THE WORLD IS VAST AND YOU ARE NOT: AN INTERVIEW WITH AMY WONG
Laura Horne-Gaul: All of your work seems highly personal. Why do you paint mostly from your personal experiences?
Amy Wong: I am just as interested in the logic within each of my paintings, as much as the relationships between each piece and how they bounce off each other to create an associative, relational meaning. I aim to evoke non-linear narratives that are based on my own experiences and feelings, which then expand into a larger social commentary. The manners by which these elements are translated onto paper or canvas are informed by my own cultural makeup, which is pretty eclectic.
Personal narrative is important to me because it asserts that we are subjective creatures, that we can only understand the world subjectively. I only have the authority to paint what I know, what I empathize with, or what I need to understand more through the act of painting. This process is a way of thinking through my obsessions, crushes, rage, suspicion, loves, bitchiness, etc.
If you think about the history of oil painting in particular, and the problem of the colonizing, objective gaze – that of depicting people and places as fetishized objects of conquest, of observation from the outside as in the case of Delacroix and Gauguin or the Group of Seven for example… then my work is a critique of that type of objectivity. We are products of oral tradition, of storytelling, gossip, kinship, friendship, romance, and song. Of understanding knowledge through various personal forms all interwoven. Total objectivity, especially when you talk about culture, or history, or politics, or I mean, anything really… doesn’t exist in my opinion… that’s a manner of thinking that I can’t ascribe to.
As an Asian Diaspora woman from an alternative scene, we have so few resources that describe our experiences and so few truthful representations that express how groovy and complex we really are. How few platforms we have to voice that without being pigeonholed as ARTIST OF COLOUR – that’s the paradox – we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t address difference and the politics of race and gender. So I’m really just fleshing out what that means for me and how this struggle plays out on canvas. We’re so often painted into a corner, and depicted as perpetually foreign, as exotic, diminutive, hypersexual etc. etc. etc. that my protest is to paint a personal truth out of these boxes, to code-switch and weave in-between the social scripts that confine me and negate my dignity as a person. Playfulness and humour are coping mechanisms.
I’m basically an angry Asian feminist disguised as an oil painter. Hah! I’m occupying a space that isn’t intrinsically welcoming to me. It feels performative because it’s very simply about presence, asserting that presence, and being loud about it. This isn’t easy or natural for me. Socially and culturally we receive messages everyday that tell us that we’re invisible, or at best belonging on the sidelines, we are minimized, overlooked and underrepresented. Anyway, what I fiercely hold on to is a romantic yet critical idea about painting… that there is strength in sentimentality, in being earnest. In exploring how one can be sincere with the medium and have that wink and nod at the same time about the dissatisfactions of painting’s role in the construction of the heroic (I’m really saying macho) history, and how can it be expanded into a more pluralistic realm.
I tend to take on things that I myself think are bad ideas, and I wrestle with these clichés. I’m interested in evoking the affect of a teenage girl’s bedroom – a safe, multifaceted cosmos, and a precious one. I’m sorry to say it but I’m really getting tired of ‘bad girl’ art. Rebellion gets so prescribed sometimes … more and more I’m getting tired of the tropes of white girl feminism in art and music, and feel like there isn’t much room for other types of knowledge in radical feminist aesthetics and politics. I’m totally part of this culture too, don’t get me wrong. But I’m more interested in finding another strategy through opacity and a covert baddassness. I seem to always talk about punk rock in pastels, like Berthe Morisot or Frankie Lymon.
LHG: In your BIO you mentioned that you have traveled a lot. May you reflect on these travels and how they inspired your work?
AW: When I was young I never got to go anywhere. I come from a working class family and my exposure to the larger world came from books at the library. I used to daydream a lot about getting the hell out of Toronto, I felt unfulfilled (I’m a Sagittarius!). I have always used art to get me to other places, and so travel is inextricable from my practice. In 2000, when I was eighteen I schlepped a portfolio together from taking a high school co-op credit with this lady making artisanal tiles. She had a camera and a printmaking press that she let me use, and I began my BFA at Concordia because I wanted to live in Montreal. Upon graduation I applied to De Ateliers in Amsterdam, not knowing much about it. I had never been to Europe and wanted to know if my critical opinions of Canadian colonial culture held any weight once I could step out and examine it from a different perspective. I had no idea it was like one of the best art schools and I barely knew who Steve McQueen was, so I was lucky he accepted me. I was this smartass little snaphead who needed to live a little more life. Anyway, after two years of living in Holland, making big paintings, having the privilege to have adventures and see art in the flesh all over Europe, a veil had been lifted from my eyes, and I became hooked on this rhythm of living and painting abroad. I did whatever it took to keep going this way. I have been doing the residency hop for ten years. Traveling has become such a part of me now, part of the way my blood flows. My body becomes extra sensitive as a thinking and feeling organ when it is situated in different contexts. The constant fracturing of perspective, the culture contrasts, the ability to compare different value and representational systems and the impossibility of translation is something that gives me the urge to paint and sing my heart out.
If I can be honest… no offense intended, but I find there’s something a little uptight about Toronto. It’s my hometown, my family is here, and it’s so diverse that it feels like home. But it always feels awkward to me, and my mojo fades when I stay too long without a break. There’s a weird pressure here of avoiding eye contact, of behaving coolly, of being polite and assimilating, of minding your own goddamn business and socializing only with people you know. It tends not to be very open and slowly I get closed up and cranky myself.
I don’t travel to observe from the outside (tourist). Sometimes that's inevitable, but if I can help it my goal is to, as Janis Joplin said, put your ego aside and allow yourself to really get under it. To know it from the inside, from it’s underbelly and from its different angles, guided through the lens of different types of people from all walks of life. To get an essence of a place not in a clichéd way, but in a real way, and I use art and my painting practice as a starting point. Actually empathy is my starting point when I can empathize I can begin to understand.
Travel also makes very apparent how one’s identity is so relative, and reactive. It’s also pretty psychedelic. It makes you hyper aware of your smallness, it makes you uncomfortable and it makes you look harder at things and think harder about them.
Nowadays I feel really spread out both psychologically and physically. I’m always on the move, I’m de-centered even within this city. I’ve always been schlepping all over the GTA. I find it funny that some people think it’s really far to go east of Yonge. I don’t stay put in one scene, and I think that my best paintings have those escape routes too, segues into something else.
The advantage of being on the margins is that you must get to know very well both the margins and the center. Those in the centre (those with power) tend not to know much about the margins. And so for someone like me, I want to know it all.
LHG: The sound projects are a unique addition to your work. May you describe the sound works and how they relate to your painting?
AW: Songs evoke specific times and places for me, as they do for many people. Painting is my private side made public, and the sound projects are my super private side that I don’t even know what I’m doing with it. It’s just something I feel compelled to do.
Making mixtapes is an act of love. It’s really about wanting to share, as well as bringing attention to another type of exhibition space. Making a mix is really no different than choosing 10 or 15 paintings for a show, for example – they have to flow well, tell a story through selection and arrangement. And consider the parallels of collage to sampling, I think it really is what I do with making paintings: the cultural shuffle, the time travel, the layering and harmonizing of different elements. Musical composition can be painterly and painting can be musical.
But in general this sound aspect of my practice is extremely embarrassing and quite painful actually, and it keeps me on my toes from being jaded. I’m talking about these a capella karaoke covers - I make them when I’m either without a studio, or about to move away or into a new painting space somewhere else in the world. It’s a way of capturing the resonances of a particular place. It’s also a way of reclaiming karaoke culture, which I grew up with and hated when I was a kid suffering through family parties, but loved once I started getting drunk and singing myself.
‘Cover Cover’ was the first piece I ever recorded in 2007 at my parent’s house in Scarborough. I had just moved back from Amsterdam and was swooning over a long distance relationship. I liked the direct crappiness of consumer software, of singing directly into my laptop. The simple visuality of Garageband allowed me to layer tracks in the same way I would layer paint. I would collage and cut holes out of parts of each track, a combination of a visual and sonic process that is both harmonious and off-tune at the same time. I wanted to use it to make a paper sound postcard, but still need to figure out how to manufacture that. I am interested in the way the human voice resonates within one’s own body before moving through the air, bouncing off surfaces, objects and other bodies to affect and change the space.
I also want to assert the nerdy fragility of singing earnestly. I am using the generic trope of karaoke as a starting point to the specific and personal. In Japanese, Karaoke means Empty Orchestra – from its inception it was acknowledged as a bad idea! I know my performances have the fragility of this bad idea, and this is precisely why I am interested in how one can use it sincerely. I also think figurative painting is a bad idea… the parallel is the same…
LHG: When do you know that a painting is complete?
AW: Ideally, I like to leave a painting with a bit of breathing room, a feeling that it is not a hundred percent done. I mean, I like my steaks still bleeding, because it tastes more like the animal and it’s tenderer. And I think sex should be messy and controlled at the same time … timing and bold moves are everything. So in this analogy - steak, sex and painting are basically interchangeable! And if a painting can have those qualities then I’m a real lucky gal. I tend to make tons of paintings and ruin like 90% of them because they get painted to death, they’re too uniform or overcooked.
It usually takes me a long time of sitting and staring at my work before I can decide that either I need to do something or do nothing. I work on like 8 different pieces at one time. I’m always reacting to the last move I made, and need to decide if it makes any sense to add to it. For me painting is a game of balancing action and restraint, and a conversation with oneself – if it’s too restrained then there is no bravery to it, but if it’s too much action then its overkill.
I like to leave traces of process if I can. I keep an image bank and there are all these potential paintings that may or may not come out of them. There are also images in my head that need to come out. I wait until the timing feels right to match them up in the form of a material, painting dance party. I start with an abstract under layer, and sometimes they stay abstract and sometimes they don’t. Most often images emerge from the abstraction, through a process of layering.
LHG: How do you prepare to paint?
AW: When I get to the studio, the first thing I do is choose the right music for that moment. Then I kind of just wait until it feels right. I do warm-ups before I can actually bring myself to paint, or draw, or make marks. I procrastinate, which is like surfing the Internet, or reading art books and articles, having crises in confidence, or hanging out with other people and talking about art. But my real true warm ups are things like drinking, singing, and dancing alone with my work. Being absolutely alone is crucial for me because you can be stupid and uninhibited and existential and then really experiment. I move objects around and organize images into piles on the floor, look at images on my laptop, and re-arrange things over and over. When it’s time to start, I squeeze out a bunch of paint onto whatever is at hand, by intuition. I don’t use palettes. The order is a hundred percent internal. No colour wheels, no tracing, no studies. I work freehand and if it sucks then I’ll paint over it later. My only material rule is that oil has to be the last steps because you can’t paint on top of oil with anything else.
LHG: What is your favourite colour?
AW: Every shade of green, especially mint and turquoise, and the deep emeralds, and the pukey ones. Internal organs pink. Prussian blue. And gold. I basically love every colour, but the fakest, brightest ones seem to be my favourite. I also love the vibrancy of poisonous cadmiums against student grade tempera.
LHG: It looks like you have been working with some designers, creating prints for fabric? May you expand on that experience?
AW: I want my sisters to feel good and fierce! I see clothing as costume, and believe it has tremendous power in expressing how you want to be seen and how you want to feel. I just finished collaborating on a couple designs with the amazing Angie Johnson of Norwegian Wood, an independent designer from Montreal who’s great at making women feel fierce. We created a versatile silk 2-piece where the pattern came from my abstract brush strokes. I’ve also made a t-shirt of a drawing of internal organs for her, which hasn’t been released yet. I’ve also been working on an artist edition with another independent designer in Miami, but I am not allowed to talk about it yet. It will come out soon.
My designs map the body through hand-drawn or hand-painted elements, which I make in the studio and then scan. It’s interesting to me that I work from source images that translate back into reproductions in the form of fabric. Not everyone can own a painting but they can own a shirt. I like the idea of being able to wear a painting or a drawing – the body becomes the exhibition surface.
Clothes are also like mixtapes to me, and like painting and drawing, it’s also about composition. At the heart of it I’m still that grungy teenager that staples her pants together and recontextualizes second hand clothes, wearing necklaces as bracelets and ties as belts. I mean, every day we get up and curate ourselves and it’s a really personal endeavor that is also social and culturally determined. You dress in relation to how you view the world. You can also fuck around with convention, subculture and expectation through dress as costume, and this is also no different from painting. Paint for me is about joy and truth through a method of illusionism and artifice.
LHG: Also I recall that you were working as a painter duplicating paintings? It stuck in my mind as an odd thing for a painter to want to do and I thought you could clarify what your position was and how if affected your studio practice?
AW: I love that you remember that story! I still talk about that job sometimes, even though it only lasted a week. I had to quit because I got really sick from the fumes. It was this sweatshop gig that I got right after I came back to Toronto from my residency in China in 2008, in a factory up in Richmond Hill. I was hired to embellish these fake Renoirs and Degas etc. etc. with real, human brushstrokes! It was a company that printed high quality knock-offs on framed canvases and our job was to act as this assembly line that mixed the EXACT colours for 30% of each canvas, in order to embellish parts of the painting with this impasto technique. To make the fakes look moderately real. That job actually taught me more about the technical properties of oil paint and colour theory than studying under actual painters – I mean I was taught by the most amazing painters including Marlene Dumas and Pierre Dorion, but I mean if anyone actually tried to teach technique in art skool I would have resisted it like the plague. I never had any interest in learning how to paint… in undergrad it took me three years to figure out that Liquin wasn’t a real thing! That to me is part of the fun, of experimenting blindly until it works. Academy style has always been my antithesis, and then I got this factory job and was forced to paint in an affected Euro bullshit style, which was pure torture. The man in charge of the sweatshop was this Russian dude named Blend (no joke) and he was very strict. Subconsciously however, I think my paintings started to develop a little more materiality after that job, perhaps because I got a better sense of image vs. paint and feigned gestures vs. real ones… that labour and body memory of painting has seeped into my practice now, just a little. I’ve always been ambivalent about idolizing the GREAT MASTERS but this had put me in a really surreal middle point, and it has stuck with me. Beaudrillard would have appreciated it.
I think as artists we learn a lot of really valuable lessons from the various random things we do to survive, and they define us – weird blessings in disguise. For years I’ve wanted to make an artist book about that, by collecting and retelling stories that other artists have told me about their day jobs. For instance, Sigurdur Gudmundsson also made fake oil paintings when he was young! He tried to hawk them off at an artisanal fair in New York, but the so-called kitsch buyers all saw through his irony and he wasn’t able to sell a single one, even though his paintings looked exactly the same as everyone who had made theirs in earnest. Great lesson, huh?
Last year I was asked to make fake paintings for TJ Maxx and Homesense to distribute. I thought about Siggi and my factory job while I was making these test paintings of soft-focus seashells and bloody romantic abstracts … the job fell through but I mean, in the end I couldn’t really pull it off either.
2014 artist in studio
2014 Girl Cosmos Postcard Mix, SPG, York University, Toronto
‘Kitty Bitch Mani’Oil, acrylic on canvas40cm x 50cm (16” x 20”), 2013
‘The world is vast and you are not"oil on unframed canvas46cm x 38cm (18" x 15”), 46cm x 43cm (18” x 17”), 2012
'Cash And Her Baby In Matching Wigs'oil, ink, acrylic on unframed canvas160 cm x 195 cm (62" x 77"), 2014