INTERVIEW: Gary Wong on Growing Up in Los Angeles, Becoming an Artist, and His Solo Show at Lisa Derrick Fine Arts
Los Angeles artist Gary Wong’s first solo show of his career, “Allegory and Cypher,” opens Saturday, January 26, at Lisa Derrick Fine Arts, a new gallery in Chinatown. Wong was born in Oakland, but his family migrated to Los Angeles when he was around three or four. He grew up downtown, on the east side of Main (in the 20s between San Pedro and Central Ave), and has been making art since he was young. He worked as an art handler for about 35 years, all while continuing to make his own art and music. Wong is part of the California Locos art collective, and in 2018, he created an installation as part of Art at The Rendon’s Hidden Rooms. He currently lives in South Pasadena.
When did you first start making art?
You want to start at the beginning? I went to nursery school around the corner from my house at a church community center. Like all three or four year old kids, you’re out in the yard painting on those easels with poster paint and newsprint. Everybody was painting what you at that age are familiar with—a tree, some lawn, a bird, a sun… stuff like that. So I’m going right along doing the same thing as everybody, enjoying my activity, and a little girl next to me came over and was looking at my work and started laughing. Before I could ask what was so funny, half the class was over there, laughing. The teacher came over and said, “What’s up?” and she said, “Don’t you know that the sky is blue, and grass is green, and the sun is yellow?”
I said, “Of course! Of course I know that.” The only thing was, I didn’t know I was colorblind. That’s when I discovered that I had a different way of looking at things, so to speak. It was through the activity of painting that, at that point, I knew there was something there for me. Not consciously, but it made an impression to where it’s one of my earliest social remembrances. And it had to deal with perception, so I’ve always been intrigued.
Grammar school through junior high school, I would win contests to go to summer camp by doing a poster or get a government bond for doing a poster about the U.S. Constitution, so I’ve always been doing stuff.
Around junior high school, I used to ride the trains. I used to ride the rails to get across town. I used to go to the county museum when it was over at Exposition Park and look at paintings. It was the only place that you could go see art. I would find my way over there, because it wasn’t that far from 21st Street to Exposition Park. I was always doing activities that nobody else was really into, and that included music as well, because I was surrounded by all kinds of music.
I’d also go out and hang out with people in Venice. I’d take the train all the way out from Downtown. I used to go and hang out with the beatniks at Venice West and the Gas House. Funny enough, there was graffiti written on one of the walls that said “Art is God is Love.” I must’ve been in ninth grade or tenth grade when I read that, and it stuck with me ever since. I had this kind of beatnik, underground attitude where I’d champion Kienholz and I’d champion Wally Berman and I’d champion Altoon. I’d champion all the bohemian guys, because I just dug their attitude—all the Dharma bums. I was a young wannabe, looking for something that wasn’t common or run of the mill. A vehicle to communicate whatever it is that I’m trying to say.
Top, Anima Sola by Gary Wong. Above, Gary Wong painting at Art at the Rendon’s Hidden Rooms installation
How did you get interested in music?
Where I lived was two blocks from the corner, and on the two corners that were across from each other were two Holy Roller churches, and each one would have their weekend meetings. That’s when they stay all day and pretty much live in the church and eat and sing and worship all day, all weekend. And I’d sit up on my roof, because when they’d start playing music, sometimes both churches would be playing music at the same time, but they’d be playing different tunes. So it was a crazy cacophony of sound.
When did you first start playing music?
Around that time as well. My art and my music have been kind of concurrent, but I didn’t study music, because I found out I was dyslexic. I found out when I was trying out for band in junior high school. I was already in chorus, singing in choirs and quartets and all kinds of choral arrangements, so when I went to junior high, I wanted to get in the band and learn an instrument, but I couldn’t read the music, because the flatted notes and things would all tumble off the page. In that way, I kind of had another reckoning in terms of my perception. I had to learn everything by ear. I couldn’t take music, because I couldn’t read it.
I majored in art in high school, because I couldn’t get into music. I’m one of the only guys I know that my senior year, I had five periods of art. I just ended up making the classroom my studio. I was also a jazz aficionado, so I would have a record player playing jazz all the time.
Portrait of Gary Wong by Mark Dektor Photography
What did you do after high school?
I went to City College for a year. I didn’t know what I wanted to do professionally. I got into graphic art there and washed out before the year was up, mainly because I had a drug problem that I had acquired in high school. I was naïve and didn’t know I was addicted until there was nothing available to me. My life experience had changed so it was a difficult year. I was still living at home, then my parents told me, “Either the army or school.”
I dreaded all of it, but it made me think about what it was that I would do. I applied to Art Center, which at that time was over on 3rd Street and I applied to Chouinard, and I think County wanted too much paperwork or something. I don’t know. I wasn’t interested. I was interested in going to Art Center, because at that time, it was geared toward trying to find a profession in commercial or graphic art or something, but it didn’t really suit me. I made the tours of the campuses, and Art Center rejected me, and I sent all my posters, which were all kind of impressionistic—that became my portfolio—to Chouinard, and they accepted me. I ended up at Chouinard and that was when my whole life changed in terms of finding direction and being around people that were kind of like me and had the same interests.
I’d sit on my roof and the churches would be jamming and around the corner, a Mexican family would be having a little quinceañera or something and they’d have a mariachi band. Down the street was the Big Room, where they had this jukebox with the blues and oldies, next to the liquor store that had a record bin. So music and art, I’m doing all this stuff at the same time, running around town. I eventually would find myself outside of nightclubs because I couldn’t get in, listening to music. I’d go to live radio shows. I’d go downtown and see my first stage show at the Ace when it was United Artists, and that was a cat named Jackie Wilson. It was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it ever again.
My art vocabulary got wider, so now here I am at Chouinard, and this is it—I’d made it to mecca, I felt like. In the middle ‘60s, it was the center of the universe for art and psychedelia, and all my classmates are renowned or revered. They’re out there in the world doing their thing. I studied with Woelffer and I studied with Kanemitsu and I got something from both of them that I thought was really essential. Through Woelffer, I got a sense of spirituality and abstraction, and from Kanemitsu, I got the soulfulness of the brush and the awareness of strokes and kind of that sumi quality.
Kanemitsu and Woelffer were highly influential. 99% of the instructors at Chouinard were working artists. Madame Chouinard was definitely about that. She brought in highly regarded and highly trained people that had stuff to say. You learn by hanging with these guys, and you find that the things you’re interested in, they’re interested in.
Can you talk a little about how you got involved with the California Locos?
Dave Tourjé was having an art show out in Beverly Hills, an exhibition of his sculptures and things, and they asked him if he would give a talk at the closing. He had a brilliant idea, and said, “Why don’t I bring some of my friends and we can have a talk?”
They said, “Oh, sure, great,” so he called Norton and John Van Hamersveld and Chaz and myself, and Mary Anna Pomonis, and asked Mary Anna if she would run this panel. We just had an all-out discussion and it was pretty cool. That was the beginning of the Locos, and we said, “We ought to do more of this.” We were trying to come up with name ideas, and Chaz said, “California Locos.” We said, “Yep, that’s it.” That’s pretty much how it all started—at Dave’s behest.
How did the show at Lisa Derrick Fine Arts happen?
Lisa pitched it me, and my first thing was, I’d like to show the Cypher stuff, my new stuff, of course. You know, new gallery, new stuff—but it’s not ready. I’m still kind of working on it. I’m from the old school, “You don’t hang it if it’s still wet.” It won’t be ready, but what I have ready is the last stuff that I did with the Locos, and the stuff I’ve showed with the Locos.
In looking back and taking a critical look at what I was doing, I realize it was all, for the last fifteen or maybe twenty years, a re-consciousness. A rediscovery of myself and what it was that I needed to know about myself to move forward as an artist. In that regard, I’m calling that part of the show Allegory to represent that body of work. The feedback on that work I wasn’t into at all. I just said, “Man, what do people see? I have no idea.” I like my work, don’t get me wrong, but there are elements I’m critical about, and I said, the thing I need to do is remove the images, remove the figure out of the painting. What am I left with, and what do I do with that? What I’m left with is the scratching of the words, the uses of words going backwards and forward, and the ground.
Endymion 6 by Gary Wong
What is your creative process like?
A key that I hold onto as a director in my work, how I propel myself forward, and what elements I use, is obscuring. I was told once by a famous artist that when you obscure something, people are curious to see what’s behind it. That’s a heavy notion, but with that comes transparency, so there are technical elements there. It’s still one of the things I hold onto.
The other two things that are essential in my aesthetic value are “Don’t be too cute” and “Don’t be too serious.” If you’re too cute, you lose the serious audience. If you’re too serious, you lose the cute audience. If you find that you can do something in between that grooves with you and get there in an honest discovery way, however you get there… that you get there is the main thing. Grandma Moses, right?
I find in my painting that I’m dealing with visual vibrations. With music, it’s aural vibrations, and with writing, it creates another vibration. They all involve the creative process, and the creative process is interchangeable. We’ll find a muse, a platform, and we need a vehicle in order to express what we’re trying to communicate, whether it’s as visual communication, a musical vibration, or writing. I read poetry. I don’t read as much as I used to, but I read a lot of esoteric stuff as well, and I use this esoteric information and knowledge, because there’s a lot of beauty in it, a lot of soulfulness in chants and in mantras. My favorite poets—I use Urdu, Persian… Rumi, Hafiz… I use ghazals, shayari. I use Japanese zen writings on space. My favorite Irish poet, John O’Donahue; my favorite American poet, Jim Harrison; my favorite hobo, Leon Ray Livingston.
Are those the kinds of things you’re writing in your Cypher work?
I am writing poems, I’m writing mantras. I’m writing texts, I’m writing stories. I’m writing in languages I don’t understand, mainly because I like the structure of the phonetics, the way the word looks—the lettering. It all comes out of my own esoteric experiences, I guess. Things that I like, I write about. I write about it, and I know it’s there. If I’m writing a mantra, I’m meditating as I paint, because the painting becomes a meditation in itself. Essentially, because I’m a meditator, I’m freeing myself up from the physicality of it all and trusting in everything that I know about abstract painting, American abstraction, formal abstraction, and the history from Monet on. I’m free from all of that to create now, because I have destroyed what I have created, and out of that, I have taken—like a Jupiter Return—taken the essence of the good stuff from that body of work, propelling it into the now and into the future.
I think this is my mature work. I haven’t felt this way about anything, and I also recognize that I’ve been looking for this my whole painting career. When Lisa Derrick said she’s opening a gallery, and would I join the stable and let her represent me, I said, “This is the perfect opportunity.”
Do you still play music, too?
I’m retired actively, but I go out where there’s players that I know and sit in. If I show up, they usually let me do my thing. Usually on Tuesday nights, up in Hollywood at this place called the Bronson Bar on Sunset and Bronson, my guitar player and parts of my band play. I’ll go up late and sit in and do a few songs.
Allegory and Cypher Opening Reception:
January 26, 2019 (7 – 10 pm)
Lisa Derrick Fine Arts
961 Chung King Road
Los Angeles, CA 90012