In the Studio with Adrian Kay Wong

Adrian Kay Wong is an American visual artist working primarily in paint, focusing on ordinary environments and the everyday. His figures are captured in a minimalistic manner with a compositionally focused approach, where abstracted forms, repetition of shapes and colour decisions are central to his practise. We met with Adrian to talk about his ideal working conditions, preparing his works and the meaning behind them.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist? 
I would say maybe two or three years out of college. Even though I’ve always maintained a studio  practice and was making paintings, I didn’t really develop a strong direction of my work until around that time. I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the exact moment, but there was eventually a sense of clarity  from staying in that grind. Maybe you can call those years a journey of self-discovery.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?
I was born and raised in the East Bay in Northern California. My upbringing was of a common experience shared in many traditional Asian households: strict, rigid, and pragmatic. However, I would  definitely attribute having the opportunity to be where I am now to my parents; their resistance and criticism was more so an act of care, caution and desire to prepare me for a difficult future. In regards to my work, I’d say I’m more pragmatic and rational in my approach than others. I find the need to  establish reason and intent for all my painting decisions and to discard any additions that I may feel are unnecessary or superfluous. 
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first purées, and then continue to practice artistic work?

Yeah, I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for my undergraduate degree – though this was a last minute switch in decision. In reality, the only art schools I chose to apply to were the ones I remembered off the top of my head: Art Center in Pasadena, Otis, and SAIC. It’s important to note, I  didn’t know anything about rankings or what schools were good or that certain schools were better known for certain things. 

My decision to leave California was ultimately because I knew and felt that I was behind. Like I said before, I knew nothing about art schools, the art world, or anything about what a creative profession entailed. The only thing I did know was that from that point forward, my successes and failures would be decided by my ability to perform in both learning the academia and developing an engaging art  practice. 

What’s the message of your work? 

My paintings focus on the ordinary moments of the everyday. I try to bring attention to the more subtle  nuances and almost mundane events that inform our daily experiences. Visually, I examine the forms and structures that compose them and hope to discover and glorify these scenes often missed or overlooked. This might be a weird comparison, but when you work out, growth happens after the  exercises are over. My paintings are about the the less acknowledged recovery and rest part, less on the active, working out part. 

How would you describe your aesthetic? 

In college, my work revolved much more around my family and was much looser and spontaneous in  my engagement with the painting surface. As I transitioned through some big changes in my life, including the move to Los Angeles with whatever I could fit into a uHaul, I became less attentive to the specific subjects, and more interested in dynamics of figure and environment, if that makes sense. 

I think the concise, hard-edged painting approach I work in now was a result of me trying to cope with  a new environment and this new gray transitional area of my life. I have my work organized chronologically on my website and it’s pretty interesting to go back and see the gradual change from  time to time. 

Aesthetically, I often repeat basic gestures of the construction of shapes. That can mean duplicated forms, reoccurring motifs, or constructing different things in similar ways. I think this results in a cohesiveness in which primary subject and contextual detail are less distinct. This places more emphasis on the visual dynamics occurring between the abstract shapes that composite the larger  representational forms. 

It’s hard to put into words, but basically these I find the subtler relationships between the abstract shapes the most compelling and engaging because I think they touch upon the intangible subject-matter at hand better. As a whole, the recognizable scene or narrative that can create these modular compositions help frame the mood or feeling I’m trying to encapsulate.

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

I could just list a bunch of names of artists that I have books of or follow on social media, but most notably right now is seeing my friends and artists being so proactive with devoting time, work and effort to bringing positive change to the tumultuous times we’re facing. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my own work and what message or narrative I’m contributing to the mix. 

Are your works planned?  Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating? 

When I start paintings, I often don’t have a set plan in mind; I tend to work on paintings one at a time, usually originating from a new starting point or reference each time. In the process of reaching the end result, however, I’m pretty meticulous in drawing and sketching things repetitively thoroughly, revising them until they reach a point where the introduction of color is a necessity. By the time I paint, most variables have already been decided. I usually have some sort of mock-up for the painting and it often doesn’t stray far from that. 

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise? 

I don’t think I ever intentionally enact “change” in my practice or aesthetic. I find routine and a certain sense of “staying the course” to be a beneficial foundation for me to work out the images I’m trying to create. In hindsight, I can definitely see a gradual shift in things like color palette or how I handle the canvas compositionally, but in the day-to-day it’s really just trying to find a result that is visually engaging and interesting. My paintings are of observations from my own experience; my priority is  usually on being mindful, curious, and attentive of that perspective in the moment. 

I’ve always found painting to be the most engaging for myself. I find it fascinating that painting, in general, is a two dimensional surface portraying three dimensional ideas. Experimentation is something I need to work on as I’m pretty neurotic in always asking why I’m making the choices that I am. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work? 

Really just sitting down and actively engaging with my work. Sometimes it goes relatively smoothly, a sketch becomes a drawing and colors just land well and I get to painting, while other times I could spend a whole week sketching out ideas and only come up with one drawing. Just some solitude and a  cup of coffee with a podcast on is usually the daily cycle. I think an almost contradictory balance of  extreme self-criticism and abundant self-confidence helps make good work. 

Future plans?

I don’t really have any specific goals besides to continue what I’m doing. I want to make better work and more of it. I’d love to work with like-minded and ambitious people. If I can push myself and give  my best on the day to day, then I think that’s all I can do to achieve whatever future goals I have. 

How was your art practice affected by self-isolation? 

Not much, to be honest. I believe self-isolation is a necessity and an inevitability. You can find  inspiration, influence, and source materials from anywhere and everywhere, but, at the end of the day,  it’s about getting into your studio and putting in the work. I’ve already been working from a home  studio for years now so my usual routine hasn’t changed. 

I will say I’ve been more proactive than usual in looking for additional ways to contribute to the prevalent issues we are currently facing; I’ve held and taken part in some fundraising initiatives and allocating all of those proceeds to charities and nonprofits. I think that is both a duty and responsibility. 

It’s been inspiring to see other artists adapting and continuing their practice amidst our changing  environment. More recently, I’ve been mindful of the need for repose especially with the mental load  of the turbulent times we’re currently facing.

“Tell us a little bit about one of your works.”

“Between The Sky And Chair” portrays the relationship between visual motifs and their narrative implications which is inherent in my work. Not only does the title refer, quite literally, to the figure positioned between the view of the sky through the window and the silhouette form of the chair, but also poignantly alludes to the current time where a palpable tension exists in how we perceive “inside” and “outside”. This heightened awareness of the spaces we inhabit is undoubtedly a result of the pandemic and incidences of social injustice. In the same way that a navigational experience exists in my paintings visually where one moves through the abstract shapes, colors and values of the composition, a narrative exploration of personal stories and sentimentalities unfolds in these familiar, everyday scenes.