Can you tell me a little bit about you?
Hello! Currently living and working in Los Angeles after receiving my BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013. A fun fact that I’ve been starting to have to restate time after time is that I don’t use any tape for my painted edges. I like how my paintings look precise and clean at a glance, but as you inspect details and look for longer, you can start noticing the “imperfections”. My work is a representation of an attempt at perfection. Albeit maybe a very good attempt, but I can assure you that the surface isn’t perfectly smooth and some edges are definitely not perfectly straight.
What do you like most about working where you do?
I live and work in a neighborhood right outside of Chinatown in Los Angeles. Location-wise, I love its proximity to areas like Downtown, Chinatown, Arts District, Alhambra, and Highland Park. I also love how quiet and “away from the noise” the neighborhood is. I used to live in Koreatown for two years and while it was great in its own way, there was just a constant buzzing of activity all day and night.
In terms of LA as a city, I enjoy the seamlessness between neighborhoods as you travel through it. LA really is just a conglomeration of many cities bunched up next to each other with little discernible distance between them — each with their own personality and nuances. Besides that, the weather’s great, the people are great, and sure the traffic is terrible but what other major city’s is not?
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
My work has always been inspired by subtle “events” that occur in our daily lives. I seek out scenes often overlooked or unnoticed, with a focus on the visual structures that compose these environments. I see my paintings as windows to encapsulated feelings, times, and subtle dynamics that often originate from sentimental parts of my life.
Composition holds a very strong presence in my work and often dictates my actions and decisions. Almost like my next move is always predicated by something before it or what’s around it. I work within a lot of opposing ideas: abstraction vs. representation, light vs. dark, flatness vs. depth, and the difference between immediate and prolonged visual reception.
What is your favorite material to work with, and why?
I use primarily oil paint on canvas. Preparation-wise it’s relatively straight forward: stretch canvas on stretcher bars, three coats of gesso, and sand in-between. I usually draw out my image with acrylic and pencil and lay out a base color so I’m not working with a bright white surface. I also paint on a paper that is special in that you can paint oils directly on it.
I’ve always been the most drawn to painting as I enjoy the inherent illusionary aspect of it. In painting, generally, we address a two dimensional plane which is the surface where we address three dimensional ideas — that is, our reality. I think the experience of looking at a painting as if it’s a window into the artist and what they may be feeling or thinking about is a beautiful thing.
What is the last thing you read?
Most recently was Etel Adnan’s book “Sea And Fog.” It’s a collection of meditations and passages. I’ll usually just flip to a random page and read a few.
“Grass grows short of flying. The roots’ resilience, the pressure. Adding days on days.”
What are you passionate about?
I think it goes without saying that I’m most passionate about making art. It’s what I do everyday and what I always think about doing. I’m most excited when I finish a preliminary drawing and feel most fulfilled when I’ve just finished a painting and can sit with it quietly for a few minutes.
On things unrelated to art…I grew up playing basketball so I still follow the NBA. I’ve always had a passion for woodworking that started in college and hope one day I can build simple furniture in my own shop. I take care of a lot of plants to varying degrees of success. I enjoy the occasional trip to the wilderness — most recently Joshua Tree a few weeks ago.
Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?
I’ve really started focusing on light as a subject in the same way a figure would be received. This has changed the way I’ve approached the segmentation of my compositions as well as the space and environments that I choose to paint. Naturally, my paintings have grown to encompass a wider range of values using much more darks than I had before.
What is the most surprising response you’ve received about your work from someone?
Every once in a while, some of my closer friends surprise me with the accuracy in which they guess the origins of my work. A few days ago I showed my friend a drawing I did and he responded pretty simply, “This looks like your dad watching TV while your mom looks back at him from another couch.” Which was exactly what it was and I think would only be possible since this friend has known me for 20-something years.
How do you spend your time when you’re not making work?
To be honest, either trying to find inspiration or resting to work even more. I love what I do and enjoy the labor. In my off time I’ll watch movies, research things I’m interested in, grab a coffee, hang out with friends, head to the bar — anything that gives me that moment of mental relief. I don’t particularly go out and seek crazy or exciting new things as I’m a pretty reserved and stoic person.
Do you have a day job or other work that you split your time between?
I used to. I worked for an art store, then an architecture school, and then as an assistant for another artist. It never really felt like the jobs influenced my work that much beyond learning technical knowledge or different approaches and processes. But I think that’s just my case and that some separate work is highly beneficial. Actually, in hindsight, maybe working at the architecture school shifted the way I view structures and inhabited spaced.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
The most impactful advice I got was in college: “You don’t want to wake up in your thirties and realize you just wasted the past ten years of your life.” Pretty grim, I know, it was coming from one of my professors who was a bit more stern than the rest. But what really dawned on me was the fact that my future was in my own hands and that the only thing we truly have control over is how hard we work. If I don’t keep myself accountable for the time I spend and the effort I put into a task, then I’ll always be cursed with the hindsight that I could have worked harder and maybe that is why I’m not where I want to be.
More recently, something a bit more rounded out: “Always push your limits, but also respect them.” We all know complacency is the enemy of progress. And while I definitely tend to overwork and prioritize my practice over other things, I’m starting to understand the consequences of sacrificing or ignoring things like your friends, family, mental health, or just the opportunity to relax.
Is there any piece of advice you would offer to others?
“Greatness is a mindset, not something to be attained.” There’s always that “thing” that we want, whether its materialistic goods or intangibles like “recognition” or “success”. I think the people that are the most respected or well regarded are those who do great things because they genuinely enjoy their work and they perform it uninhibitedly. “Greatness” is how you handle failure, your openness to criticism, the respect you give to other people and yourself, and a level of patient conviction. In the end, the things you gain that can be held in your hands don’t matter — it’s the journey you took to attain it, the way you lived during your time, and how you’ve been a positive influence in people’s lives. Some would call this legacy.
Do you have any routines or rituals in the studio that get you into the mode or mindset to make your work?
I heavily stick to routine as it keeps me disciplined and accountable for my time. I’m always up and working usually by 9 am. I work for about an hour before I have my breakfast at 10:30 or 11. This is also my first and only cup of coffee which I return to work with after about 20 to 30 minutes. I’ll keep working until around 3 when I eat lunch, and then it’s working until I feel tired. That could be anywhere from 6 to 8 PM. From there, it’s a lot of taking a break, returning to work, taking a break, returning to work. Throw dinner in there somewhere and I usually end at around 9 or 10. I shoot for at least 50 hours a week of activity — that could be any type of work from sketching to painting or editing images, etc. Throughout the day, I usually have something on to fill the air whether that’s podcasts or music.
How significant has attending art school been on your practice?
While there has been much criticism for the necessity of art school, as well as the exorbitant amount of money many of these schools cost, for myself, it was pivotal to the development of my practice. I was just someone who was “good” at drawing before art school. I did it because, technically speaking, things came quite naturally. I remember very vividly in my first year of undergraduate watching the scene from “American Beauty” where the plastic bag was floating around in the air and asking myself “What the hell am I doing here?” I was also exposed to people and ideas that I felt at the time to be above and beyond myself. I remember feeling very incompetent and naive. It was necessary for me to feel like I was behind, and while that feeling still persists today, it has helped shape the work ethic that continues to this day.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
For me, it was to really investigate who I am as a person and all the creative aspects that make “me” up. What do I want to paint? What do I want to say? What do I believe? As someone who grew up in a strict household, an opinion, voice, or emotional reaction was never tolerated and after the decades of having that mindset instilled in me, it was a steep learning process to not only allow myself to openly feel, but also take on the duty to challenge my preexisting beliefs and better them.
On top of that, the obscurity and variance of the “right way” obscures our decision-making. In most professions, there is x, y, and z that is fact and the task is then to learn said information inhibited only by your ability to do so. Moreover, many tasks in these jobs do not require putting yourself into it — it’s not part of you and is removed from your sense of self. Not to say that’s any easier, but in art, the only help to finding the solution is experience. We have to research, practice, pursue, and work on many things — some of which could be totally unrelated to our desires.
Ultimately, our work is extruded from who we are as people. We often have a choice in what to include in our lives and these things become the contextual factors that influence us to make the work that we make. The more of ourselves we put into our work, the more we gain. Consequentially, criticism is sometimes very personal and difficult to hear. But progress is progress no matter how small or big. We must learn to gain from our shortcomings.
How would you define “success” in art?
“Success” in art to me is just being able to make my work comfortably. I want to make enough money so I don’t have to think about money. I want to be with people who are conducive and supportive of a creative and critical mentality. I want to live in a place that flourishes in its variety of perspectives and people. There is no specific end goal for me and I don’t see myself retiring. I’ll always want to make art and if I can be in a place that allows me that without restraint, then I would consider that successful.
What is the most exciting thing you’ve done or accomplished so far, related to your work?
This is the worst question for me because my most exciting and favorite things I do are the things I’m working on currently or completed in the now. I love the two most recent paintings I’ve finished, but I’m sure by the time I paint a few more, those will be my new favorites and the ones now not anymore.
Honestly, one of the moments that really impacted me was a time when I showed my coworker a painting I had just finished at the job I had at the time. It was of two figures in their own chairs, facing one another with their arms crossed. When I looked up from my phone where the picture of the painting was, her eyes were wet and she said it reminded her of the difficult conversations she and her husband have had at night. It reaffirmed my understanding and belief that while my paintings come from personal memories or projections, when the painting is out in the world, viewers will perceive them in their own light, with their own joys and sorrows, and in a way share a personal experience with me through my work.
Find more at adriankaywong.com and on Instagram @adrianadrianwong!
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