Alice Wong, Painting Photographs

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by TBW Books (here). Flexi-cover with tipped in cover photo. 9.5 x 11.75 inches, 76 pages, with 58 color images. Includes an inset pamphlet with an interview of Bruno Descharme by Tom Di Maria. Design by Paul Schiek. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Since its inception, photography has struggled to escape the shadow of its elder cousin, painting. This ambition is quashed by Alice Wong’s debut monograph. It’s entitled Painting Photographs, and it captures Wong doing exactly that. Vintage photographs serve as her repurposed canvases, outlining loose parameters for paint-by-numbers sessions gone wild. Wong uses acrylic markers to color inside, atop, and occasionally outside the lines with gleeful exuberance. Take that, photography. Painting bats last.

Not that Wong is motivated by art history battles. Her paintings are personal expressions, as were the drawings and ceramics preceding them. She’s just having fun, let the rhetorical chips fall where they may. Since 2003 Wong has been supported by the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, a non-profit which assists local artists with developmental disabilities. She was born in 1980 in Hong Kong, and she is not to be conflated with Alice Wong the disability activist—also Bay Area based with Hong Kong roots. The nature of this Alice Wong’s disability is unspecified, but for the sake of her book she proves quite able. Its fifty-eight overpaintings tap a colorful groove which leaves conventional rubrics behind. 

Wong’s process begins with found photos. She is an avid collector, salvaging vintage pictures from a variety of sources. Some are clipped from magazines. Some are publicity photos with white borders bearing old studio captions. Others are plain drugstore prints. Regardless of provenance, most show people, either in portraits, head shots, or quick snaps. Photos of the vernacular landscape make up the remainder. There are shots in the book of dogs, flowers, and a drawbridge seen from river level, just to sketch a few examples. But these subjects are outliers in a collection comprised primarily of humans. Perhaps this was in TBW’s mind when describing Wong’s found photos as “family album kitsch and cliché”. That phrase may fit some images, but many go far beyond. In any case, categorizing their original contents is a guessing game, since most of the photographic details are buried under paint. 

Of course, Wong is not the first to play this game. There is a minor tradition of overpainted pictures in photography which is deep if not particularly broad, ranging from gently tinted monochromes to blunt expunction. Practitioners such as Ed Templeton (reviewed here), Boris Mikhailov, Masahisa Fukase, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Vivianne Sassen (reviewed here) have tinted photos with paint washes, each while generally steering clear of fundamental alterations. On the more adventurous end of the spectrum, John Baldessari, Holly Roberts, Saul Leiter, and Sam Falls (reviewed here) have treated underlying photos as secondary accomplices in symbiotic arrangements. The wife/husband team Annemarieke van Drimmelen and Jasper Krabbé pulled photos toward abstraction with their recent book June (reviewed here). Gerhard Richter (reviewed here) and Aslı Özçelik have gone a step further still, mixing indexicality and oils like paints on a palette. 

Was Alice Wong aware of these predecessors? That’s hard to say without more information. Her creations seem to fall somewhere in the middle of the transformative range (Wong’s complementary book Man Unraveling explores this spectrum in an ordered sequence). An overpainting of a bridged gorge, for example, honors its original content while calmly obliterating it. We can make out whisps of cloud above a basic road form, but the artwork settles closer to surrealism than photographic document. An underlying picture of a tiled bedroom suffers a similar fate. Masked in great blocks of  yellow, orange, and red, it barely registers as a physical space. Wong applies the same general palette to a monochrome photo of a couple smiling near wall portraits, to gentler effect. While most of the frame is overpainted, she’s left the faces unaltered. Improbably, their greyscale features jump forward against bright colors. Perhaps Wong has a thing for faces? In another image of three women she’s performed the same trick, leaving their heads high and dry in a surrounding sea of paint.

If you like these examples, chances are you’ll enjoy the whole book. The photo sizes and aspects range widely—presumably according to original print dimensions?—but Wong’s basic approach does not. She applies markers to almost every surface with determined relish. She uses a thick pen which leaves a signature brush stroke. Within a frame, she generally leaves each color in its own territory, no mixing. After browsing just a handful of images, her visual style is easily identifiable and distinctive.

Corralled by TBW’s Paul Schiek into book-form, Wong’s overpaintings are arranged into a scattershot layout. Some spreads tuck images into corners, some pages share coupled arrangements, while still other pictures occupy full pages. It’s as if a salon-style gallery hang met a sequenced monograph. The stock paper throughout is uncoated, akin to a gallery wall, and tinted faint grey/green to contrast with Wong’s bold hues. 

The book’s slapdash layout and image selection seem geared to cast Wong is an outsider artist. An interview titled “On Art Brut Photography” by Creative Growth’s Tom Di Maria with Bruno Descharme fosters this impression. Included as a rear-flap insert, it expounds generally on outsider art before honing in on Wong. “She creates a different kind of narrative,” Descharme explains, “a truth that is her own…We often find such a use of color in outsider art.” The full transcription is the only text offered in the book (for more on Descharme’s Photo Brut, see Collector Daily’s review here). It is informative, but unfortunately there is almost no background about Wong, her history or methods. The unspoken implication is that the reader should slot her mentally under the “outsider artist” tag, and let the personal details go.

For me, that’s easier said than done. Who is Alice Wong? My curiosity is piqued by these powerful images. She does fit the Art Brut model in some ways, with an unorthodox style and training. She seems to function outside the art academy, and her paintings might compare to the vintage photo pastiches of folk artists Howard Finster, William Lawrence Hawkins, and C.T. McLusky. But to fix Wong entirely outside the art establishment is misguided. Her exhibition record stretches back a decade, across multiple countries. She’s shown in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris, San Francisco, and Miami. She was curated by Katy Grannan into a group show at Fraenkel Gallery. All of this before being plucked (from obscurity? Hardly) by Paul Schiek for this TBW monograph.

If the “outsider artist” tag is an imperfect fit, this is the same ironic fate of any Photo Brut artist who has gained a degree of recognition. To join the Photo Brut canon is an oxymoron. Of course all such categories are sloppy by nature, and Wong’s career spans easily across borders, just like her markers. With Painting Photographs, her star is likely to ascend. It’s an enjoyable survey and a great introduction to her work. These painted photographs reveal quite a bit about their maker. She even makes a brief appearance in the last one, captioned “Alice and Paulino”. But there is still much to be discovered about Alice Wong.

Collector’s POV: Alice Wong does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via Creative Growth Art Center (here).

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