As with many artists, Covid-19 disrupted and changed Lily Wong's practice. Her figures, once rendered tiny and placed in maze-like environments, began to fill the frame, twisting and swelling into their own claustrophobic architecture. Color began to exert an intense, metaphorical force, often glowing and luminous. The works on paper grew in size, doubling and tripling in surface area, while Wong's intricate process of mark-making and building up of the paint grew in an exponential complexity. This partially portrays the power these figures and narratives possess, but the impetus is Wong herself, as deep and considerate a thinker as she is a deft creator. We met in her Greenpoint studio in early June to discuss her influences and concerns, as well as the major changes the past year, has made to her practice.
Anthony Cudahy: So I watched Happy Together last night, and actually you said you hadn’t seen that one?
Lily Wong: I need to. The classics for me are Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. There’s a website of stills from Wong Kar-wai’s movies I use for color inspiration. But here’s the thing, I feel like such a fake [laughs]. I always feel like an outsider, like six feet removed from these experiences that I don’t necessarily have a physical history with but have a lot of attachment to. I love to look at all sorts of anime but I’m not invested in any storylines, I’m watching for the animation styles or the colors. Or in referencing Wong Kar-wai movies, I always get this imposter’s syndrome mixed with a false nostalgia because so many of his films are from a specific time and place in Hong Kong, where my dad grew up. I secretly associate feelings of home with it, but I’ve never been there, and I know very little about my dad’s family. It’s like being very hungry for something you have no ability to access, but knowing that part of it also is embedded in you.
Isn’t that the impetus of creating and looking in general? You might not be on the same wavelength as everybody else, but you’re definitely recognizing something. There isn’t just one way to appreciate or have a dialogue with the cinematographer or even your own personal feelings about your father.
That’s true, and I’ve been trying to give myself more grace. I had such a hang-up about that in school, feeling I had to factually prove my reality like, “I know this lineage. I know this history. This is what I’m referencing.” That’s not necessarily my approach. I have what I’m interested in and create a whole fantasy around it. I get so deep into that fantasy that it becomes completely detached from the real thing.
I’m reminded of “Utopia’s Seating Chart,” the Muñoz essay. He draws all these connections so intuitively. It’s not so much a linear way of thinking, but more of following coincidences and interests. It’s less hierarchical. In focusing on the backdrops of anime or the color scheme of a film, you’re still engaged in dialogue with the art.
I’m leaning into that more. The progress that I’ve made in the past year is because I haven’t had the noise of school in the background, and not having to defend myself in class, where it feels like everyone wants you to have this incredibly synthesized view of your work and interests.
I love Japanese woodblock prints and Mughalillustrated manuscripts, stuff that pulls from folklore and Eastern mythology. Cave paintings, too. I’m also very drawn to imagery that’s rooted in pop culture aesthetics of of our childhood, especially cartoons, but the way we’ve been taught to think about any of that is completely divorced from “art” or painting with a capital P. It’s all outside the Western canon of art, which was rarely the dominant lens I was looking through. I never really know how to explain why I’m so drawn to paper, but I’ve been thinking about that a lot more lately, and how paper is foundational to so much of what I’m interested in. From my educational experience, few people talked about these ways of making in terms that school validates. I don’t know how to talk about Sailor Moon academically, but I know something important is there! Millions of people globally love that aesthetic.
Sailor Moon is, specifically, one of the first art that I was obsessed with.
That was the earliest thing I remember consuming on television.
This hierarchy, whether on paper or the way certain things are rendered, is especially present in color. I feel like when we graduated undergrad, there was a whole color world that was “not allowed.”
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