Internationally renowned artist Tony Wong is no stranger to success in the art scene, with his work having been exhibited extensively across major US cities, in Hong Kong and Taipei, and throughout Europe.
Blending images inspired by American folklore with the familiar reminiscence of old Chinese legends past, Wong’s figurative oil paintings have made an impression on the art community at large. On Saturday, the Leo Gallery at the French Concession will open the NY-based artist’s first retrospective in Shanghai.We sat with Wong beforehand to discuss his upcoming exhibition, his life as an artist in New York, and the various influences that have shaped and inspired success in his artwork.
Where: Leo Gallery, 376 Wukang Road (near Hunan Road)
Runs from: Saturday, June 6 5pm
Tell me about life as an artist in New York – what made you decide to move there?
Wong: It’s New York we’re talking about. It’s a culture spot… and it really depends on the individual how much of its culture they’re willing to absorb. This is the city where you can find anything and everything – it’s convenient for art, food, and music. The energy is different, too. The creative energy in New York is just as comparable to the rush you get from shopping in Hong Kong, or the excitement a food addict might find in Shanghai.
You really become an artist when you leave grad school, and you’re trying to make a living with your art, and you wait and see how long you last. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD in Fine Arts or you’re a grad student; once you hit the ground then it really becomes a life-time commitment, and not a job. It’s worse than marrying someone.
What about the New York art scene?
Wong: Art needs time to grow, but if you’re talking about the art scene, you can see it changing every five years. Normally when it changes, it’s a rebellious change. But there’s a cycle here, and you can either choose to follow it or go against it. It’s like a movement, where you can try to fit into the group’s mantra and climb on board with their ideas – but it’s when you follow people that you end up getting lost.
So you’re not one to follow the crowd?
Wong: I don’t see myself fitting into anything. Other people might see it differently though; art historians talk about what you make, classifying your art under a type of genre. But I just make what I make.
So you’d say your art is…
Wong: Well, there’s an old Chinese saying, which in English can be roughly translated as, ‘Writers and poets are all deceivers’. A poet will describe the moon in such a way that in scientific terms is complete bullshit but in romantic terms, it’s wonderful. Poets use words to create an illusion of reality, and it’s believable enough to become something meaningful. Painting is like that.
An illusion of reality?
Wong: With my paintings, I’m painting something there for you – a rose, for example. I’m not telling you anything about the rose, it’s there as a metaphor. Yeah, like one of my paintings, Paul and Babe (1984). The characters are from the American folklore – Paul Bunyan, remember?
They live in the forest. I think they have sexual things going on between them … I was kind of fantasizing at the time. So you see, it’s not really about Paul and Babe. The folklore is the rose.
Being suggestive is more powerful than simply telling. Give the audience a hint but leave it to their imagination to fill in the gaps. I can only lead you so far in a specific direction before you’re on your own.
And by what or whom is your art inspired?
Wong: In my era, they used to smoke dope to be inspired. They’re just full of shit, it’s like, ‘What are you talking about?’. There’s Jefferson Airplane music playing and LSD being passed around and these artists are staring at their canvas for hours, going, ‘Man, that thing is breathing’. Some people even insist they work better drunk. For me, I have to be clean. What inspires me usually fades in and out, but never fully goes away. It’s like a history of art. Henry Rousseau freaked me out at first but years later I suddenly had a new respect for him. Van Gogh I really loved too.
Also, literature, more than music, has also been an inspiration. Literature makes me think – you see a parallel world between art and writing. There’s always something around to inspire my paintings, inspiration is all around, and sometimes it never even gets close to the canvas. And I draw my inspiration from life experiences.
Even from experiences at a young age?
Wong: Sure. You play with this funky toy from Guangzhou when you’re little, in New York, you have this hippie thing and then there’s a Chinatown culture there. All of this becomes what [my art] was and is. That’s what I call a life experience. All of this adds up and becomes ‘that thing’. Even going to Shanghai, or living in New York has given me inspiration. For culture, I went to Europe a lot – I related mostly to Italy, for their food and their art.
People might describe your art as a fusion between Western influences and your Chinese roots. What do you have to say about that?
Wong: If fusion art really does exist, it should come naturally. I don’t care about representing ‘Chinese art’.I mean, at one point I was accused of ‘doing art for white people’. There’s this idea going on that you need to do your art in the style of your country, that if you don’t paint Chinese art then you’re not really Chinese.