Joy Wong has always been drawn to decay. In deterioration, she sees potential for regeneration. And she sees art – and life – as being in a constant state of flux between the two.
In recognition of her most recent installation reflecting these ideas of fluidity and instability, Wong, a Visual Arts MFA candidate at Western, has been named a finalist for the 20th annual RBC Canadian Painting Competition. The winner, to be announced Sept. 18, will receive $25,000 and a residency at Banff Centre for the Arts.
“The painting is made of latex, and while there’s been a long history of artists working with industrial materials like latex and silicone, latex isn’t an archival material; it can, and does, react to air, humidity and, eventually, does decay, over time,” Wong said of Cotton and Cheese 1, her submission to the RBC Canadian Painting Competition.
“I was really interested in making a painting that wasn’t this completely polished and finished thing, that once you finish with the paintbrush, you are done. This painting is changing in its space, in the way that it is made, and can be draped in different ways. These pieces could be folded, pleated, hung in different ways, and in that way, the painting is always changing.”
Cotton and Cheese 1 represents the skin as a mediator between ourselves and our organs, Wong explained, it is the site that simultaneously separates and connects our internal self and the outside world. Skin is in a constant process of regeneration and deterioration; it’s not inherently external or internal on our bodies, she said, and the piece explores what happens when this barrier is jeopardized, whether by external wound or internal ailment.
“I think there’s a lot of power in things that are ambiguous – you’re not quite sure if something is dissolving or coalescing. Art is always changing and I think that reflects a lot of what and how we feel, how we feel about day-to-day life. It’s always in flux – especially at a young age when you’re not sure what’s going to happen to you, so you let things happen. And sometimes, you have to break things down in order to build back up,” Wong said.
As an undergraduate student studying art at York University, she worked with and explored construction sites. While they were obvious sites of progress and building up, Wong saw “land in flux where you’re not sure if they are tearing something down or building something up.”
But it was more than ambiguity and the potential she saw that drew her in.
“I like things that looked unfinished. Ever since I decided to make art, I was really interested in the raw look – things that were not fully polished, things that showed the structure underneath. I liked that ability of artwork to show its own process as well as the finished product,” Wong added.
She wants to make something beautiful. And beauty is always in flux, defying definition, changing shape, form and perception, she explained.
“I always wanted to be an artist. As a child, you’re told to do something more practical and something that can make money. I’m not doing that,” Wong laughed.
Western was a good choice for graduate studies in art because the application process didn’t force her to define her art practice with a portfolio specific to one medium. Like her art, Wong shies away from categorical definition.
“Even though I was shortlisted for this competition, I never really saw myself as a painter. I painted a lot of different things and I wanted to leave that choice open. I was always into drawing, and stuck to painting and drawing, but did a little bit of insulation work. Sculpture work. A lot of my practice to this day centers around print-making, painting and drawing – together – things that allow for rendering imagery, that are hand-drawn or gestural, where the artist’s hand is present,” she explained.
“I have this problem of overworking things. Sometimes, you have to let the painting, or picture, or whatever you are working on, hover just before you think it’s finished, or else if you cross that line, it’s a little too on-the-nose, or a little overdone, almost like you’ve driven it down into the ground.”
Being shortlisted for the RBC Canadian Painting Competition came as a shock, Wong said. It feels out of reach but her proximity to the other shortlisted artists is a tangible success.
“It’s great to shorten that distance between this unachievable, off-in-the distance, abstract thing, and being part of the contemporary art world in Canada. It’s really exciting. I’ve seen images of the paintings that have been shortlisted and they are all such amazing, powerful works. It’s humbling and an honour to be part of that.”