by Olivier Gérard

Be it through line, touch, curve, shading, or his keen observation skills, Marc Chan’s eloquent hands scorch and reorganize the whiteness on a sheet of paper. Edging forward like a pedestrian in space, imperceptibly violating the cosmos at constant speed, he conducts his exploration of the invisible. This is precisely what Chan seeks. The more his pencil dances and the more the subject takes form on the page, the more his quest to apprehend void materializes. Not the void of nothingness, not the void in opposition to life. No, we mean the void that straddles appearance. The void that speaks where graphics are hushed. We mean a powerful and richly impossible void. Chan translates it with no meagre white space.

Is reaching this goal his motivation for drawing? In his childhood, he rummaged his parents’ studio and their picture arsenal and took the instruments of his vocation: pencils, brushes, colours. He could have just as easily become a musician or a painter. But no, his soul wanted to draw. His drawing has very precise borders, but this does not to say that they are limited, for the narrower the field, the denser the content.

As soon as you meet Chan, he immediately whisks you into his world of graphics. The man is a tattoo fan. Inspired by the irezumi traditions of the samurai and yakuza, he has made his body an anthology of tattoos. Offering up virgin, satiny skin to a puncturing needle and crafting a second skin via body art closely parallels the art of etching shapes onto paper, which is, after all, another type of skin.

On this skin, Chan’s men disrobe, throw back their shoulders, flex their pectorals, flaunt their visible and invisible intimacy: rump, cock, mouth, desire, supplication, submissiveness, dominance, languidness. They reveal the curve of their spine, the power in their hands and thighs, the lust in their eyes. Yet, no matter how violent the charge – or discharge – of their energy and their nudity, Chan adamantly refuses to categorize them as erotic. Eroticism is not his goal, he says. “My aim in my drawings is to reveal softness and calm to viewers. I want them to feel soothed by the black and white. Drawing gives me balance. For me, it confines me to a discipline.”

Here again, of course, his self-antagonism and contradictions come to fore. Outlining in torrid terms, he skirts what he does not intend. Drawing white, he resorts to black. Black, the colour of passion, carnality, fire. Isn’t the essence of art encircling a theme, a subject, a life, in order to depict its outer envelope, hinting at but never touching its interior, thus magnifying its evocative power?

Chan has a gargantuan appetite for accuracy in detail. There is extreme refinement in every line, every shadow. But is the man ever really sated? We have seen him eying splendid previous works with consternation etched on his face. It is as if they were but stepping stones in his quest of an ideal, an obsession.

Chan sets his eyes on men discovered in chance meetings or through his acquaintances. “Sets his eyes” is indeed how he defines the act of drawing. For him, it is like a first encounter. Drawing is knowing. Sketching a new acquaintance, Chan crafts fantasy from flesh.

His is a world populated by mature men. He finds their ruggedness more interesting. They require more detail from the pencil; they wear their life experience on their faces and on their bodies. It isn’t that Chan finds young men uninteresting, it’s simply that while their smooth features appeal to the media and the advertising world, lithe young bodies spark no flame for this artist. If, as the saying goes, youth is the future, Chan would have us see that, for him, the future resides in sketching a world to which he is headed.”

The realization on paper of the encounter does not happen like a primary, mechanical or even a graphic rite. For Marc, visual shock and the pencilled composition of the male body are mere clues to an immediate phenomenon that springs from desire, pleasure, seduction, because for him, every encounter is a form of love. Love at first sight, literally. Yes, for Chan, drawing is making love. His deft pencil strokes tease and plough the void with the same rocking motions in love-making. Incarnation. Flesh in flesh. Flesh to flesh. Visible penetrating invisible.

With each subject, Chan embarks on a minute examination which reveals far more than photography ever could. Light glinting off a curve of the back, the volume of a muscle, the recoil of a pubic hair, the crow’s feet enhancing a glance. His quest for perfection brings flesh to life, whets his appetite, and sharpens his view.

That is not all. The appearance, the skin, is but a shell behind which every man hides and defends himself. By drawing the visible, once again Marc captures what his subject will not reveal. If we ask him what is invisible in a man, he pains to formulate an answer. That silence is already an answer as it contains hidden erotic signals. Here, too, he walks on the edge of reality like the celebrated poet’s “man with soles of wind”.

This fundamental contradiction between the visible and the invisible, positive and negative, kindle a spark in him that is illustrated in his mirroring portraits where the body of one subject responds to its alter ego, or a pair of nudes tipping head to toe, shuffled and dealt like poker cards.

A genuine portrait, in Chan’s dreams, would be a multifaceted portrait capable of synthesizing in one single sketch the entire frame of a personality. This explains why faces suddenly repeat in certain sketches, superimposed into a myriad of dreamy eyes, lips, hair. Vitality and fleeting impulses captured. At first glance, you might think these layers prevent you from appreciating the model or that this approach renders the subject invisible. But isn’t this a means of making it all the more present? Chan pushes the experience even further, going as far as to empty his subject’s head, moulding a face over a hollow skull.

Chan’s heroes happily fall into the camp of androids, robots, and other synthetic creatures that he enjoys dreaming up. He collects figurines and uses them to create a universe that reassures him. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” a short story by Philipp K. Dick that inspired Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, gave Marc Chan an aesthetic jolt. Since then, he has developed curiosity and empathy for Japanese otaku, geeks who can only live with dolls because they feel incapable of communicating with real people.

Chan aspires to portray a body that is no longer human, a body for a body. He is fascinated by sex dolls and how highly detailed they are. These dolls, dear to many otaku, give them a partner that they can safely explore sex with or avoid the complications of seeking out a fellow human. They go beyond ordinary sexual fantasies and let them be themselves when they are alone. “With another human,” the otaku say, “you always have to take into account their feelings, right? It’s tiresome. One-way love is the best.”

No orders taken. Chan only draws people he has a hankering for. He does not wish to let negative energy stifle his own. He has constructed his virtual world out of his drawings with no claim of originality. No, he won’t shake the art world. His creation is merely an illustration of his own world.

The asceticism of the void… No doubt Chan got it from his Asian upbringing. Although born in London, he spent his early childhood in Hong Kong. When he came to France, he would deny his Chinese heritage. Then, suddenly, when he reached adolescence, he naturally returned to his roots and now regularly returns to Asia to recharge himself.

This asceticism graces the silhouettes of Chan’s subjects. White spaces bridge the distance between a nude’s torso and bent elbow or bolsters and defines quadriceps. Such empty spaces function much like Chinese ideograms in which blank space is as significant as drawn line. Chan’s drawing breathes life into the empty space and gives voice to the curves of the flesh.

Olivier Gérard

English translation: David W. Cox