Rhythm and the Monstrous: A Diary Manifesto for Oil Painters

(Thesis Excerpt)

Amy Wong

What? (2008), Amy Wong
Oil, acrylic, charcoal on canvas
27” x 39”

The invisible threads that form identity politics are especially messy today. I seek forms that assert self-definition, that articulate one’s energies, complexities and nuances. As a painter, my use of mixed media and subversion of imagery is politically motivated. Through counterpoint and fragmentation I elicit surprise. My work deals with self-transformation and code-switching in a manner that is relational and opaque. And while it isn’t the subject of my work, it is a drive. If my critique of the stereotypical lies in its reduction of character, then my impulse is to go maximal.

I’m an angry Asian feminist disguised as an oil painter ;) I work with themes that I find to be limiting and clichéd, so that I can reclaim them on my own terms. I am interested in the politics of representation as expressed through the redirection of various visual and sonic pop cultural tropes. I make paintings as if they were mixtapes and I make mixtapes as if they were paintings, braided in a relational way. And carnivalesque, using humour and chaos to challenge assumptions of the dominant culture. Inversion as subversion.

Fuck Zeus (2015), Amy Wong
Painting, drawing, mixed media
Dimensions variable

My paintings, drawings and sound works are a collection of diverse references, oscillating between different systems of representation. A broad range of source material is used to reflect nonlinear, personal narratives. I seek forms that announce one’s presence. I ask myself, how can painting practice embody decolonial and feminist ideals? How can we move forward from critique to a more powerful way of seeing, knowing and being? My points of departure lie in existential moments, and balancing bitchy feelings with so-embarrassingly soft ones. And the heartbreakingly empowering Nina Simone cover of the song “Feelings”. My aim is to widen the parameter of how signs and signifiers are understood by digging past a superficial surface and getting to a certain core. Repositioning notions of authenticity. Asserting a sardonic but genuine hope in polysemic logic, I extract meaning from the information bomb.

I am also dealing with the paradoxes involved in handling political sentiment, and especially the stereotypical pickles in asserting racial and gendered perspectives in the so-called realm of identity politics. I am trying to sort out what constitutes the markers of culture and identity, and how people understand each other this way. I proudly assert myself as a person of colour but at the same time avoid being pigeonholed as such, both by others as well as by that old trap of self-marginalization. I think this caginess is why I approach logic within shades of grey rather than black and white, and look for alternative truthfulness in contradiction, of ambiguity as a way of playing with existing constructs.  

My paintings often explore analogies between illusionism and costume. I see both as agency through mimesis, and as performances of selfhood. I am interested in the power of images, and in the possibility of transcending clichés by painting the symbols that propel them. My conviction lies in using these elements as tools to identify the position of the individual subject to larger social structures.

Care Bear Mani (2013), Amy Wong
Oil, acrylic on canvas

18” x 24”

If you think about the history of oil painting in particular, and the problem of the colonial, 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 if we wanna get Canadian—then my work is a critique of that objectivity. Empathic connection as the meat and potatoes and the glue, I can only paint what I relate to. We are products of storytelling, gossip, kinship, friendship, romance, song. 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. Thank the gods for Annabella Lwin. How few platforms we have to voice that without being immediately checked off as ARTIST OF COLOUR MAKING ARTIST OF COLOUR ART. 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 just fleshing out what that means for me and how this struggle plays out on canvas, occupying the space that I’m not supposed to. Personally, I celebrate difference and contradiction; I revel in it. Why would anyone want to be part of a structure that is intrinsically unfair? My protest is to paint a personal truth out of these boxes, to weave between the social scripts that negate one’s dignity. Playfulness and humour are coping mechanisms in this sense, and mischief is a lifesaver.  

Le Déjeuner Sur Bow Wow Wow (2013), Amy Wong
Oil, acrylic, ink on unframed linen
54” x 58”

Academy style has always been my antithesis, and then once I got a job where I was forced to paint in an affected Euro bullshit way, which was pure torture. My boss was a Russian dude named Blend (no joke) and he was very strict. Subconsciously, however, I think my own paintings started to develop a little more materiality after that job, because I developed a visceral sense of image vs. paint and feigned gestures vs. real ones… that labour and body memory had seeped into my practice. This job that I hated so much forced me to learn about the technical properties of oil paint and colour theory. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve studied under the best, most amazing painters this world has to offer, but I think that, as artists, we learn a lot of valuable lessons from the various random schlepping we do to pay rent, and this defines us—these experiences are weird blessings in disguise.

Description of job: In 2008 I worked briefly in a factory where I was hired to embellish paintings from the Western canon. It was a company that printed Giclées of Van Goghs and Degas etc. etc. on framed canvases, and our job was to act as an assembly line that mixed the EXACT colours for 30% of each canvas to cover parts of the painting with an impasto look, to make the fakes look mildly real. The company’s claim to fame was that they were not made in China and therefore they were a purveyor of high-end Canadian knock offs.

My Period Is More Metal Than Your Band (2015), Amy Wong
Thesis exhibition

My practice is marked by a constant shift in focus, a fragmentation of lived experience and the ability to compare different cultural and representational systems. I navigate, absorb, then express these sentiments. The Yams Collective called for acquiring "the knowledge to understand different aesthetics", and that statement resonates strongly with me.

This is reflected in my desire to travel the world in a way that digs past a tourist surface of cheap signifiers and lazy cultural tropes. When I am out of context I am at my strongest because I am able to see what other people are conditioned to accept. This practice is parallel to my studio work,it is the side of me that is absolutely engaged with being-in-the-world, with deconstructing race, gender, class and sexuality in the indexical present. It is when I am at my most site-specific and site-reactive. It makes me fluid and on the move like the huli jing. It informs my sensibility, learning mode, method of articulation, gesture and critique in the studio.

I paint with the same approach, by orchestrating situations that allow for chance and happening to be a form of investigation. My process is reactive both to surface and materials, but also to what those things communicate back to me. I believe painting is a performative and knowing type of looking. For instance, like the self-portraits of Alice Neel or James Ensor.

Cash And Her Baby In Matching Wigs (2014), Amy Wong
Oil, ink, acrylic on unframed canvas

62" x 77"

My instinct is to approach a category, and try opening it up as much as I possibly can. I do this by including the broadest range of reference points that I can think of. I often throw in elements that don’t technically belong in that category to show how it can fit. I have recently noticed how this impulse is very Diaspora Asian, how others do it in their own way. I have a very strong desire to leak out of existing categories. Because truthful, deep representations of us are so scarce, as a community we often feel invisible, and that affects the cultural psyche. So for those of us who are sick of being bound by labels, we look in the gaps, the in-betweens, the non-spaces, for something else. To make a space for oneself. This translates through to artistic practice.

Ganguro (2012), Amy Wong
Oil, spray paint, acrylic on canvas

50” x 37”

The task of asserting one’s reality should be enough. When I first started out ten years ago I really thought that I could start here, at this second stage of activism, to paint whatever I liked without making issues of race and gender explicit, because somehow I really believed that we had passed that stage. Now I keep struggling with the fact that we are not even close to being there yet.

You Can Get It If You Really Want (2015), Amy Wong
Oil, acrylic on canvas, mixed media wall collage
36" x 48"

I am often frustrated by the way art and critical theory continue to uphold Western hegemonies even when claiming to take them down. I get frustrated at myself for the same reasons. How do we set up a round table that explores hegemonic blind spots? Currently I‘m knee deep in the supposed academic paradigm shift of affect theory and it’s been slowly pissing me off. Because no matter where I go in this world I still experience the same exclusions and the maintenance of the same systems of power simply using different clusters of words to feign new content. The vernacular of affect is not changing this, even though I wanted it to be my saving grace theory. I want a space where we can collectively respect a broader sense of art practice through the revisiting of modernist lineages and non-lineages. There are lots of great initiatives doing this, I know. I just want more!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Amy Wong (b. 1981, Toronto) has lived and worked in Canada, the U.S., the Netherlands, Spain, and China.  She completed her BFA at Concordia University in Montréal, Quebec, and post-graduate studies at De Ateliers in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Wong has exhibited at the Seoul Museum of Art, the Chinese European Art Center in Xiamen, and the Gementemuseum in The Hague. She was recently an artist-in-residence at the Fountainhead Residency in Miami, and just completed her MFA in Visual Arts at York University in Toronto.