May 2009, Interview with Sherry Wong

Sherry Wong, Revelation 36 x 48 in, Acrylic, pencil on wood panel, courtesy the artist.

Sherry Wong is best known for her whimsical, mythologically inspired self-portraits. She took some time out from preparing for her upcoming exhibition at Cellspace in San Francisco to speak with Whitehot about myth, the art market and her recent work.  

Whitehot Magazine: Over the years your imagery seems to have become more autobiographical. What prompted this shift?

Sherry Wong: My work has always been autobiographical. My first show at I-20 Gallery, In The Dark, Dark Wood, focused on psychological states instead of actual events. For my next show, I shifted from self portraits and began to paint my friends in a very matter of fact way. I thought that painting them in their surroundings was much more honest than placing them in an imagined setting. I can only do that when I'm narrating my own life.

My last series combined fantasy and story telling. I had just moved to San Francisco after a break up and used my art as a way of analyzing emotions. Whenever I depict myself in the context of a relationship it gets more fantastical. I spin my relationships into allegories- it certainly is illuminating at times. I think it's similar to the adage that writers are not able to possess their own lives until they write about it.

WM: Can you speak a bit about your relation to myth?

SW: I've always been interested in literature and fairytales. I’m a Joseph Campbell and a Shakespeare fanatic. At a certain moment in time it crystallized for me in the same way that Stendhal describes this term in relation to love. In 2006, after a terrible relationship, I found myself depressed and sitting on the steps at Union Square. I was observing everyone from a very removed perspective and it seemed like everything transformed into myth. The buskers became acrobats at the foot of the Union square temple. People walking by were the water on a great prayer wheel. The final straw was a giant seagull sweeping down to carry off a dead rat. It was clearly an albatross omen. This perspective of interpreting the world mythologically is possible at all times. The seagull is just a New York seagull but I prefer seeing it as an omen.

WM: Can you tell me a bit about what you're working on now?

SW: I'm doing a huge project based on collectives for my art residency with Cellspace. The collective urge is particularly strong in San Francisco. This led to my interest in group dynamics and social cohesion. For example, Cellspace is a volunteer based organization in which people form clusters to make events and art happenings for their respective communities. I’m making paintings of these groups in the manner of a modern court painter. The portraits will be highly posed with symbols of the group's status in society. Of course, this is an underground, eclectic group of people. For the show in July, I'm planning to invite the individuals in the paintings to show their art and perform at the opening. So far there will be a video installation by Joe Joe Martin, photos by Alissa Anderson and paintings by Beth Waldman. The list keeps growing and I'm thinking of it as a mini retrospective of SF artists.

WM: In an earlier conversation you promised a grumpy, yet sparkly opinion of the art world versus the economy? Can you expand on that a bit?

SW: When I left New York the atmosphere there was quite grim. Galleries were closing rapidly, sales were down and the art market bubble on top of the market bubble had bust open. It is incredibly difficult for artists to survive. We need time and space and this requires strong support. It's hard to make things when the stresses of everyday survival increase - no more grants or affording rent let alone studio spaces.

However, downturns are healthy for the art market in the long run, as everyone says, quality is rising to the top. It's also interesting to see how it affects the creative process and not just the market. I'm lucky that I'm not into exploring ideas with high production values like Koons or Hirst with their flowers and diamonds. The economy is hardest on artists who have lost resources and need to make installations requiring big budgets and labor. When you have a limited palette to work with you need to think about how to suggest red without red. How does one run a gallery on less? How can one make a 20 ft. wall of steel without resources and no forklift? How am I going to get around Burning Man when I can't ride a bike? It's kind of neat to observe how people get creative with obstacles, but also I should learn to ride a bike.

Sherry Wong,
Blame it on the Sun, 32 x 48 in, Acrylic, pencil, mica on wood panel,


Sherry Wong, When the Rain Came Down, 22.5 x 30 in, Watercolor, acrylic, pencil, ink on paper, courtesy of the artist.

Sherry Wong, Second Wind 32 x 48 in, Acrylic, pencil on wood panel, courtesy of the artist.

Jesi Khadivi in LA

Jesi Khadivi is a writer and curator living in Los Angeles. She writes for Venus Zine and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. She recently completed research on the definitive biography of Gram Parsons and is currently working on her first book.

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