Adrian Kay Wong

Hello Adrian, I would start with an easy question, almost trivial, but that always hides a pitfall for those who must respond. If you could choose, in which historical period would you like to be reborn and why?

To be honest, I’m very appreciative to be born in the time I am in now. If I was forced to choose, I guess it would be in the early 1900s because I would be wearing a suit as my daily apparel. Monet would wear a suit when painting. This may be a rumor, but John Singer Sargent wore a suit when he worked and would just throw it out if he got paint on it. Matisse also wore a suit when he worked, I think…  Classy.

Your paintings use classical techniques, very distant from contemporary digital art. When and what made you understand that it would become your job and not just a hobby?

If you ask most artists, they would probably say that they’ve always been doing art since they were young. While I certainly drew a lot, I think everyone else did too! For me it was just a hobby, a past time, something that happened to come naturally to me. It wasn’t until I was applying for college that I even considered a creative career as a possibility. When I finally made the decision to attend art school, I knew then that this would be what I would commit everything I had to.

Granted, it’s been extremely challenging both academically and in practice to find my own visual identity. I experimented heavily in a variety of practices early on including drawing, printmaking, and sculpture. I only actually began painting in my second year of college and, ultimately, what drew me was the idea that paintings can communicate very “three-dimensional” concepts on predominantly two-dimensional surface. Paintings are modest in the actual physical space they occupy, often just hung on a wall, but dominant in how its presence can impose an effect on the surroundings.

In the end, as more of my focus was devoted to painting and interest in other mediums dropped off, I’ve reached the point of where I am now: I take particular interest in paintings, and often view work through a “painterly” lens. To get back on track to answering the question, I never had to think about when my hobby would become my job. It was a very simple transition of learning how to paint, painting to practice, then painting to develop a body of work. I never made the deliberate choice of “This is now my job!”…maybe the lack of a backup plan paid off because at a very early point, my life has always revolved around art and my work.

Looking at your works you feel as the reality is made flat and smooth, as if everything’s taking place on the surface. Many think that our society, ever faster, more and more full of information and deadlines, is forced to live on the surface without ever being able to stop and observe in depth what is happening. What do you think about it?

I think it’s not so much an absence of depth, but an ambiguity. What you say is definitely part of the discussion, but because many of the edges to the shapes end as soon as another begins, nothing really overlaps. In effect, forms in the background can subvert objects that seem like they should be, at least realistically, in the foreground. This vagueness of front and behind allows for an engaging interplay of depth.

But what you say is true, there exists a pace in our current world that makes us feel like all we can do is hold on as tight as we can and weather the ride. And because of this state, I think there is extraordinary value to granting yourself a moment of pause, a second of silence. It is here that the opportunity to notice subtle events that are often overlooked is revealed. My work is very much about the substance contained in these “absences” of activity.

The geometry of the forms, their union to create something bigger and more complete and complicated, makes me think of some avant-garde of the 20th century as the Futurism that made the myth of progress and speed a central point of its theoretical basis. What are your historical references in the artistic field and what do you think were the major influences on your style?

Beyond the giants like Matisse and Picasso, just to list off a few, are artists like Charles Sheeler, Lautrec, Diebenkorn, Albers, and John Wesley. I think in regards to the specific individuals, they can usually be separated into two groups. In one, there’s their influence through how they painted their forms. In other words, how they abstracted representational elements and how their visual language communicates concept. In the other, there’s a more academic inspiration of color, relationships between them, and other formal aspects to painting.

I’ve also been particularly interested in certain “events”. One example being the Japanese influence on Western, particularly French, artwork. This is mainly fueled by my interest as an Asian-American and existing in a place that is informed by both Eastern and Western cultural values. Some artists include Mary Cassat, Lautrec again, and Gauguin.

All the people you paint have a common characteristic, they have no expression. In their faces there is no emotion, they do not smile, they don’t cry, they don’t get angry and they don’t celebrate. Can you explain this choice?

The choice stemmed from a few reasons. The first I think was the seed that was planted. I was once asked in college why I don’t paint Asian figures as an Asian artist myself. It was not so much a question on race or ethnicity, but the addressing of my identity as a contextual part of the work. To be honest, I didn’t have an answer to that.

Fast-forward to my move to Los Angeles, I experienced a time of intense self-doubt. Because I had no family, friends, job, connection to the city, or established practice at the time, I struggled not only to figure out what I should be doing creatively, but if any of this was worth it. Eventually, the only solution that I could surmise was that I needed to just making paintings – good or bad. My visual language became more minimal, with heavier focus on shape and color, so that I could avoid other complexities and over complicating my work… So finally when it came to painting figures, I felt that the contextual imagery, such as the background, negative space, and nonfigural motifs, were just as important as the figure. I didn’t want details of the face to act as focal points as they often do. And with much repetition, the method has been developed and refined into what it is today.

Painting and drawing in he past was a tool to hand down stories and legends. Later on it was used to pay homage to heroic figures for their greatness. Today I’d say it aims to detail normal and simple moments of life of all of us. What value do you give to the “normal” word, what is normal for you?

I think you stated this sensibility beautifully, and it’s a concept that’s very pertinent to my work. I draw much of the content in my work from my own daily life. I find myself enamored by the most mundane moments: an unintentional still life of a beer bottle, a vase, a candle, and an incense holder. Or the glow from someone’s lamp as they’re working late into the night, almost like a cat’s eyes against their dark fur.

There’s a Japanese word: boketto. Of course, much of it is lost in translation and is understood by myself as someone outside of their cultural nuances. But in general, the term refers to “staring at the sky without thought” or “losing ones own self in the distance”. I think there exists a subtle paradox with this word in that there is an emptiness to both your mind and immediate sensory details, but also an awareness of this solitude, this lack of “something” happening.

My paintings often embody this; figures are just sitting, common objects lie quietly in an interior, not much is happening in terms of physical action. However, silence and inactivity are just as expressive as their counterparts. I embrace times of solitude, days that are sedentary, and moments of idleness. It’s by being observant within these occasions that we can perceive the most and eventually appreciate the normal-ness of what’s around us.

I have always thought that one of the main factors of change in society is the Example, the people who inspires us with their behavior and show us the difference between right and wrong. According to this, what were 3 points of reference in your life and why?

Bruce Lee was a very early influence on me from elementary to early high school. Whenever I had an assignment to research someone notable and write a biography on them, I would just write about him. I think I repeated this on five different occasions. Lee was not only dynamic in his personality, action movies, and martial arts background, but extremely eloquent in his philosophies and dogma. To see someone with the same ethnic background as me at such a young age was, in hindsight, both exciting and jarring.

Finally, I can’t list the big influences in my life without mentioned my parents. They existed on two extreme sides of the spectrum and taught me the best of both worlds. My mother was patient, empathic, thoughtful, and kind – almost to a fault. On the other hand, my father was harsh, militant in behavior, and brutally candid in his words, but also direct, purposeful, extremely hard working, and really set the standard for me on what real discipline was. While my relationship with them was troublesome and strained when I was younger, I’ve come to value how far we’ve come and hold them very dear to me now. They’re consistent resource of support, helpful advice, and “bigger picture” guidance.

You live and work in Los Angeles, a city known for its enormous contradictions. Differences, fears, conflicts and rights… What do you think today is the role of an artist in society? Do you think he still has a role in the cultural debate?

I think the role of the artist now is to notice and inform on the subtleties of a topic. To analyze, interpret, re-express, and communicate the “whole” of situations within our culture. For most of the general public, these cultural debates are consumed through the news – which are often dominated by an overarching narrative that may or may not be directed with a certain agenda.

I think by taking the time to view artwork and engage in the related discussions, we can explore sides of a conversation that may be lost in what seems to be constant shouting contests.

I like to think that interviews are a way to get to discover something of the artist that otherwise could not be known only by looking at his works. For this reason sometimes I like to leave space for questions in addition to answers. What is a question you have never done and which you want to answer?

A great question would be, “Who was the predominant figure in your life that either led or supported you to pursue the creative profession.” I think looking back, many of us creatives can point to one person who was especially nurturing in bringing out our passions. I would have to thank my Aunt Jessie for that. As the youngest daughter on my father’s side, she seemed to relate the most to my generation. She was the one who suggested the possibility of pursuing art as a career, and continues to express a genuine interest in my work every step of the way. Thanks for being so supportive, Auntie!

I believe that each one has a motto, a quote that maybe has played an important role in the choices of life or which simply helps in everyday professional work. So, what is for you and why?

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite artists, Yoshitomo Nara:

“The more I think about it, the closer it is to me, and ultimately, it is myself alone; one person who can communicate with me without words.”

He’s addressing the idea that looking at a work of art is, no matter the external influence or criticism, a deeply personal experience. An experience that is not described by words, whether its from a critic or passerby-er, but by an attentiveness to what feelings arise, a mindfulness of thoughts that emerge, and awareness of your relationship to the artwork.

In the end, paint is paint, clay is clay, wood is wood. “A rose is a rose is a rose” as Stein said herself. The artwork in its physical form is what it is. Its significance is what you personally derive from it. And to really figure that out is a deliberate examination of what you truly see. This can be extrapolated to many things in life. For me, I work hard, I take things for what they are, and I take notice of how my life is my own personal experience. Everyone has their own journey, and it can be great if you make it great.


What freedom would you never give up?
The freedom to solitude, quietness, and sometimes lethargy.

I go crazy every time I ..
… spend too much time away from my work. Or when my internet is slow for no reason.

The first three actions you do every morning are…
… listen to some music, drink coffee, organize my tasks for the day/week

A movie, a Book, a Song.

Movie: In the Mood for Love directed by Wong Kar Wai

Book: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Song: Time After Time by Chet Baker

The real revolution is ..
The fight to be true to ourselves while learning, growing, and bettering ourselves every day

In love words don’t count, what really matters is ..
The quick glances as we pass, the softness of her hands, the quick reassuring smile, the comforting silence in the air; it’s the subtle communication that occurs in the most regular of moments that seem so fleeting and unnoticed in the present, and yet what we remember most when that love is lost.


Follor Adrian Kay Wong – Portrait via