127 Alison Wong

Born: 1982, BFA: Maryland Institute College of Art, MFA: Cranbrook Academy of Art; Lives in Detroit, MI

A painting by Alison Wong typically represents the most ordinary things—a square of tissue and small scraps of crumbled wallpaper (Tissue Tears, 2018), or a dog’s mangled chew toy (Tattered and Torn, 2018). The painting technique is virtuosic, and the materials are the stuff of high art. She applies the paint thinly, layered, wet-into-wet; one delicate, detailed area at a time. The small scale of the works, objects depicted close to their actual size, deny any heroic, monumentalizing impulse. Why, one wonders, does she lavish so much effort on something so ordinary, so insignificant? But this questioning is right where she wants us.

For Wong, the most common, even trivial, objects become important through relationships, through memory, familiarity, and day-to-day use. Even without the backstory, viewers will suspect that these subjects aren’t mundane to her. She loads the ordinary with attention, a meditative labor that ultimately questions how people give status to the things around them. And because the titles give a sliver of access (e.g., Cure for the Broken Hearted, 2013), one knows her answer will be deeply personal. When she talks about the act of painting, she speaks of it as work, as exacting, tedious, difficult, something to suffer through. She speaks of the subjects of her paintings, however, as representing moments of intense love. This combination can give painting, as a medium, its most profoundly personal form: commitments to relationships represented via commitment to painting.

Alison Wong’s romanticizing of the ordinary produces some ironic disparities: between the way common things are overlooked but intimately engaged with every aspect of human relationships, and between the supposed seriousness of painting and the triviality of her subject matter. These ironies are key to the wit, humor, and psychological awareness of her work. They give her art a playfulness, a maneuvering of knowingness and banality that borders on the deadpan. The oval pendant paintings, He said . . . She said . . . (2013), for example, operate as wry portraiture; a phrase on each simply states: “he had the best intentions in the world,” and, “she wanted to believe in the impossible.” The romanticism, even self-conscious sentimentality (Welcome Home, 2012) so characteristic of Wong’s artwork sometimes gravitates toward its more melancholic side. Death and decay, suggested in torn wallpaper or worn chew toys, arrives full force in the exquisitely painted dead mouse in Drowned (2014) or the funereal flowers of Be Still in This Moment (2015).

The self-conscious disparities that generate humor, the romanticism that slides toward sentimentality, the lyrical treatment of the abject, all challenge the straightforward, first-glance sincerity of her work. Wong lets us know that intimacy and sincerity are constructed in painting; they aren’t inherent. Irony is the first hint of doubt, but more follows. For example, she makes artifice itself a prominent feature of her work, and when that level of emphasis shows up in artworks, something meta, something self-referential is going on. Tattered (study) (2017) does this explicitly with a color key that occupies the painting’s upper right corner, a partial index of the painting’s components.  

This emphasis on a self-reflexive artifice shows up in some other equally bold ways. As mimetically representational as the paintings’ subjects are, they don’t exist in an illusionistic space. Subjects float on an empty, neutral ground, a convention more common to the specimens of scientific illustration. The isolation decontextualizes its subjects and suggests another feature of the artworks— they originate in collage. Objects from different sources, removed from their contexts, are reconfigured. In some of the works, this reconfiguration results in irrational, inconsistent light sources that slowly seem more dream space than real space, e.g. Tattered and Torn and Be Still in This Moment. The longer one looks at Wong’s work, the more it seems to be about the nature of representation and the complexity of knowing what something is.

Can the ordinary ever be represented as ordinary? As soon as something gets attention, it becomes important. Artists and writers have grappled endlessly with this problem. Even Andy Warhol’s soup cans or Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems don’t quite pull it off. Alison Wong, however, accepts and exploits this tension of the significant mundane. A flat square of Kleenex, for example, starts things off, but as soon as she notices, selects, and represents it, something emotionally and intellectually important happens. She asserts its personal importance and tells viewers that this relationship will take work, that it can be playful, and that it will always be complicated.

Timothy van Laar, June 2019

Copyright Essay’d 2019