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Artist Christine Wang: The Worlds of Art and Activism

Christine Wang’s paintings are as funny as they are deadly. Employing an extensive repertoire of aesthetics, this LA-based artist is unafraid to paint vividly and confrontationally. Her paintings and sculptures throw together colors, text, and imagery in a uniquely defiant manner. Sometimes they address subjects at the level of the personal, while at other times she critiques entire systems of politics, economics, or social institutions. With a visual vocabulary that pulls equally as often from religious imagery as Facebook photos or Reddit screenshots, Christine Wang’s practice is a constant meditation of thoughts and tribulations inspired by her experiences as she navigates the complexities of being an artist, activist, and fellow human. Following her recent show at the Night Gallery, titled “Devotional Art for Your Home,” Christine generously squeezed us in for a conversation on audiobooks, the relationship of text to image in her paintings, and much much more.

 

What is it that draws you personally to painting? I notice that while you have some performative works and sculpture, much of your work falls into the larger painting tradition.

I’m better at painting than performance or sculpture just because I’ve been doing it longer, so I have more skills in that department and I feel more confident when I paint.

 

Horror Clown by Christine Wang (2016). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

You mentioned that you were listening to Foucault’s Madness and Civilization while working recently on a painting involving Trump, what else do you like to listen or otherwise consume while working?

Here is a list of books I listened to with approximate dates:

 

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich (Non-Fiction about Soviet Russia)

The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Marmon Silko (Memoir from a Native American writer.)

Aug 21            Past Imperfect                        by Julian Fellowes (Trashy novel from Downton Abby writer)

Aug 23            The paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz (Did not finish listening)

Aug 23            Snobs                                      by Julian Fellowes (Trashy novel from Downton Abby writer)

Aug 26            Mort                                                    By Terry Pratchett (Humor/Fantasy novel with Death as main character. Part of Discworld Series)

Sept 5 The Cartel                               By Don Winslow        (Fiction about the Mexican Drug Wars)

Sept 11           Soul Music                              By Terry Pratchett (Humor/Fantasy novel with Death as main character. Part of Discworld Series)

Sept 11           A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (Science Fiction)

Sept 17           The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz   (Business Non-Fiction, Self-Help advice)

Sept 18           The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow (Fiction about the Mexican Drug Wars)

Sept 24           Freedom is A Constant Struggle by Angela Davis (AMAZING Non-Fiction Cultural Criticism, American Studies)

Sept 24           Hogfather                               by Terry Pratchett (Humor/Fantasy novel with Death as main character. Part of Discworld Series)

Sept 26           Reaper Man                            by Terry Pratchett (Humor/Fantasy novel with Death as main character. Part of Discworld Series)

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marc Reiter and Marshall Goldman (Business Non-Fiction, Self-Help Advice)

Oct 2   The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (Humor, Non-Fiction)

Oct 12 Fledgling: A Novel       by Octavia Butler (Fiction about a black vampire)

Oct 14 The Trespasser                       by Tana French (Murder Mystery)

The Emperor of Sound: A Memoir by Timbaland (Non-Fiction)

Marguerite de Valois by Alexandre Dumas (Fiction, basis for movie Queen Margot)

Belgravia                                by Julian Fellows (Trashy novel from Downton Abby writer)

It Gets Better              by Dan Savage (Non-Fiction anti-bullying campaign)

Oct 27 Salem’s Lot                             by Stephen King (Fiction horror vampire)

Oct 24 Fevre Dream                           by George RR Martin (Historical Fiction horror vampire)

Nov 9  Locally Laid: How we built a policy, industry-changing egg farm – from scratch               by Lucie B. Amundsen (Non-fiction)

Nov 10            The world of Ice and Fire: The untold history of Westoros and the Game of Thrones (Fiction)

Nov 14            Still Fooling Them by Billy Crystal (Non-fiction)

Nov 17            Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault

Nov 28            The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz (Fiction sequel to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels. Thriller)

Nov 30            The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Science Fiction from China. Nebula award winner)

Dec 2  Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (Thriller)

 

As you can see, it’s a lot of fiction and non-fiction. The fiction tends to be either a thriller, horror, murder mystery, humor, or something light and fluffy about marrying well. The non-fiction tends to be advice, self-help or feel-good. Very rarely do I listen to something serious with theoretical implications – in part because those types of books are rarely put into audiobook form. I did listen to the Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and that was amazing. I think Foucault and the Angela Davis’ book Freedom is a Constant Struggle are the most consequential books that I’ve listened to in these past few months.

 

"Pandas Are Welfare Moms" Christine Wang (2015).
Pandas Are Welfare Moms by Christine Wang (2015). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

Love the Terry Pratchett! About those “Business Non-fiction / Self-Help Advice” books, did you find them enlightening?

The Power of Habit was a great book. Very convincing, it’s about how to make habits and break habits. I also liked Creativity Inc. (about Pixar), What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (about management), and The Hard Thing about Hard Things, which communicated lessons that Ben Horowitz (the author) learned from his start-ups. These aren’t traditional self-help books in the sense that they are not about how to lose weight or get a man. These books are more about business and management, which helps me think about my time and relationships differently.

 

Especially because I organize with an all-volunteer chapter of a larger organization in Los Angeles, I think these books helped me think about my interpersonal relationships more from a managerial point of view. I can now ask myself certain questions like what does the other person want, what do I want, what do I have the time for, and how can we work together. Or even from myself, I can ask questions like how can I be a more effective manager of myself, my finances, or my time?

 

"Don't Be Such a Martyr" Christine Wang (2016). Photo by Night Gallery.
Don’t Be Such a Martyr by Christine Wang (2016). Photo courtesy of Night Gallery.

 

Do you ever get frustrated with the Julian Fellows or as you call it, “light fluffy fictions” about marrying well? Or does it somehow fuel your working as a form of escapism (perhaps similarly to the thriller/horror/mystery genre)?

Escapism helps me stay still and make paintings. Especially if a painting is labor intensive, the more addictive the book is, the longer I can sit still and do my work.

 

"Sushi" Christine Wang (2014).
Sushi by Christine Wang (2014). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

What did you think of The Three-Body Problem?

I thought the Three-Body Problem was very Chinese for lack of a better term. For example, at the beginning of the book the description of the Cultural Revolution, or even specific ideas like that the trauma never came from the “top official.” Instead, all of the trauma inflicted on the main character was from lower-ranking people who got “carried away.” In a sense I could see how the author might have had to censor himself or write in a way that did not seem like it was criticizing communism or the top brass. I also think that the fantasy of a Chinese-specific, nationalistic scientific progress was a prevalent theme in the book.

 

Another thing I thought very Chinese was the idea of personal suffering subsumed into a common good moment. Like the Tri-Solarans who lost a finger or something after getting rehydrated were “lucky.” Also, if the scientist who was working on the proton unfolding failed, he and all the scientists working on the project would be put to death, which had a very Chinese feel; it reminded me of the nine familial exterminations, an ancient punishment where the emperor would put you and all your family to death. It was fun to see those culturally-specific things in a sci-fi novel.

 

"After Tiepolo" Christine Wang (2014).
After TiepoloGlobal Warming Cat, and Dizzy Cat by Christine Wang (2014). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

Can you talk a little about the role of words in your work, knowing that you were initially trained in a kind of post-Ab-Ex tradition while also heavily interested in semiotics (and de Saussure)?

Text in my work is sometimes informational, like a Vaclav Smil quote. Sometimes they are labels; they will reiterate the image with which they are paired. For example, “I got married for health insurance” confronts ideas of heteronormativity, love, marriage, and happiness.

 

"I Got Married for Health Insurancet" Christine Wang (2016).
Health Insurance by Christine Wang (2016). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

Words have many roles in my work. They take on more political content by naming the actions or positions of the subject. For example the “I” in “I love rape porn” or ‘I can buy any cake I want” points to the “I” as an individual consumer making choices. Words are powerful signifiers in a spectrum of painting signifiers, which include paint handling, typefaces, colors, marks, and edges. At Cooper Union my painting professor Robert Bordo talked about “painting language,” which I interpreted to be how every gesture, mark, and stroke in painting could signify a mood, a thought, a temperament, a historical painting moment, and so on and so forth. I think adding words to paintings further expands the “painting language” that is available to me.

 

"I Can Buy Any Cake I Want" Christine Wang (2016).
Green Tea Cake by Christine Wang (2016). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

An interest in De Saussure and semiotics came from several teachers at Cooper including Stephan Pascher, Doug Ashford, and Walid Raad. Raad encouraged me to study critical theory, which I did for a summer at NYU. One thing essential to take away from de Saussure was the idea that the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. The was very hard for me to grasp at the time and I was resistant to it, yet I agree with it totally now because it is a freeing concept. Foucault expands on “arbitrariness” in a beautiful way in Madness and Civilization when he traces how the symptoms and descriptions of “mania,” “melancholia,” and “hysteria” were mapped onto those signified quite arbitrarily. He makes a compelling case.

 

"The issues are too important to be Judgmental" detail. Christine Wang (2016).
The issues are too important to be Judgmental detail. Christine Wang (2016). Photo courtesy of Night Gallery.

 

On the other hand I thought that arbitrariness of the sign was an Euro-centric view of language that did not include Chinese pictographic linguistic histories. In reality, there was a intuitive part of me that confused “arbitrariness” with “meaninglessness,” and I resisted this philosophy. I still resist it in a way and must grapple with the two oppositions, signed being arbitrary and signs having tangible connections to their referents. These two oppositions are most evident in “rape porn” in that either the signs of rape that produce arousal are arbitrary and therefore can be enjoyed guilt free, or the signs of rape have a connection to the source image – the woman who was suffering – and therefore consuming the porn would be morally reprehensible.

 

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Untitled (Diptych) by Christine Wang (2012). Photo courtesy of Night Gallery.

 

You’ve said before in your interview with Veronique d’Entremont that “my art is totally ridden with guilt.” It seems that your art is often a way of processing personal/moral quandaries, from paintings with text like “I love rape porn” to “I got married for health insurance” to “I identify with white male rappers.” Other times, messages are directed outwards, such as “Your man baby tactics won’t work,” or “Daddy, if you loved me why were you so mean?” Do you or did you ever feel apprehensive about putting these “direct thoughts” out in the open?

You are assuming that the “I” in my paintings refers to me and is somehow autobiographical as opposed to me making a character. When the viewer reads “I love rape porn,” then for a second it is the viewer who inhabits the “I” position and I think that is more interesting to me than the autobiographical. I really believe that I’m not that different from other people, and that when I examine my own selfishness and hypocrisy other people must examine their own desires too.

 

"Daddy" Christine Wang (2016).
Daddy by Christine Wang (2016). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

Can you tell us a little more about what happened after what was shown in your March 19 video? What is the status of the “No More Jails” project?

That video was shot in 2013. The “No More Jails” project is not my own. I am a volunteer for Critical Resistance Los Angeles. I’ve decided to step back for 6 months until February 2017, but the chapter is still active. We are part of a larger coalition called LA No More Jails (LANMJ). Other organizations include Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), Dignity Power Now (DPN), Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), and Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN).

 

Right now the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the elected body of 5 representatives in charge of LA county’s budget, approved the final Environmental Impact Report for the Mira Loma detention center for women on October 25, 2016. Our coalition chanted and shut down the meeting. The cost of this women’s jail is about 100 million dollars, most of it coming from the State of California. It will expand the capacity of women’s jail around 5,000 beds, which we think is horrifying. This is also part of a larger 3.2 billion dollar plan to tear down men’s central jail and build a new “mental health” jail.

 

As a prison-industrial-complex abolitionist, I believe the funds can be better spent elsewhere in the county. Women and mentally-ill people do not need cages. If you agree with me, please donate to any one of those organizations I listed or become a monthly sustainer by signing up for a mailing list and coming out to the Board of Supervisors when we ask people to come out and rally.

 

"Coronation of Police Chief Beck" Christine Wang (2016). Photo by Night Gallery.
Coronation of Police Chief Beck by Christine Wang (2016). Photo courtesy of Night Gallery.

 

You’ve talked about a sense of “disgust” that goes into your art-making: disgust for the ever-expanding jail systems, racial oppressions built into our political and economic systems, and the complicity of everybody in all of this, including the art world. Do you feel like your messages have operated differently since being represented by an institution like the Night Gallery? Do you feel like people are taking them more or less seriously? How do you feel knowing that some of the people you are angry at are paying more attention to your work and, in a way “enjoying” those angry messages?

You are assuming that Night Gallery somehow has an effect on the messaging of the LA No More Jails coalition, but I assure you that my two worlds – the art world and the organizing world – do not mix very often at all. I also think that a prison-industrial-complex abolitionist message is so convincing and strong that people have to take it seriously from any position, whether as an art professional or not.

 

I wish that the people that you are imagining that “enjoy” my work actually buy my work. I think I told a student once that political art is the perfect commodity, in that people who buy political art can maybe feel less guilty. There was a certain point in art history where paintings were seen as less political because they were easily commodified. Now we see the hyper-commodification of all forms of art including ephemeral performance pieces by Tino Seghal, for example. Are paintings more or less political now that other forms of art can be commodified?

 

"I Want That Bag" Christine Wang (2014).
I Want That Bag by Christine Wang (2014). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

To another point, I helped organized two art auctions through Paddle8 to help benefit Critical Resistance. Plenty of painters donated work to those actions and it is only at the point of commodification, the point of the sale, that resources can be generated to help Critical Resistance continue abolition work. I honestly don’t care what you think or say, I only care about what you do.

 

In your interview with Lucia Liu, you talked about being “active in my own decisions” with regards to dating white men as an Asian woman. You also hinted at the impossibility of eradicating internalized racism. How do you reclaim agency while recognizing that society has infiltrated something so deep as sexual desire? How does one fight back?

Let’s clarify something again. When I say racism I mean a systematized oppression. Personal, internalized preferences can be prejudiced but not racist unless the person supports a racist government or organization. A police state is racist. My politics are very strongly anti-racist, anti-sexist. I believe that it’s wrong to build a jail that will lock up mostly poor women of color.

 

"Devotional Art for Your Home" installation shot at Night Gallery. Christine Wang (2016). Photo by Night Gallery
Devotional Art for Your Home installation shot at Night Gallery. Christine Wang (2016). Photo courtesy of Night Gallery.

 

Where is the fight you are talking about? I’d rather fight the Board of Supervisors than myself. What do you mean reclaim agency? Why should I reclaim something that I’ve always had? Let’s be honest, as an upper-middle-class Chinese-American girl growing up in the suburbs of D.C., I’ve had a lot more agency and opportunity than some of the lower-middle-class men who voted for Trump. I’m very much concerned with this constant bleeding of what “racism” is.Don’t get confused by what is real and what is unreal.

 

How are you dealing with the post-election world?

The same way I was dealing with the pre-election world; I make art, organize, and try to spend less money.

 

"World Map" Christine Wang (2014).
World Map by Christine Wang (2014). Photo courtesy of the artist.

 

Where can we find you or your work next?

I have a solo show in January at Galerie Nagel Draxler in Berlin.