Born and raised in New York City, mixed-media artist Vincent Chung layers sewn textiles with vibrant neon fixtures to create works that eschew the traditions of classical painting. His spontaneous, ever-changing creations, made with materials such as cotton, dirt, oil, and debris, instead speak to a contemporary existence, one that embraces imperfection and fleeting emotions. But despite the unpredictability and ethereality of Chung’s work, which evolves—or better yet morphs—as the light surrounding it changes, there is something comforting, familiar, and even harmonious there. And it’s a place we want to be.
We recently spoke with the Phoenix-based artist, who moved to the Valley of the Sun nine years ago, to learn more about his process and the meaning behind the materials he uses.
Here’s Vincent Chung, in his own words, on deriving inspiration from family, imperfection, and light.
“I am curious about how light can cause changes in human emotions and the memories that can be recalled by looking at something as simple as a color.”
Vincent Chung. Photo credit: Thomas Ingersoll.
PhxArt: What first inspired you to pursue art?
Vincent Chung: Like most immigrants, my parents were sold on the American dream. They emigrated from Malaysia because moving here meant an opportunity for a better life. My father was a furniture maker, and my mother was a seamstress who worked in garment factories when she first moved to the United States. When I was a kid, she would take me with her to work after school. I changed the threads, loaded the machines, and carried bundles of designer dresses and jackets to other stations. These memories left such an impression on me that I decided to incorporate the skills she used into my storytelling. I eventually inherited a sewing machine from my mother, and this narrative of my childhood and my relationship with her and her work is told through the textiles I work with, some of which take hours, days, or even weeks to complete. The act of sewing the pieces together for each painting is how the work really comes alive for me.
Vincent Chung, you’re still a mystery to me, 2020. Acrylic, olive oil, oil sticks, dirt, spray paint, and curtain samples on sewn canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Did you always know you wanted to be a professional artist?
Chung: A career in the arts isn’t easy to pursue, especially as a first generation American born to immigrant parents. I experienced poverty at a young age, and it left a lasting impact on me. I was constantly pressured to choose a traditional career path such as doctor or engineer. Additionally, being good at art was not considered “cool” in the neighborhood I grew up in. However, art had a hold on me, and eventually, I moved to Arizona in 2011 to pursue my dreams.
PhxArt: A lot of artists move to New York City to jumpstart their art careers. Why did you decide to leave and move to Arizona instead? Were there specific opportunities here, and does the desert inspire your work at all?
Chung: I came to Arizona because I needed a change of pace. Prior to moving here, the furthest west I had been was Philadelphia. I came out here for school knowing no one. I had never even visited. Let’s just say it was a leap of faith.
There’s this social stigma that hovers around the Asian culture, and as kids, we’re not exposed to individualism like most Americans. As I said, I was constantly pressured to choose a traditional career path, and that expectation was not easy to break out of because I was afraid of causing disappointment. I actually graduated with an architecture degree and covertly dove into the art world by getting an additional degree in design. In my culture, we’re taught to respect and please our elders, so studying both architecture and design was my way of pleasing both parents as well as myself.
The big takeaways from my studies, which translate into my work today, is the understanding of scale and proportion. In architecture, we’re often designing on a large scale, and in my work, it is the complete opposite setting. But the same rules still apply. I think about many elements when starting a work, from choosing my colors to the size of the painting. Questions I often ask myself are: “How do I envision this piece to sit?” and “What colors can change the space and force a perspective that makes space larger than it actually is?” I also think about vertical versus horizontal orientation and the color of the subject versus the radiance of the neon light. I also always consider how I want my audience to feel with the afterglow.
For me, I find inspiration everywhere, in ordinary, everyday life, from the texture of materials, to the color of an Arizona sunset.
Vincent Chung, ..lavender and velvet, 2018. Acrylic, oil stick, pen, oil pastel, spray paint, vegetable oil, and neon on sewn canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What stories do you aim to share through your art, and what are the media that you prefer to work in?
Chung: My intention with my art is to continue to celebrate and honor the techniques my parents taught me. The process and the materials I use are what really inspire me to keep creating. In this age of instant gratification, we often let the details go unnoticed. I decided to confront the preciousness of traditional paintings by embracing raw materials. I purposely leave hanging threads, frays of ripped cotton and/or linen, exposed seams, and wires.
In addition to materials that resonate with memories of my childhood, I work with media that have a life of their own, like dirt, debris, and cooking oil. The inherent lack of control represented by these organic materials is what attracts me, which I think stems from my interest in the unpredictable nature of life and trying to embrace all the imperfections.
I have also become interested in the ever-changing relationship light has with the world around me. I am curious about how light can cause changes in human emotions and the memories that can be recalled by looking at something as simple as a color. That’s why I began experimenting with neon—because not only does it create another dimension in my work, but as time lapses throughout the day, so does your experience with the piece as natural light begins to dissipate. The sewn iconographies in my work mixed with the radiance of the neon is my way of storytelling.
Vincent Chung, sun was high (& so was i), 2020. Acrylic, engine oil, oil sticks, dirt, scotch tape, irrigation strings. pastel, spray paint, and neon on sewn dyed canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: Tell use more about these iconographies. What are the images you most like to repeat in your work, and what do they mean to you?
Chung: I incorporate images that resemble or represent the gamut of human emotion. Though all my sewn iconographies are subjective, I’d like for them to trigger some memory or thought. The tough part of making art is that once you make something and put it out there for everyone to judge, your intention doesn’t necessarily exist anymore, so I try to separate myself a little bit from what I hope people can walk away with after looking at something. At times, even if the subject is comprehensible, what drives me is the mystery that keeps people hanging on, their takeaway, their perspective.
PhxArt: Who are your greatest artistic influences?
Chung: James Turrell, Dan Flavin, and Yayoi Kasuma are all inspirations for me. I admire their ability to transform a space into something otherworldly, which is what I hope to achieve with my work. Jay-Z has also had a huge influence on me. His life story is one I relate to on a deep level.
Vincent Chung, romantic apology, 2020. Acrylic, avocado oil, oil sticks, dirt, spray paint, burlap, metallic vinyl, old t-shirt, and neon on sewn canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
PhxArt: What are some works or series you’re currently working on or have recently exhibited?
Chung: I had plans this year to exhibit works around the idea of saying “I’m sorry” and “I love you” at the same time. I call it a “romantic apology.” This work incorporates florals, a tribute to love. Some of the pieces in the series include neon, creating a glow that, as natural light fades, intensifies before engulfing the room. This effect creates a whole new space for the user(s).
PhxArt: What can our community expect to see next from you?
Chung: I have an idea for an exhibition titled “romantic apology” that will feature my recent work. It will engage the user’s senses through paintings that glow with light and incorporate directional speakers that emit sounds. This experience will hopefully trigger a memory or thought. I want to create a show that changes a person’s mood from piece to piece. I hope I can pull this off in 2021, or whenever the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Vincent Chung, tell me a story, 2020. Acrylic, avocado oil, oil sticks, dirt, spray paint, and metallic vinyl on sewn canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.
Vincent Chung is currently represented by Guy Hepner Art Gallery in New York City. To see more of his work, visit guyhepner.com.
We’re curious how creatives are navigating the time of coronavirus. Vincent Chung shares what’s giving him life as a creative during quarantine.
Chung: COVID-19 has impacted everyone around the globe both physically and mentally. I have been taking more time to reminisce about easier times, and music has been my escape. I’ve been listening to music from my childhood—lots of ’90s and 2000s hip-hop and R&B. For me, it doesn’t get any better than that.