masters "in order to absorb the fullness of their giving".
For Chai, who moved to New Zealand in 2011, painting is a lifestyle which began while he was at high school when he began exploring different modes of making and showing his works.
"As a wise old man once told me, follow your passion first and the money will follow after you. I think this is quite true."
He has also won the Waitakere Art Awards in 2017 and the Pastel Artist of New Zealand supreme award in 2018 and 2019.
"Competitions have been part of my life since primary school years and there hasn’t been a year since 2008 that I didn’t compete."
In 2016, he took time out to train as a carpenter but did not enter the industry.
"It is simply a set of skills that I pride myself with when I need it, like making a table for my room, constructing a storeroom alongside my dad, and making my own wooden panels for painting."
These days he is painting full-time from home but is also part of a group of five artists restoring the Waharoa by Selwyn Muru at the Aotea Centre in Auckland. They have completed one side of the work with the other yet to be completed.
He is also represented by Foenander Galleries, in Auckland, and had his debut show there last month.
To gain more inspiration after his Cleveland win, he travelled to Australia intent on seeing the "Botticelli to van Gogh" exhibition in Canberra.
"Along the way I got enthralled and entrapped by some secondary attractions, like the altarpiece by Sano di Pietro and a small painting by William Dobell. They have kept hold of me for hours, if not, days, just because they were unknowingly special."
He found it quite "unbearable" while he was away not be painting.
Since returning home he has started a few more paintings as well as finishing up some older works.
The trip to Australia was rewarding overall as it opened his eyes to new things.
"Like paintings I have never seen or haven’t been seeing for years. Such encounters, especially after the cold isolation and boredom of Covid, was immense and powerful."
Even weeks after seeing those works he is still "haunted" by them.
"I still remember being amazed by those tiny brushstrokes in the tempera painting, and mind-blown by the sfumato in Dobell’s little oil painting."