Lily Wong’s cinematic paintings are filled with suspense and nostalgia


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Lily Wang, Threshold2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie LJ.

On the walls of Lily Wong’s Brooklyn studio are pasted black and white reproductions of Martin Wong My Secret World, 1978-1981 (1984); a Betye Saar phrenology assemblage; and performance photos of Patty Chang Fountain (1999) inked on printer paper. These far-reaching references share in common a sense of mirroring or doubling of subject matter, which is also found in Wong’s more recent works.

In his first solo exhibition in Europe, “The Beginning Place”, presented until June 18 at Galerie LJ in Paris, figures grow a second head or appear twice in the same work, conveying a feeling of movement like planes sequences of a film strip superimposed on each other. In this latest body of work, Wong ventures away from his previous scenes of solitude rendered in limited color palettes and delves into cinematic compositions, collapsing time in vividly colored acrylics on paper.

Lily Wang, Soft cut2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie LJ.

Lily Wang, grand delusion2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie LJ.

Originally trained as a printmaker, Wong earned an MFA from Hunter College in 2020. That same year, she had her first solo exhibition, “Built for Love,” at Kapp Kapp in New York. The show featured Wong’s black-and-white works featuring bulbous women wearing pigtails and braided ponytails, or buns. Although Wong introduced color into his paintings, the flesh of his figures is always carefully rendered through thin, curved lines.

Wong painted her new works at a time when she was particularly interested in Hong Kong films, such as A moment of romance (1990) directed by Benny Chan and the work of filmmaker Fruit Chan. The suspense and longing for these films seeped into his paintings. In Soft cut (2022), a woman uses a glowing blade to cut a rope hanging from an unknown source, while another character turns in anticipation of what is to come. Elsewhere in A moment of romance (2022), a trio looks in different directions at something out of frame; look closely and you can see the reflections of distant galaxies in their eyes.

Lily Wang, A moment of romance2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie LJ.

“I started looking at the cinematography a lot more, the way off-screen color and lighting is used as a narrative tool,” Wong said in an interview with Artsy. Whereas in his past works Wong often emphasized one or two particular colors that seemed most relevant to his subject matter, in “The Beginning Place” various contrasting colors share equal prominence and importance.

When reviewing lunar mythologies for her 2021 two-man show “Lunations” with Ian Faden at Harper’s in New York, Wong turned to shades of blue and green. Meanwhile, yellow dominated the space in his 2021 solo exhibition “I Wasn’t There” at Kapp Kapp in Philadelphia. “I feel like I’m symbolically using yellow as this racially charged color,” Wong recalled. “I wasn’t trying to reclaim the yellow, maybe re-contextualize it or re-examine it.”

Two paintings from “I Wasn’t There” appear to be set in the Wild West. In The sun does not set (2020), a yellow woman wearing only one cowboy boot sticks her head and foot out from behind a wooden saloon door. Wong speaks more openly about the history of the Chinese people in the United States in Contact (2021). In the sun-drenched scene, a yellow woman wearing a cowboy hat is leaning against a bundled bag. In his hand is a gold coin engraved with a silhouette of a bird parallel to the flock flying across the picture plane, alluding to the migration of Chinese miners during the California Gold Rush in mid 1800s. A woman’s feet rest on railroad tracks, a reminder of the thousands of Chinese workers killed building the first continental railroad and the countless others exploited in the process.

Yellow skin first appeared in Wong’s work in 2017. An untitled work from this period depicts two women facing each other, their purple complexions resembling bruises. On top is superimposed a line of four smaller yellow women who pull the long braided ponytails from each other; two of them drop their hats which look like Qing Dynasty headgear. The yellow woman in the front carries scissors and cuts off the end of the purple woman’s braided ponytail. The scene engages in 19th century anti-Chinese propaganda iconography, such as Louis Dalrymple’s 1989 drawing of a woman acting as an allegory of civilization cutting a Chinese man’s queue; or 1869 by Thomas Nash drawing of a Californian wielding a whip while shooting the queue of a fleeing Chinese.

Lily Wang, Passage2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie LJ.

Although a few characters in Wong’s later work wear their hair in braided ponytails and pigtails, it is a braided rope that is cut into Soft cut and pulled in Passage (2022). If the motif is supposed to evoke the tugging of queues like a rope – as shown by Otto Bettmann around 1880 political cartoon of the lynching of a Chinese with his queue – this remains ambiguous in Wong’s works. “I realized that I was less interested in the historical unfolding of events and more interested in the emotional legacy that permeates our culture,” Wong said. “There is always this lingering desire. It’s something we live with and inherit from our families. The history of racialized violence is visually absent in “The Beginning Place”. Instead, there’s an atmosphere of nostalgia for people, places, or ideas just out of reach.

Say something (2022) depicts a woman reaching out to a figure separated by space, perhaps her own reflection in a mirror or someone in a window. Wong’s use of color in the tightly cropped scene emphasizes the woman’s expression of desire, reminiscent of the moody lighting masterfully managed by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. “I have a strong sense of nostalgia when I watch these movies and it’s largely my own personal projection. I have this deep curiosity about this place, but the [phases in time] in which I am curious that I no longer exist,” said Wong, whose father grew up in Hong Kong under British rule. “I feel like my roots are in this city that I really don’t know anything about.”

Lily Wang, Say something2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie LJ.

She refers to the changes Hong Kong has undergone over the past decades with the realization that the way her father experienced the city and the environment that films captured are no longer the same today. This desire for something both intangible and ephemeral is felt in the way Wong’s figures gaze into the distance, a space outside the picture plane that remains unknowable to the viewer.

While Wong’s paintings in 2020 were filled with ominous shadows and spotlights, as seen in Prowlers, I was not thereand Diligence—“The Beginning Place” finds solace in transitional moments. “The anguish [of the earlier works] was born out of that desire to satiate nostalgia or solve that missing piece in life,” Wong said. “With work right now, it’s more about creating space for that feeling. It’s not meant to be resolved.

harley wong

Harley Wong is Artsy’s Production Editor.

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