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To Stomach A Full Heart

In March fast-rising artist Caroline Wong will be participating in the exhibition You were bigger than the sky, you were more than just a short time curated by C-print and has been experiencing a busy exhibition schedule leading up to now which is only set to continue from here. We couldn't be happier and more excited for Caroline! What gets evident speaking to her for our interview is how incredibly informed her artistic practice is by art history, and for which she cites Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and the Intimists as a few of her influences. "I often think of the photographer Daido Moriyama who said desire has to be present and channeled in whatever you make and staying true to that desire is key. I only show desire from a female perspective, or rather from my personal experience as a woman, because it’s what I know best.", she says.

Caroline Wong. Photo: Matthew Coles

C-P: In March 2023 you will be participating in the group exhibition You were bigger than the sky, you were more than just a short time curated by C-print at Belenius in Stockholm. Please tell me more about the large-scale painting that you will be exhibiting in the show.

C. W: The painting I’m showing is called A World in Us, a phrase taken from an Anaïs Nin quote on friendship. It depicts three women at the end of a dinner party who are now slouched on a sofa like a clowder of cats. I wanted to capture that feeling of fullness, but fullness in the broader sense of having everything you need in life, so having a full stomach and a full heart, and all your anxieties being dispelled, even just momentarily. It’s a return to an animal-like simplicity in a way. The women have lost themselves to the pleasures of consumption, so I wanted to recreate that feeling of being pulled into and visually losing oneself to the sensorial pleasures of materiality, colour, and surface.

My influences here are strongly intimist, namely Bonnard and Vuillard, bringing the interiority of the women into their surrounding space, dispersing sensations and feelings across the fabrics and mess. I’ve been thinking about Bonnard’s approach to colour and his wish to ‘paint the savour of things’ by creating these lush, textured images over a prolonged period of time. For me, the process has likewise, been a slow one of gradually building layers of paint, pastel, and pigment, some of which are fluorescent and iridescent. It’s a kind of magic or enchantment I’m after, whether looking at or creating the image. The approach to image-making is also a tactile one in which the hand carves and smudges the material, similar to how Bonnard drew with blunt, stubby pencils so his fingers felt the image as he drew. It’s intimacy both represented pictorially and inscribed in the mark-making. Intimism aside, another key influence is ukiyo-e which means ‘images of the floating world’. Again, it’s the predominance of florid pattern and heightened colour as an expression of beauty, magic, joy, and melancholy in the earthly realm.

Closeup of Birthday party (after foujita), pastel on paper, 272 x 322cm, 2021. Photo: Roman Maerz

C-P: A recurring theme in your practice is female desire. Tell us more about what initiated this thematic study and what you wish to explore and convey through your practice.

C. W: I think the word I’ve used more than desire is hunger, and I use this word a bit too liberally to describe everything in my practice: the way I use materials (hungrily, rapaciously, greedily), the theme of my work (gluttony, drunkenness, nausea), the textures and colours of my work (creamy, greasy, delicious), etc. I’m interested in hunger of the body (food, sex), but also a generalised and metaphorical hunger for all things craved, desired, and unfulfilled in life. A lot comes from a place of repression and guilt, things that I’ve denied myself in the past and that I now celebrate on a large, unapologetic scale in my works.

I often think of the photographer Daido Moriyama who said desire has to be present and channeled in whatever you make and staying true to that desire is key. So, I’m always trying to be aware of and true to what I desire and obsess over, even if these things may be regarded as distasteful, politically incorrect, or unfashionable. I only show desire from a female perspective, or rather from my personal experience as a woman, because it’s what I know best.

Installation view of Caroline Wong's solo exhbition Cats and Girls, Soy Capitan, Berlin, 2022

C-P: On your Instagram account, I am intrigued by what I assume is your description or synopsis of your practice, namely “cosmetic trash, chaotic romance;” and ”scruffy ornamentalism”. Could you elaborate on this?

C. W: Oh these are just some late night ramblings! I think at the core of my practice is this tension between cosmos in the original sense of ‘decoration’ and ‘adornment’, and chaos. I draw a lot of inspiration from East and Southeast Asian ornament (textiles, ceramics, architecture) and try to capture the same allure of colour, pattern, and bling while giving rein to this frenetic, tactile, and ‘scruffy’ way of drawing and painting. As for ‘trash’, the women I paint are usually surrounded by lots of trash and junk. My studio too is cluttered and chaotic, mirroring the paintings and vice versa. I seem to thrive on excess and mess but it’s always my aim to unify this detritus in a beautiful, exuberant way. I’m interested also in ‘trashy’ as an aesthetic and use art as a way to validate my trashy tastes like listening to ‘guilty pleasure’ songs while working, painting women indulging in fast food, crisps, and sweets, or women with ‘campy’ or ‘bad’ taste in fashion. I use the word ‘romance’ because amidst the chaos and gluttony, all my paintings have an air of dreaminess or sentimentality. It’s a purposely rose-tinted, saccharine portrayal of female friendship sometimes bordering on romance.

Studio view September 2022. Photo: Caroline Wong

C-P: You have also presented a series of works, the Cats and Girls series where we see a group of girls feasting together. There is an unapologetic lusciousness that is conveyed here and a strong sense of community. We would love to know how you went about choosing the subjects you have portrayed in this series.

C. W: Like many of my works, the Cats and Girls series is inspired by a friendship I had in China some years ago which I’ve fictionalised in a romantic and ridiculous way. I think it started very randomly during my Masters when a teacher said I needed to add something unexpected to the images, and, noticing I was obsessed with cats, suggested, ‘what if the girls turned into cats?’. She actually forgot she even suggested this to me, but I took up this idea with glee. I drew upon all kinds of memories, feelings, writers, and artists to create these scenes: there was the intimacy, camaraderie, freedom, and trust within this past friendship that I wanted to capture; the various cats I’ve had throughout my life and the many strays in my hometown in Malaysia, some of which my family adopted; then there was my own Peter Pan syndrome as a lost thirty-something year old, and my perception by others as a quirky cat lady; regarding artists I revisited Paula Rego’s Dog Women, Degas’ pastel drawings of ‘women in their animal states’, East Asian scroll paintings and prints of mischievous cats, and cat-worshipping artists like Balthus, Leonor Fini, and Foujita. The drawings are ultimately amalgams of motifs and compositions from various artworks across eastern and western culture, internet cats, neighbours’ cats, and improvised role-plays by my models and myself that I photograph.

The role-plays are like entering this childlike world of make-believe, a way of being silly and playful and not being judged. The brief is something along the lines of ‘you’re somewhere between a feral cat and an impetuous child and you haven’t eaten for days’. It’s always really fun and cathartic having these sessions with my models/collaborators, and then reliving those feelings through the drawing process.

MA interim show, City and Guilds of London Art Achool, May 2021

C-P: What are some artists who have inspired and are of significance to you in your practice?

C. W: Currently I feel a strong affinity with the Intimists, Bonnard and Vuillard because of the importance placed on colour and pattern, and they’re obviously real homebodies like me; then there’s Balthus and his obsession with the feline and the feminine; I also love photographer Araki and film director Wong Kar Wai’s saturated palettes, instantaneous approach to image-making, and the beauty and sensuality they find in the mundane. Last but not least I should mention Vera Chytilová’s film Daisies which is hyper-girly, gluttonous chaos from the 1960s. Everything is drenched in desire and longing in these artists’ works. There are plenty of other artists, but I feel they’re the key ones I always refer back to.

Studio view August 2022. Photo: Caroline Wong

C-P: Lastly, what is in store for you the rest of 2023?

C. W: I have a solo show coming up at Rusha and Co, LA in March. I’ve called it A many-splendoured thing (after the Han Suyin novel) and thematically it has a lot in common with the work that’ll be at Belenius. I also will have some work in the Düsseldorf Art Fair with my gallery Soy Capitán around the same time. In the summer I have a residency in Matera, Italy, organised by Collezione Taurisano and Alessandro Albanese gallery.

Corina Wahlin

You were bigger than the sky, you were more than just a short time curated by C-print at Belenius open Saturday March 16.

Caroline Wong is represented by Soy Capitán in Berlin


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