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Gillian Toh: Girls, Snakes, and Cupcakes

A Parallel Planets piece by Jofer Serapio

Parallel Planets presents Gillian Toh
in Girls, Snakes, and Cupcakes
Story by Jofer Serapio

Mentioned: subversive femininity, kidults, and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

* * *

Whenever the female form makes an appearance on the canvas, it’s portrayed as graceful and elegant, in pastels and light washes, that makes it hard to dissociate the idea of the virgin maiden, the lady in white, from the gender that deserves to be represented with as much complexity as the human mind can grasp, maybe even more. Now I’m not saying that such a portrayal is bad. How can I, when some of my favourite painters live through the doe-eyed queen who melts stone and steel with just a smile?

But there is something to be said for a work of femininity that charms and at the same time repels. There is a lot to be said for such works that simultaneously make you smile and cringe. Gillian Toh’s subversive approach to the female form takes a lot from the depiction of women in media, how the female body is represented, how all that affects the psychology of girlhood, as she proposes. The perception of the body as an object, a territory, to be claimed or owned, conquered if you will, and the consequential vulnerability to a world of media scrutiny are what Gillian means to explore.

A 22-year-old illustrator, Gillian describes herself as a kidult, a quasi-hikikomori, and an incurable introvert who wants to stay at home and draw forever. Drawing for the vilified teenage girl, she deals in themes of subversive femininity, bone-deep sadness, surrealism, gore, cute dessert things, erotica, and sometimes (or often) tentacles. Just going through that list had this writer mentally give her a standing ovation.

Tumblr, formerly the site that must not be named, inspires her. Other things that inspire Gillian include other illustrators, weird frazzles on the interwebs and from days gone by, anime, manga, and our changing relationship with image as a commodity that can be appropriated for self-expression regardless of context. Gillian considers geeks, nerds, dorks, outsiders, and weirdos pretty good friendship material. Needless to say, I was born to be her best friend, the Jake the Dog to her Finn the Human.

Taking all of that in mind, Gillian’s influences should therefore come as no surprise to anyone. She cites Japanese artists like Yamamoto Takato, Obata Takeshi, and Tajima Sho-u as very influential to her and her craft. Japanese pop sensation Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, known for showing “cuteness in a traumatic way,” had a lot of influence in her recent piece, which was an awe-inspiring 3.5-meter illustrated banner.

Institutions can have only so much influence on you, Gillian reflects. The student’s outlook and talent have the last say on the work produced. As a student of Visual Communications, Gillian has had to compromise between her creativity and the functionality of the work she does. To aspiring artists who will be or are already enrolled in institutions, her advice is to ready yourselves to make a lot of compromises: schools will impose rules and restrictions that artists might not find themselves fond of but still have to accept. There will always be the possibility of a work-around, however, of continuing to be yourself and working your way around the system.

In Nanyang Technological University’s annual School of Arts, Design and Media Graduation Show, Gillian’s Freakitsch Flock: An Illustrative Transmutation featured female bodies dressed up in candy-coated macabre, displaying both feminine and aggressive aesthetics. The show ran from May 10 to May 19.

Aside from that, Gillian has not had a lot of exhibits, for which she believes she owes her introverted nature, what she perceives as an obstacle in her self-promotion and networking. To break out of her comfort zone, Gillian branched out from traditional methods, her using pen and copic markers, to digital media.

Currently, Gillian Toh is keeping her options open. She admits that school has not been fulfilling for her. She likes the idea of travelling as a tattoo artist, producing intricate designs with people as her canvas. Seeing skin seared with Gillian’s delightfully unsettling images of girls, snakes, jellyfish, and cupcakes sounds acceptable if not flat-out awesome. Weird is definitely wonderful.

More from Gillian Toh: Tumblr, Behance

Disclaimer: In lieu with Parallel Planets' general aesthetics, almost all images found on this website appear in black & white. Hover on them to view the original versions and click them to see in high resolutions. All media files solely belong to their respective artists, some of which are exclusive for Parallel Planets only. If you wish to use any of these, please contact the author or artist first. Thank you!
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