“How about this?” says UC Berkeley senior Audrey Chen.
“The other day, I noticed that we have all these planters around, and we stick all sorts of shrubs and leafy things in them. And it (was) so strange to me, for some reason, that the person who pruned them cut them so straight up that if you had this branch, the person just cut it like—” she motions an upwards jerk, acting out a brutally inorganic straight line “—to contain it. And that’s what we do — we deign that this plant should be there, and then we’re always pruning them.”
She pauses for a second.
“Like hedges,” she says. “Hedges are the oddest things. You see people trimming them all the time. I don’t get it.”
We’re sitting on the southern steps of Stephens Hall overlooking Strawberry Creek — one of the “wilder” parts of south campus. Here, the plants grow relatively untamed, and where we sit — underneath the boughs of a tree that grows in a thick, verdant cascade — it’s easy to see Chen’s point of view. Here, the idea of a neatly pruned hedge feels alien and manufactured.
An honors student in the art practice department, Chen is currently preparing work for the honors group exhibition at the end of the year. She previously exhibited pieces at Southern Exposure Gallery in San Francisco and Wellcome Collection Museum in London. And as part of the honors program, she works closely with other selected honors student and faculty, who consult and critique her projects.
“Her work is unique, personal and thought provoking,” said UC Berkeley lecturer Randy Hussong in an email to The Daily Californian. “She has a delicate sense of touch and her pieces demonstrate careful execution balanced with curious concepts and playful imagery.”
Of the several projects that Chen is currently working on, she describes one as being particularly ambitious — this is a series of works entitled “The Garden,” in which Chen works with filling up rooms.
“(The Garden series) was sort of based on death,” Chen says. “But apart from that, more generally, I suppose, it’s how we construct spaces — environments — in our minds, as well as physically how we live. And how one thought can really become quite pronounced and color all of your experiences. There’s something about gardens, how we want a bit of nature in our lives, right? We like feeling part of nature, but in a safe way. And I guess I just wanted to evoke that.”
And as seen in the Garden series, ideas of compartmentalization and environments echo through much of her work.
“We naturally compartmentalize, organizing the disorderly into, as I like to think, neat, manageable boxes,” Chen says. “This is done in both mental and physical ways. As we organize the miscellaneous objects in a room into various containers, so we organize the contents of our minds.”
When asked where she draws inspiration for her work, Chen looks contemplative.
“I quite like Edward Gorey,” she says eventually. “He’s this illustrator, and he writes books that could be mistaken for children’s books, but they’re quite morbid. I like the idea of people living with art and just enjoying picture books and children’s books. They’re nice. So I’m not sure where I’m heading artwise. I’ve been dabbling in making books.”
Appropriately, Chen seems to draw her ideas largely from the mundane — she extracts poignant observations about structure and environments from such quotidian things as lecture notes, gardens, picture books and clothes.
“I was trying to think of where I draw a lot of my influences from, and certainly there are artists, but I think a lot of it is from fashion,” Chen says. “Or just things people wear. I’m drawn more to people who wear the same things over and over. Uniforms. And again it goes back to environments. The clothes you wear are just miniature environments that you bring everywhere with you or live in.”
And so we wrap up our conversation with a comment on the mundane and whether, once placed in art, mundane objects can even be considered as such — a topic that Chen often grapples with in her work.
“A good amount of my latest work is situated in things or places that people live with or in,” Chen says. “They were made to exist in those environments. Yet at the same time, the work exists in an art context, a critical context; so in a way, they aren’t meant to or perhaps cannot even be part of our ordinary lives.”