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.”


Hank Willis Thomas Reanalyzes Everyday Black History

by Shannon Jay

Based on a lecture Hank Willis Thomas gave at the Chrysler Museum in 2015

Hank Willis Thomas’ interest in studying how black people are represented in media begins with Deborah Willis’ exploration of how they were portrayed in photographs. Then a teen skimming through a Philadelphia library, his mother stumbled upon “Sweet Flypaper Life,” featuring poems by Langston Hughes and photographs by Roy DeCarava.

“Sometimes I See Myself In You” by Deborah Willis, 2009

“This was the first time she saw images of African Americans as she had seen them – as everyday people,” Thomas recalls, noting this is when Willis realized “photography could be used to tell different stories, and to humanize.”

After not being able to find much else on the history of blacks in photography, Willis decided to write her first of several books on the subject entitled “Black Photographers, 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography.” She went on to win the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow for her research, and revive a previously unwritten history of the Black experience previously buried.

“Priceless #1” 2004

“I came to photography and came to appreciate it through her”, Thomas recalled. “Our relationship is very much this conversation between her research and my work as an artist.” This bond is illustrated in a piece entitled “Sometime I See Myself in You,” a melding of the mother and son’s faces to create three different portraits. 

Thomas uses the language of advertising, one he believe to be the most powerful in the world, “to talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about.” After the impactful murder of his cousin Songha Willis Thomas, Thomas discussed the “irony of picking the perfect casket for your son being a priceless experience.”

Years later, he revisited photographs taken from his cousin’s funeral with this familiar tagline from MasterCard ads. He describes this particular image in his photo series, “Branded,” as “a way to talk about how, even in mourning, we’re still being marketed to.” Other works in the “Branded” series steer away from taglines and Thomas’ personal experience, shifting to examine the correlation of logos in what he calls an “age of branded consciousness.”

“Logos as our generation’s hieroglyphs…because they are imbedded with so much meaning, that they can actually be used to tell different stories.”

He does this through eye opening imagery, like Nike swooshes scarred several times on a man’s chest, to the shoe company’s Jordan logo hanging from a Timbaland tree. In these pieces, Thomas parallels the branding of slaves to logos currently lining black bodies, or black bodies hanging from trees to hanging from basketball hoops – in the sense of both being a different variation of black men as a spectacle.

Advertisements relating to the history of blacks in America are apart of what Thomas described as, “this way in which [he] can look at an image of one thing, and turn it into a reference to so many other things.”

“Absolute Power” 2003 & 2016

Photos featuring the Absolut vodka logo explore the “creation of blackness…by Europeans with a commercial interest in dehumanizing people.” Thomas recognizes the Us vs. Them mentality categorizing race breeds, noting that, “we’re still allowing that kind of language to define us.” These images tackle the history of institutionalization, from slavery to the prison system.

“I recognize race as a fiction, something that is untrue but dictates so many of our lives.”

While “Branded” reinterprets logos though Thomas’ art, his series “Unbranded” removes these logos and taglines to allow art in advertisements independently tell a new tale. “I’m interested in how things that were status quo at some point shift,” Thomas continued, “and they also change history and how we relate who belongs where and what place.”

Ads from 1915 to present day have all marketing language removed, leaving mainstream depictions of women and African Americans and the “amazing story that’s happened in the images that we buy and discard.”

“Because [women and blacks were] asking for more opportunities,” Thomas noted, “[these ads] keep them in a certain place.” This project, along with all of Thomas’ consumerism commentary, encourages the viewer to always consider how images we buy into on a daily basis affect our deepest ideologies. 

Much of Thomas’ work is the analyzes old images to give new context. A series of bronzed hands cropped from photographs taken throughout history, Thomas said, “draw to defiant voices and gestures in moments of protest when so much is at stake.” 6 months after its completion, one sculpture in particular took on a whole new meaning with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Raise Up” is a row of bronze arms, inspired by a cropped shot of South African boys being stripped search.

“All of a sudden, something that was based off a moment of subjugation 50 years ago is speaking to a moment of uprising and defiance in the 21st century.” 

While commentary of the black experience is prominent in Thomas’ work, his broader focus is any change of perspective, epitomized in his collaborative works. In works like “Zero Hour,” a collaboration with Sanford Biggers, the viewer moves side to side of a frontally blurry image to see it clearer. “I like that idea of work where you have to change your own positioning to see it,” Thomas said. 

The “Truth Booth” visits Bamiyan Bhudda, blown up by the Taliban in 2001

He played with the idea of different perspectives in a collaboration with Jim Ricks and Ryan Allexaim called “Truth Booth.” Premiering in Ireland, this interactive piece allowed viewers to tell a camera what Thomas refers to as “their own version of the truth.” “Truth Booth” later traveled around the world to Afghanistan, South Africa, Miami, and even a presidential debate.

The attempt to tell the untold stories of the silenced throughout history is evident in all of Thomas’ work, no matter the medium. Whether it’s removing logos from ads to let the imagery speak for itself, retelling stories from old photos by cropping portions and breeding them with bronzed new life, or even welcoming folks to voice their own point of view in Thomas’ interactive installations, viewers walk away considering a fresh, new perspective.

Even if they remain unchanged, at least they looked at things a little differently, if only for a moment.