In Conversation with Caroline Wong
09 February 2022

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Tell us a bit about what inspires you and your art. What was it that initially inspired you to pursue a career in art first of all, and since then, where have you drawn inspiration from in terms of the individual style you’ve developed and your subject matter? Are there any art historical references in your art?

Wow there’s a lot to unpack here but I’ll try and keep it short. I always knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts but only really got the chance to focus on art after I turned 30.

In terms of where I’ve drawn inspiration from, I’d say regarding materiality, two key artists that have stayed with me are Liu Xiaodong and Gustav Klimt. Liu’s painting is a rugged, painterly kind of naturalism recalling Manet, Lucian Freud, and Eric Fischl. I love the scale of his work and how working quickly, or ‘hungrily’ as I put it, is an integral part of his process. Klimt’s paintings on the other hand are just unapologetically sensual and seductive in their enjoyment of colour and decorative surface. I feel there’s something quite ‘Asian’ in his sensibilities which would make sense given the influence of Chinese and Japanese art. Anyway my work hovers between these contradictory aesthetics: unrefined, gestural realism and dreamy, lush ornamental painting.

The general theme of my practice — defiant Asian women — was and still is informed largely by the absence of East and Southeast Asian representation in the arts. I simply wanted to craft something based on my personal experiences living in Asia and Europe as a westernised Asian woman. Initially I was creating portraits of interesting characters, real and imaginary, but I later shifted my focus to female friendships (inspired by a real friendship that I had while living in China). There is still defiance in these but it’s through food and drink, and they are (for me) more fun and lighthearted than confrontational.

My work is rooted in several art-historical traditions, the main one being the East Asian genre of meirenhua (Chinese) or bijin-ga (Japanese) which translates as ‘images of beautiful women.’ In a way my work is a modern revamping of the tropes and the role of the decorative within this genre. Other notable references for me are Japanese ukiyo-e (images of the floating world) — colourful, celebratory depictions of life’s earthly pleasures; also Intimist painters such as Bonnard and Vuillard who blended painterliness and pattern to create escapist domestic scenes; and finally the energetic lines and vibrant colours in the drawings of Degas, Toulouse Lautrec, Paula Rego, and Ella Kruglyanskaya.

Your own background and upbringing are integral to your practice; can you tell us a bit more about that and how you draw on it?

Yes, I was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents but grew up in London. I did however go back to Asia on a regular basis, and even lived in and travelled around China for 4 years. So my practice naturally draws upon eastern and western cultural influences and aesthetics, as well as the environments of both Asia and Europe.

I think for example that my use of bright colours and layering of patterns has a lot to do with my love of Asian decorative arts: I’m inspired by the explosive colours and ornamental excess of Peranakan textiles and ceramics, Chinese famille jaune and famille rose porcelain, Malay batik, and Indian block printing. Alongside this, I often find myself nostalgic for the equally colourful but more gritty chaos of Asian cities, especially at night: the neon lights, the shopfronts, busy restaurants, markets, clutter, and detritus. So the visual and sensorial intensity that I experienced in Asia finds its way into my work. There is also a warmth in my images which creates a homely and inviting Bonnardian atmosphere, but it is also reminiscent of the languorous heat of Southeast Asia which I very much enjoy. Finally, there’s the food culture. While the pleasure of eating is universal, in Asia it’s of paramount importance. I can’t explain why, other than it being cultural and perhaps related to periods of famine throughout history. In any case the epicurean tastes and pleasure displayed by my characters are inspired by this enthusiasm for food. I try to channel this indulgence into my own handling of paint and pastel.

As for living in the West, the figurative tradition and the reverence for portraiture has obviously influenced my subject matter. I don’t know why I gravitated towards the human figure in art but I was spoilt for choice with all the great museums here like the National Gallery in London or the Museo del Prado in Madrid to name a couple. And London too as a city has also influenced my images. Palette-wise, it’s more subdued than in Asia, but I enjoy its vastness, its variety of spaces and people, the endless possibilities and distractions it offers, its respect for tradition but taste for novelty and originality, also its openness and inclusiveness. It has an energy and vibe that I’ve always found exciting and vital. Like all major world cities, it’s a heady concentration of everyone’s desires, to paraphrase Daido Moriyama, though I’d add anxieties to that mix. This buzzy restlessness of London is something I relate to as someone who’s generally distracted and anxious, and it naturally influences the marks I make and my need to work big.

Describe for us how you work in your studio, do you work from photographs or with live models? You often work with large sheets of paper, do you work horizontally on the floor or vertically on the wall? Do you find this affects your work?

I find models who are first and foremost reliable, and we arrange a photo session either at my place or theirs. I take lots of pictures of them in different outfits, eating, and pretending to be drunk and happy or confused. A lot of it is improvised on the day although I do have several images of artworks and sketches at hand for inspiration. I then work from these photos, sometimes making composites involving other imagery (either from other photos of mine or from online images). I don’t really do preliminary sketches and just dive right in, working things out as I create. I do use large rolls of paper for my pastel drawings (specifically photographers’ backdrop paper which comes in different colours and very large sizes) and tape them to a wall. I once tried working on the floor, but it’s hard to see what I’m doing.

We love the scale on which you work – large! Can you tell us about the role of scale in your work and why you opt for larger canvasses for many of your works?

Working large comes quite naturally to me. I have a way of drawing that’s very loose, gestural, and clumsy and a small canvas or piece of paper only restricts that kind of mark-making. In East Asian art images of women have traditionally been dainty and delicate like the women portrayed. There’s a lot of control in the execution that mirrors the decorous behaviour of the women. Since all my images depict drunk, disheveled, gluttonous women, I want these qualities to be reflected in both materiality and scale. I sometimes like to think of the large canvas or sheet of paper as a large empty stomach waiting to be filled.

Your works are depicted in bright, bold colours. Tell us about your choice and use of colour?

As mentioned previously, I associate bright, saturated colours with Asia, particularly Southeast Asia - the temples, the street markets, the buildings, the textiles, even the food. So my practice is to some degree a way of bringing the heat and colour of Asian cities into my work. But colour for me also more broadly connotes playfulness, pleasure, and excess, as opposed to the elegance, simplicity, and sometimes austerity of monochromatic images. I recently came across David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, which talks about the West’s historical othering of colour as childish, emotional, feminine/effeminate, foreign, and queer. My works are, in a way, about celebrating and enlarging these ‘negative’ or lesser qualities, trans valuing them into positive ones.

What element of your work or your practice do you typically find most challenging, and how do you work to develop these elements?

I think scaling down has been challenging as I’m so used to imagining things as 2m x 2m canvases! Having said that, I have been able to make an ongoing series of small 8” x 10” drawings called Hungry Women, many of which have sold and are very easy and quick to make.

At the risk of bringing up the C-word, how has the pandemic and the various lockdowns affected your work and practice? Did it have a significant impact or were you able to work as normal?

I was quite lucky in this respect as my studio is in the basement. So I was able to lock myself away as usual and make quite a lot during the lockdowns. The only challenge was not being able to work with models so I was looking through old photos and resorted to using found images which ultimately became the basis of my Hungry Women series.

Do you have any unrealized projects that you can tell us about (perhaps because of financial reasons, a “no” from somewhere or time constraints etc)? Are there any that you’d like to go back to and pick up where you left off?

A lot of ideas I have involve making ridiculously big things, like giant scroll paintings that would cover an entire room, but I’d only be able to do that if someone commissioned me or gave me the space to do that. I also don’t know if it’d work but that’s a dream project of mine.

You’ve just finished your MA at City and Guilds, what are some of your upcoming future plans?

This year is a busy one. I am part of Open Space Contemporary’s fundraiser I have eaten it — a series of art and food-related events raising money for Refettorio Felix; in March I’ll be in another food-themed group exhibition at Quench Gallery in Margate and then a two woman show at Indigo+Madder in May; in June I’ll be exhibiting with New Normal Projects again and a group show organised by Premier Art Solutions and Daniel Raphael Gallery in July. I will also hopefully have a couple of shows in the Autumn.