Shaina Negrón: Realness with a Smile

Popscure writer Darryan Miller took some time to speak with artist Shaina Negrón on loving oneself, the freeing nature of art, and rejection of labels in today’s identity-driven society.

Creativity takes courage, and Shaina Negrón has plenty of both. The New Jersey-based artist has many talents, from drawing to tattooing to painting, with hopes of stepping into the music scene. For years, Negrón has made a niche for herself in the social media world with a positive platform extolling the virtues of self-acceptance and love. “My main goal is to help people be more comfortable with the skin that they’re in,” Negron says.

Negrón is accomplishing this goal through her accounts on both Twitter and Instagram, where she goes by the name @toushai, a moniker that plays on the word ‘touché.’ Through creating the hashtag #TeefTuesdays used on both social media platforms, she channels the vulnerability that comes with showing one’s teeth by putting a positive spin on things. “I love when people smile. I’m always trying to get people to laugh and I do definitely think that energy, it’s very much felt, and we need more smiling humans out here. “#TeefTuesdays came about from the interactions she had on social media, “[People] were complimenting me using that word, and I was like, ‘Yo, I should just make it a thing.’ I stayed consistent with it and made it just a Tuesday thing— on Tuesday we show our teef, like on Wednesdays we wear pink.”

Image by Shaina Negrón | @toushaiart

“I love when people smile. I’m always trying to get people to laugh and I do definitely think that energy, it’s very much felt, and we need more smiling humans out here.”

With her artistic ability, humor, and lively nature, it’s clear that the 26-year-old is a triple threat, which isn’t going unnoticed. On her main Instagram page, where she writes inspiring posts encouraging followers to stay true to themselves, she has amassed over 104K followers. In one of her posts Negrón writes, “Aside from protecting your peace, you must protect your creativity. It’s okay to turn away from things that do not serve you. Move in the direction of your heart, move in the direction that serves you full. Do not be afraid of what you leave behind; keep going forward. Bless.” This powerful statement is just one example of how Negrón encourages creativity.

Starting at the age of 11, the artist began drawing, eventually leading her to discover kids’ face paint at a local YMCA event. “There was a woman there, and she asked me to paint her stomach for a maternity shoot. The following week I did it, and I [thought] ‘Wow, I’m good at this,’ I never knew I could paint.” While her favorite medium is pencil to paper, Negrón also creates illusions with the stroke of her brush, blending the human body into colorful backgrounds.

Image by Shaina Negrón | @toushai

Negrón paints the nude human body. In an array of colors, the artist strategically paints her muse against different backdrops–some of the backdrops are solid colors, and some highlight the work of other artists. Each person and piece of body art stands out and makes a bold conversation piece. “I’m painting nude bodies so that people are okay with being naked. Don’t be ashamed to take your shirt off in front of another woman or man. Don’t be scared, like that’s you, that’s your skin, you were born into that,” Negrón says. Through her art, she is not only imitating life, but making a political statement.

Image by Shaina Negrón | @toushai

When asked what influences her, the influencer says, “I feel like everybody influences me. When I paint, I paint a lot of women. I always paint women walking into a different dimension. I feel like I’m always painting other women, but, in the sense that it’s always me. It’s like it’s me putting myself into everybody else’s shoes. I understood this girl’s whole story in this way,” she continues, “People influence me, life and the situations that happen, real life shit influences me. I really appreciate life.”

Though Negrón has a tough exterior, her interior is anything but. She’s sensitive and intuitive, shedding tears when the topic of LGBTQ+ identity comes up. When it comes to identifying herself, the artist doesn’t believe in labels. She is who she is, her sexuality is fluid, and though society would deem her as non-binary, she doesn’t conform solely to one distinction or another. “I just kind of learned that I’m non-binary and an androgynous female, and I learned that because people were putting that label onto me. Why do we have to label ourselves LGBTQ+? Why do we have to have a coming out story? Why can’t we just be? My brother never came out and was like, ‘Yo Ma! I like girls!’ Like, why do I have to do that?” Negrón goes on to say, “I open minds up to the idea that you can just be yourself. You can be masculine and still like to do feminine things, or you could be masculine and a little feminine, or you could be super feminine and want to be treated in this masculine way, like, that’s totally okay.”

“Why do we have to label ourselves LGBTQ+? Why do we have to have a coming out story? Why can’t we just be?”

In a curious world that demands answers almost to a fault, Negrón states, “If I label myself, you’re going to look at someone that looks like me and label them, for what? Why are we labeling each other? I’m just me. I’m all for the parades and festivals because that’s our march; that’s just taking a stance against the people that do not like that.”

Shaina Negrón advocates for messages that center around being true to and accepting of oneself, which comes from a place of working hard herself to get there. “People view me in this weird light. I say it’s weird because people are like, ‘Oh, you’re so positive. You’re so confident,’ but that all came from me not being confident and not being positive. There [were] a bunch of times that I didn’t like the way I looked, or me noticing that I’m different. I had to grow to understand myself, and me growing to understand myself was my breakthrough. Like wow…this is me, it’s okay to be like this.”

Between positive messages, and sharing her gifts and wisdom with the world, Shaina Negrón is first and foremost human, spreading kindness so other humans can feel comfortable in their skin. Through all of her work, Negrón is an artist to watch, an artist to love, and certainly an artist who’s message could inspire — who knows? You just might surprise yourself.

The featured photo at the top was shot by @defcampus. You can find and follow Shaina Negrón on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Shedding Water & Poise with Heidi Peele

by Shannon Jay

Heidi Peelen’s work sheds the polite skin females usually portray, and unleashes every lady’s raunchy side. Whether large-scale mixed media pieces, goofy installations, or comedy routines, she creates characters (sometimes at her own expense) that might not be classy but are complex. What some may perceive as lower class at best or trailer trash at worst, she turns into stunning pieces that provoke beauty and respect. She’s nobly brought what she learned in the Big Apple at Pratt Institute back to humble beginnings in Hampton Roads.

She’s put herself out there for performances at Push Comedy and Watershed Art House, which she created and runs. Next, she’s shaking-shit-up at Chrysler Glass Studio this week for a Third Thursday performance. When I asked her to tell me a bit more about it via email, the question boded the shortest and vaguest response of all: “Me trying to be the perfect homemaker and me being the perfect homemaker.”

As for everything else, she’s pretty much an open book:

So, you do… a lot. Maybe start by listing out your extracurriculars?

As far as “extracurriculars,” I’m not sure if I can define them as such, I am genuinely bored by a lot of things and as result aim to find pleasure in other stuff. I really like other stuff. Most of the time the other stuff is anything and everything but the thing I SHOULD be concentrating on. If its a Sunday and I am alone, I like to play the autoharp and make up songs (only if my breakfast voice is still on) and sometimes I record them and sometimes I honestly just strum two chords over and over again until I never want to look at the autoharp for like a month. Also, I really am recently finding pleasure in housecleaning, redecorating and not leaving the parameters of my yard, unless its like someone’s birthday and even still I’ve flaked on like 3 this past year alone. Also I find sanctitude in making lists and never returning to them again. I have 8 to 10 spiral notebooks in rotation that I cant keep track of. 

What got you into comedy?  

I’ve made home movies dressed as really unfortunate characters since I was in ninth grade. When I found a place where other people were doing that and on stage, and then strangers were laughing and actually enjoyed it? And when I felt the adrenaline surge of hearing strangers laugh at me and I did it on purpose, I don’t know – that kind of turned me on, so I went for it.

Its fun, but I can’t fully submerge into anything. So I do it and try to incorporate it into my art and my day to day as naturally as I can, it makes sense. Especially for art, because art is a joke and I’ve been doing that since they told me you got to pick something to be good at and/or make money. I don’t make a lot of money. 

Money must come from somewhere. What’s your current “day job”?

Still teaching. I’m part-time waitressing too. I’ve worked in factory-produced metal stamping for the family business, I’ve worked as an assistant project manager in a basement in Brooklyn, I’ve been a Xerox printer salesman, I’ve made money doing what I had to do to make money.

I think there’s a beauty in employing yourself into fields that make you uncomfortable, because undoubtedly I learn something with every single job. Whatever we’re defining as a job these days. 

Tell me a bit about your sexy one-woman show.

One woman shows are a blast. I like to play with the role of performer for the audience and audience as the performers for the artist. Psychology is a favorite pass time read. But I am by no means experienced in the subject, especially anything written past 1970-something. I love any 60-70’s psychology. Its so much less forgiving than the contemporary, I think.

Anyhoo, the one woman shows are a way for me to low-key hate myself. Because just before I have to go out and perform, backstage, I freak all of the way out and want to call it immediately. Questions begged, “Why are they here?” and “OMG what do I contribute to society?” its all sort of just a cheeky guarantee that I get to develop my own existential crisis for actually no reason at all. The whole show, the whole production, is like one giant excuse for me to self destruct. Awesome. 

“Low-Key Starved” was all purely experimental (and I definitely want to do one again). It was really about toying with audience as performers vs the performer as the audience and how to make myself even uncomfortable. Like I had expectations of people reacting certain ways or walking out or getting fed up or laughing but then when they did I was like oh no what am I doing.

“This is How You Art” was more about the philosophy of watershed. I wanted to get the general art enthusiast up to speed with the tongue in cheek world of art academia and the contemporary and more conceptual pieces that have blurred the lines of art for even the experts. So I’d introduce a performance artist or sound piece or whatever through a live re-enactment (of course with some art licensing) and then allow the audience to experience it. After the re-enactment I would commentate on what they witnessed, and prompt them based off of Goethe’s 3 questions: what was the artist trying to do? Was it worth doing? And was she successful at doing it?

Speaking of Watershed Art House, What was the initial premise behind it and are there any upcoming events?

Watershed Art House is an attempt to yank the area out of the gallery and into the mindset of art as experience. Not a product, not an end result, no a sale, or potential sale or how much for this or whatever, but Watershed is supposed to stretch the mind. Omg that sounds zealous, BUT, I want it (and the people involved with me on this want it) to make art approachable and shifting and ever-changing and incredibly ephemeral. We live in a world of– never mind I’m not even going down the roads, but its a work in progress and we want art to be the experience and temporary and approachable by everyone. Amen. (and I think our next event is this fall- tba, tbd, y’all.)

What are all the visual mediums you work in? What’s your favorite?

I’ve been drawing since the magna-doodle and my mom made a really big deal over my drawing a deer – it looked like an animal of sorts I guess but whatever I was four and she thought it was the bee-knees and I think when your so easily influenced and you’re a little bb child and your mom makes you feel like Picasso, your 4 year old mind is like, “shit yea, I’m gonna be Picasso”. But recently (although I do draw alone and when I’m on the phone, or idk, whenever) I don’t see a point for visual art. I don’t see a lot of a point for anything, but especially visual art whose end product takes up space and time and money. I’ve spent a lot of those things in my life-long affair with this bit and I won’t stop, but the ebb and flow of our love demands that occasionally, I cut her off. Right now I like video and projections, and happenings and performances, and making myself really uncomfortable swimming in all those pools. And its working. Art should make you (as the artist) uncomfortable – if I feel good and cozy and comfy with doing the same thing I’ve been doing for a bajillion years, then really, what am I doing? 

What music/movies do you usually paint to or draw inspiration from?

I like anything with low to no dialogue. I like music with words I can’t understand but chords and repetition I do. I love repetitive qualities in sound. I love sound collage. One of the MAJOR films that truly dug out my insides and in ways revamped my brain was Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Still now. And if I weren’t a trite millennial I’d give you my musical artist faves, except that then everyone reading this would know about them and then they might get a little more popular and then they’d do something awful with their next album and I’m approaching 30 and really need some stability in my life rn. 

To see more work, check out her portfolio, and her 360 portrait project on Instagram

TBT: Kelly Herring Explores The Strength In Vulnerability With Intimate Portraits

by Shannon Jay, originally for Veer

Three years ago, I found a friend in longtime acquaintance Kelly Herring for my first published piece outside of my college paper. Our interesting conversation over beers at Taphouse sparked my love of divulging creative’s processes and exploring the work-art balance all artists struggle with.

She’s got a cushy city job now as Norfolk redevelopment housing authority’s graphic designer. “Got out of Whole Foods a year before Amazon took over and got rid of the artist job,” she said, “so good timing on my part.” Finding the balance is still hard, but she’s been able to make some headway on pieces she foreshadows in our 2015 interview (see progress above).

Her style is developing and changing, with time on her side. Keep up with her upcoming works at her website, kherring.com


With a full-time job as a designer at Whole Foods, Kelly Herring’s art engulfs her free time, with intricate drawings taking anywhere from a few weeks up to a month. Colorful paintings take a whopping three to six months to complete, each session lasting about six hours.

“If I wasn’t working 40 hours a week and trying to have a social life and relationship,” she said, large-scale oils would probably be her sole medium. Alas, bills must be paid, so Herring’s currently focused on drawings and watercolors to get her ideas out swiftly.

Herring’s new works also incorporates old family snapshots, exploring the idea of family, and learning to love kin purely.

“A lot of it is about… the need to be able to love and accept yourself but also figuring out your own identity,” she said, “and the need for other people to love and accept you for who you are.”

For Herring, this collection has a paternal focus. “A lot of the issues I have with [my dad] are a lot of the same issues I have inside of myself, and I know are the same issues he had with his dad, and probably his dad had with his dad, and so on and so forth.” Her new mixed media work hopes to explore a “generational cycle that makes us who we are,” underlying recurring issues in each upbringing.

Themes in newer work change the context of what she’s explored in past oil paintings, which take a close look at what she calls “pure and utter love” that’s “beautiful and wonderful.” Her nude subjects and empowering symbols highlight an oxymoronic strength in vulnerability, lifting daily veils for an intimate look at relationships.

One symbol she uses often is a cigarette to signify power and addictiveness. “When you’re in the early stages of love,” she said, “it’s this addictive rush.” Others include geometric symbols and icons of evolution, such as the Metatron’s Cube and magnolias, that convey a collective connectivity. “Everything [in nature] evolved to work together,” she said, “and I like to think that all of us on some level are connected that way.”

Each painting starts with a half-baked plan and Herring hitting up her dearest friends to model for a photoshoot. To be a subject, they must have “something they can share and bring to the table…something I’m trying to say and explore inside of myself as well,” she said. However, shoots always change Herring’s original vision when the model brings their personality to the table.

Plans deviate even further with each layer of oil, figuring itself out along the way. “Things build, relationships you didn’t see at first start becoming apparent the more paint you add,” says Herring, “every time you look at [a portrait], you see things in a new way.”

A two-year gap between Herring’s current and past works was filled with empty inspiration, riddled with frustrations and no outlet. “I didn’t know entirely know what I wanted to say… which made struggling so much harder,” she said. This rut was void of exhibitions, which she hopes to get back into before the years is up.

To get back into her grid, Herring turns to music to get brushes moving. For intimate portraits, she throws on classic soul like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or “anything really sexy like that.”

Herring likes Tune-Yards’ unadulterated messages, and, much like her subjects, she “has something to say, and I like when people keep it real like she does.” The biggest inspiration for her recent project came from the latest Thao and the Get Down Stay Down release, which chronicles the troubling relationship between frontwoman Thao Nguyen and her father, who abandoned her at a young age.

Despite it’s personal subject matter, Herring wants people to relate. She paints her subjects as honestly as possible, and desires viewers to let themselves feel and experience the paintings instead of scanning the didactic panel for meaning. “What people take away from it is entirely up to them, and not up to me at all,” Herring said, her biggest hope being her blend of colors and images can make viewers look at the world a different way, if only for a moment.

“Saul Stories” is an Exercise in Brutally Honest Ambiguity

by Jerome Spencer

“I stood there a long time and Saul stood next to me. I kept waiting for the beauty. It felt like I was always waiting.” 

I suppose if I had to explain what Saul Stories is “about”, I’d tell you something pertaining to a 40 year-old woman who hangs out with her teenage daughter, parties with her teenage friends and has a non-sexual (?) obsession with an underage boy. What Saul Stories is actually about, though, is moral ambiguity, societal expectations/standards and that hazy fog where art and life collide and the rules become unclear.

An imposing collection of short stories linked by the characters, Elizabeth Ellen crafts a relentless narrative that twists and plummets, conflating empathy with enabling and specifically challenging preconceived notions about the unspoken rules that dictate us. In particular, the accepted ideas about friendship, trust, and who can associate with whom. The main character of Saul Stories, an unnamed narrator, is so unlikable – an emotionally stunted “artist” living of a trust fund with no direction while financing a posse of delinquent eighth graders – that distrust for her intentions is imminent and fierce. The stories, however, are told with such brutal honesty and emotional uncertainty that her humanity takes on its own form and that form becomes the most relatable character in the book. It’s so easy to find oneself rooting for the narrator to win although it’s never clear what the stakes actually are or what any character in Saul Stories stands to win. 

Ellen never hits the reader in the face with any of this, though. The stories pummel through time, leaving the inevitable conflict and ugly parts implied like whispers in the community; like dirty looks from illustrious older white men who’ve invested a lot of money in something you obviously are supposed to be grateful for. It’s there. You feel it and everyone else does, too, yet no one ever talks about it. Ellen’s writing is masterful as Saul Stories reads like a candid conversation with an affable acquaintance that just shares too much and doesn’t give a fuck what you think. She never tries to sway the reader’s opinion or stance, merely gives an accurate review of the situation from one side of the story.

Smart without pretense, discontented without angst, uncomfortably funny and painstakingly direct, it’s almost cliché to laud Saul Stories as Lolita for the internet age, but it’s also hard to miss that assessment.
 

Maker Extraordinaire Kelsie McNair’s Next Excursion

 What once hung off the nails
What once hung off the nails

by Shannon Jay

When I met Kelsie McNair up at her studio on Fawn Street, it looked like a gentle tornado had blown through. Walls were scattered with vacant nail holes, beautiful stained glass instead stacked on the ground. Old photos flung array, including a wallet-sized portrait of her mother sporting a jeweled choker and sassy red boa. Her table was afflux of boxes and those signature floral phone cases.

After closing her successful vintage shop, With Lavender and Lace, the cases became Kelsie’s main focus. Now, she’s finished up the last of her final batch. “I have to be out of here by Friday,” she said while carefully layering the gel over dried flowers in intricate rows. It was the first of a major to-do list that includes packing, photoshoots, and a show at Toast tomorrow with her project, Pyrrhic Whim. “Social time is over, that’s it,” she said “I’m done with that,” thus the show will serve as her farewell party before she moves to New York. There was no wine opener, so we relocated to her kitsch apartment filled with mismatch rugs and modern furniture that had a very high tech one.

“I’m doing so much sniffing” Kelsie said while putting away a mountain of laundry, deciphering what was clean or dirty. Seemingly no matching socks to her name, she exclaimed “my life is a nightmare.”

 Where Kelsie's head is at
Where Kelsie’s head is at

We try to figure out which meme Kelsie is at the present moment; I suggest she’s the woman with math swirling around her heard, just trying to figure it out. Kelsie suggests it’s the comic of a dog uttering “this is fine” while sitting in a burning house. “That’s where I’m at,” she said “it’s a good fire I guess, just a lot of change really quickly, but I’m really excited.”

She’d planned to go to the Big Apple months ago, but with a new gig at Renegade Craft, her vision has shifted. “It is very much in a different direction than all the plans I was planning on.” Previously with no full-time job ahead, her big move framed around teaching at Urban Glass. “I have 3 weekend workshops,” she said, “One of my favorite parts about my life is working with this school, and that they respect me and want me to teach there.”

First though, she must squeeze in a pitstop to San Francisco for work. “There’s a lot of moving parts that are visual and a lot of editorial stuff,” she said of her position as the traveling market’s Social Media Content Manager. McNair’s snippy copywriting and aesthetic posts cultivate “little experiences that people are experiencing,” a skilled gained by garnering her own following and proving she could curate a brand by building herself up over years. 

“It was easier back then,” she said of starting up over 5 years ago, when the internet was less saturated and more blog-centric. Still, getting over 15,000 followers and plenty of sales means working “really hard at all this stuff I made up here,” she said, “I taught myself how to do a very specific position.” It’s the first time she’s been employed by someone other than herself in about 10 years, previously working at an ice cream shop, then a thrift store. “That’s my life — ice cream an old clothes,” she said, “nothing has changed, they’re still both weekly things.”

Her NYC digs are a reflection of her social media savvy — she’s shacking up in a beautiful house in the Bronx with a couple she met on Instagram years ago. When they were opening up Mottley Kitchen in 2016, Kelsie offered to help in the kitchen, and they’ve been friends since.

 Where to say farewell to Kelsie
Where to say farewell to Kelsie

“I literally look like a giant penis,” Kelsie said after putting on a beanie found in the pile, “this hat is over”

Busy with her social media content manager job, she wants to focus less on writing music, and shift her genre focus. Lyrics are her “love language,” music her mode of communication for complicated feelings, but crafting songs can be emotionally draining. “I love writing music, I just don’t have the energy to always be writing music like that,” she said, “and I don’t really write any other kind.” Pyrrhic Whim is dreamy and dramatic, with beats and drones that are dazing. After listening to a lot of alternative R&B, she wants to strip the bells and whistles of her performance and have fun as a jazz singer.

“Playing someone else’s soulful stuff would be a wonderful space to be in; it’s so sensual and old, I want to be apart of it,” she said, “Just a dark, shadowy room where music fills the whole space, and it’s my job to be another instrument instead of all these trends and sounds.”

Her hopes for the city are new experiences, lacking here but plentiful in her new home. “When i have a good day in New York, it’s never like ‘oh, that was fun’ it’s like ‘shit, I’m gonna remember that experience for the rest of my life.” In the opposite direction, this extreme is equally strong. “New York bites you sometimes, it gets rough,” she said, “Men on the street are rude and aggressive and awful, everything is super expensive, there’s so many things, overstimulating in every way, no one cares about you — it’s the loneliest place there is.”

Lying within this premise is her greatest fear — unhappiness “The worst part about leaving [Norfolk] is there are so many awesome people here, they are the best people, and it takes a long time to find friends when you get older, it’s just harder,” she said, “these are the ones i’m gonna have forever. There’s a couple more spaces in me for that, but it’s starting to close up.”

Nonsense will not be brought to New York for the sake of friends. “I have to be my most genuine self so I don’t have to act like someone else when they do let me in,” she said, “if you’re letting me in, you know who I am so I don’t have to work any harder”

“I think back on myself even a year ago, and I keep getting better but I’m still so dumb, I can’t wait to look back and see all the things i’m making bad decision about right now – I’ll be so wise, but I still won’t be there; none of us ripen all the way.”

Maybe, I offer, we are all avocados that are too hard to eat once opened, stuck in the fridge only to be browned a few days later, but never soft. Kelsie might not be totally happy in New York, but she certainly isn’t here and none of us ever are all the way. “If you’re 100%,” Kelsie responded, “you’re more than likely in a manic episode.”

“I’m overprotective of myself,” Kelsie said, only to ensure she’ll be taken as she is or not at all. “That comes with growing up, that’s the best.”

 Why Kelsie's voice rose two times that day
Why Kelsie’s voice rose two times that day

When snorting like children, our laughs high pitched after sucking helium from leftover birthday balloons floating about, I didn’t feel so grown up. Sprawled on a newfound friend’s bed, feet kicked up, flipping through magazines and chatting about hopes & dreams, I felt like a teenager. With a hole closing up inside her, reserving space for a new place, I felt fortunate to catch a genuine glimpse of Kelsie.

She took a puff of the ballon and contemplated. “It’s not because we’re not good,” she squeaked, “it’s just because there’s so many people, I have to do so much to matter so little.” Her voice and mindset were heightened, possibly just a trait of the always overthinking Pisces. 

Like a high school girl, I read Kelsie her horoscope. We’d classed and sassed up from Seventeen, with problematic glossy pages replaces with empowering matte media. Alongside thick art publications and makers magazines, featuring inspirational artists like Sarah Perez, was Broccoli. Reflective of her latest endeavor, Smirk Supply, the cannabis-friendly magazine is smart but fun, mature but creative.

“Say a prayer to the weed fairy that you’ll be supported in your wildest dreams, and take a puff.” I read aloud dramatically, “You set the tone this season through the faith you show in yourself. If you are clouded by vibrations of doubt, question them. You are a sensitive soul, so use cannabis to tune into your own energy, not the emotions of the people around you.”

“Yeah,” possibly after not totally staying still for several days, she paused and pondered, eventually smirking. “Wow.”

Ming Ying Hong Finds Sublimity in Uncertainty

  The Head Not the Face , 76
The Head Not the Face , 76″ x 126″, Charcoal, marker, graphite on paper, 2016

By Shannon Jay

Since Ming Ying Hong moved to Norfolk from St. Louis, her studio space has gotten a bit smaller. While it’s still able to accommodate her large-scale work, “there’s no room to look back at something,” she said, “there’s not a lot of editorial distance.” This added ambivalence in her process embodies the ethos of her latest exhibit, “Conditions of Uncertainty.” The collection of chaotic charcoal works is on view via popblossom at Work Program Architects in Monticello Arcade until March 16th.

  Empty and Full,  Graphite on mylar, 12″x12″, 2016

“I just feel like it’s okay to be at a place where you’re [unsure],” Hong said of her exploration of “hazy” area between binaries, and the discomfort people feel within that space. Her explosive portraits are “visible but not tangible,” and hope to produce ambiguous viewpoints wherein meaning emerges.

While the immersive scale of Hong’s drawings reminded me of Mark Rothko, she felt his motives more defined. “When you look at a Rothko, he wants you to feel a very specific [emotion], there’s no other ways to interpret that,” she said, “with mine it’s placed in these grey areas, there’s a level of questioning happening, and the hope that in questioning something, someone’s experience or understanding of something becomes more expanded.”

“There’s a level of fear” Hong said of disjointed subjects, who are always “on the brink of disillusions, and in forming them they fall apart.” It’s something she explores across all mediums. A graduate installation piece Hong named after a Mark Strand poem called “Keeping Things Whole” filled a room with fog to seem as if “you’re kind of floating in space.” Barriers of the room’s walls became invisible in her attempt to “dissolve this idea of you as a person – this sounds cheesy, but so you’re one with the space.”  

“My ideas drive my practice rather than being loyal to drawing,” Hong said about using multiple mediums. “I think everyone starts with drawing, as a kid that’s the most accessible art form,” she said, “It’s amazing that you’re able to make something…being able to make images suddenly emerge, to have your abstract ideas being formed on a page.” Intrigue with immersive abstractions, haphazard sculptures, and smoke-filled rooms, come from Hong’s interest in ecstatic states. “This moment where your body is there at the same time you’re not entirely,” she explained, “when the external world doesn’t become entirely understandable.”

“static states are near death”

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” a favorite piece by Caspar David Friedrich she cites as a big inspiration, embodies this feeling. “It’s small but still depicts the sublime in a way that’s contemporary for its time,” she said, “now of course we have to make things bigger to do that.” In such a sensory saturated world, Hong’s scale is forcibly attention-grabbing. “I think people have enough attention span to do anything they want,” she said, “but in order to feel fear or awe I think you have to be experiencing something slightly new.”

 Hong in the studio by  Richard Nickel
Hong in the studio by Richard Nickel

With the natural world of “Wanderer” already explored time over, folks have turned to technology for new horizons. Not even amazed by and iPhone anymore, Virtual Reality has created a more immersive and exploitative recreation/invention of environments. With projections and other tech, Hong’s works take organic shapes and allude to natural phenomenon. She plays with the juxtaposition of “something you’re slightly familiar with that feels natural, but is nonetheless artificial.”  

A new way she’s doing this is incorporating sex-safe silicone into portraits. The “squishy” material overlaying a drawing of Hong’s long-time partner will look “kind of like a disease,” and spell out his insecurities in braille. She hopes to “question that type of masculinity” with soft material and a vulnerable message. “I feel like that material is a simulation of flesh and a symbol of desire,” she said, “not only his desire to have a better body, but a yearning to touch flesh.”

Hong’s use of unique materials to mimic reality made her classic Romanticism influence even more striking. Her work reminded me of more contemporary artists (such as Cai Guo-Qiang, who shares Hong’s Chinese heritage and interest in explosions). However, ideas of art from centuries past manifest in Hong’s work “in a way that’s more in our times.”

For her, she’s still trying to convey the powerful and relevant feeling Friedrich’s painted exactly 200 years ago. The wanderer looking at endless earth from the top of a cliff embodies exact uncertainty she hopes for viewers: “the fight of being amazed, but nevertheless being fearful.”