The Brooklyn-based painter on how digital technology transformed his work and why he feels liberated photographing himself.
When it comes to references for your work, you prefer using digital images rather than printed materials. Is that just a matter of convenience, or is there something about digital imagery that lends a special element to your process?
In the beginning, I did switch to digital for the sake of convenience since I didn’t have access to good-quality printers after grad school. But soon I discovered that since colors on a digital screen are so much more vibrant, it pushed me to think about color and paint mixing differently. I began expanding my palette and learning about more contemporary pigments, which helped create my color palette that you are familiar with now.
Going digital has also been helpful for creating ideas. I do a lot of collages to test things that I may or may not use in paintings, and making these collages digitally is much faster than cutting paper. This way, I’m able to let more complicated ideas pour out fast. Even if I don’t end up using them immediately, I often go back and revisit them later on.
You've mentioned that the pandemic made it difficult to find other people to use as subjects for your work, so you began using yourself as the subject in more of your paintings. What was it like turning that gaze on yourself? Does it feel different versus portraying others?
One of the things that’s very important to me in my work is individuality; each figure and face I paint has a real identity and personality behind it. Because of that, including myself in my paintings definitely pushed my work in a more personal direction because I am directly confronting my own identity. It has given me an opportunity to talk about experiences and feelings that are unique to a Chinese person living in the US. Works that are the most personal often feel the most authentic, and this authenticity communicates and connects with viewers in ways the artists might not even be aware of.
Since my paintings are photo-based, learning to photograph myself has also become part of my process. I generally feel liberated while taking photos of myself for paintings, because I am clearer about what I want and I have all the time I need to get it right.
You were recently able to step away from your job teaching painting to work on your own art full time. What's that transition been like for you, and what's the best part of that new freedom?
My transition was gradual. I slowly reduced my teaching time until I dropped my last class, so by the time I became a full-time artist there weren’t any big lifestyle changes. I think the best part is the flexibility of schedule. I love being able to set my own studio hours and bring spontaneity into my life. Not having to teach has also helped me stay focused during my studio time since teaching requires a lot of mental work outside of the classroom. The challenge though is that, financially, I have to adjust from my previous understanding of “stability.” I had to get used to not getting paid on a fixed schedule, and see income from an “annual” perspective instead of a “monthly” perspective.
The twilight-like lighting in your works is supposed to evoke an uncanny feeling, so it's unclear what time of day each scene takes place at. How do you think about time in your work, and has that been impacted at all by any events in the past few years?
I often think about the process of making my work as constantly creating contrast: contrast between light and dark, warm colors and cool colors, maximalist scenery and quiet feelings, the clarity of the imagery and the ambiguity of the narratives. Same thing when it comes to time: I create this lighting that indicates a specific time, but most of the time, it's too artificial and unnatural to feel familiar. In a way, this is how being lost feels to me–going back and forth between moments of clarity and overall uncertainty–and it is certainly driven by many things that happened to all of us in the past few years.
One show I want to mention that really made an impression on me was Lure of the Dark at MASS MoCA in 2018, particularly TM Davy’s centerpiece Fire Island Moonrise. This show inspired me and sparked my interest in depicting twilight/night scenes.
You moved to New York City a few years ago (after being in San Francisco for several years) because of the resources it offers artists. But how do you feel about NYC life outside of your practice? What are some of your favorite spots to visit around the city, and what do you like to do when not in studio?
I like that NYC is all about intensity: working hard and playing hard. Living here makes me want to always get out of my comfort zone and enjoy new things. I love spontaneously giving myself a break from the studio to explore the city; it’s like giving myself a surprise gift. My favorite area to explore is probably Chinatown/Lower East Side and all the hidden shops and food spots. I’m also an improv fan, so I’m always looking out for good shows, no matter what the venue is.
What are some of the things you're looking forward to most (both within and outside the studio) in the next year?
Art-wise, I have an opportunity to do a residency in London next year and I am really excited about that. I’ve met quite a few interesting curators/gallerists this year and I’m looking forward to see the possibilities for collaborations and projects. I also want to travel more, but really, who doesn’t?