Interview with Mandy Tsung
February 22, 2016
Recently, I was feeling nostalgic on a particularly overcast afternoon and decided to dig up a box with random memorabilia of my past. We all have one of these boxes with seemingly trivial items, filled to the brim with memories. While gently removing photographs and trinkets, I came upon little notes I had made myself about five years ago. These little pieces of paper contained little scribbles of songs I connected with, random thoughts I had, and the one that struck me as the most interesting: a short list containing the names of artists I loved. At the top of my list was Mandy Tsung- followed by Natalia Fabia, David Kassan, Stephan Balleux, Patricia Piccinini, and Audrey Kawasaki.
This is so noteworthy because this was a time in my life when I first got sucked in by art- I visited every art gallery and museum I could, I scoured the internet for pieces of work that delighted my senses, and read countless articles and books concerning contemporary art. Now, I have Mandy Tsung in my inbox. We’re discussing her work and engaging concepts she explores… and I couldn’t be more thrilled. It was a wonderful opportunity to interview the immensely talented Mandy about her upcoming beautiful.bizarre-curated group exhibition ‘Aestheticism’ at Vanilla Gallery in Tokyo Japan (4 – 23 April 2016), her artistic story, and her depiction of the female form. It’s hard to fully describe how delightful it is to watch artists grow and evolve through years of engagement with their body of work. It’s a little funny how certain things come full circle.
It was the flowing lines and deep sensuality of Mandy’s work that first drew me in. Her depiction of the female form and the personas of badass women enticed me. Her imaginative and striking creations seem to capture a breadth of relatable emotions and a subtle vulnerability. Mandy also keeps in touch with her own multicultural heritage by beautifully representing females with a half-Asian identity. Perhaps the most captivating aspect of her stylized work, though, is how at first glance, with their bold colors and weaving lines one has the tendency to think “wow, how beautiful!” or be amazed by the technically proficient way Mandy applies the pencil or paint to her canvas. Underneath though, Mandy grapples with some intersectional feminist concepts while capturing the identities of women she relates to and connects with. This captivating layer of Mandy’s work is so intensely important and relevant to today’s society and her work is perhaps her way of shouting this important topic from metaphorical rooftops. She isn’t afraid to fearlessly identify with, advocate for, and embody the feminist rhetoric.
The drawings and paintings Mandy brings forth into the world bridge the gap between beauty, reflection, and representation while perfectly balancing aesthetically-pleasing forms and conceptual depth.
beautiful.bizarre: Firstly, what are your plans for your piece for the beautiful.bizarre curated Aestheticism show at Vanilla Gallery? What are you hoping to achieve aesthetically and conceptually?
Mandy Tsung: For Aestheticism, my pieces are a continuation of my recent series concerning how to depict the female form in a way that expands past the narrow beauty standards that women are pressured to fit into. There are endless wonderful directions that can take, however, so I’ve tried simplifying things down to what I relate to the most – the concepts of mixed-race identity, queer identity, and female empowerment. I don’t know how obvious this will be in the pieces, but at the very least people can approach them with these things in mind.
BB: You typically depict the female form in your pieces. How do you choose your subjects? How do you go about conveying their essence and their emotions?
MT: Because I’m choosing to focus on mixed-race identity at the moment, my models are mixed and mostly of half-Asian descent. I often use myself as a model but I have some close friends who also model for me. The fact that I am very close to them is important because I know that we relate on many levels. I do juggle with creating work that is about who I’m painting i.e. “portraiture”, as opposed to being about expressing something within myself. The two are quite different and can inhibit each other if I’m not sure which direction I’m going for in a piece. I often use myself so that I’m not hindered by fears of how I’m representing the model, but ultimately there is always an aspect of myself in the work because I only have my own emotions to guide me. Even if someone else is telling me how they feel or I see something in their face, I only know how that feels based on my own interpretation.
BB: How has your style evolved throughout your career as an artist? How are you hoping to challenge yourself/evolve over the next few years?
MT: My style has certainly evolved as I’ve evolved. When I started, I was very enamored with fashion & beauty magazines, and so would pull my reference material from those. I always mixed the features from various models of different ethnicities but I wasn’t as aware of racism and gender politics as I am now. When I stopped reading those magazines and started taking my own photos of people I knew, I think I started to find my own voice. But it’s definitely been my growing awareness of feminism, specifically intersectional feminism, that has spurred me to think hard about what I’m doing and the kind of effect I want to have on the world. I also had to realize that I can’t “save” everyone with my art; that it’s not my place to do that, so I need to focus on what directly affects me. My challenge now is simply to stick with what feels right, based on everything I know, and not to let my fears about what others may think limit me. I read recently that fear and shame are tools of control used by those in power, which really angered me knowing that my life has been shaped by those feelings not as a byproduct of my choices, but as a deliberate way of keeping me quiet and invisible. It made me want to really embrace the things about myself that are challenging to current social structures and, in doing so, I know this will lead me to make more thematically challenging work in the future.
BB: Can you expand more on your interest in and the societal importance of intersectional feminism?
MT: For me, the most important aspects of intersectionality are that it acknowledges many other factors outside of gender – such as race, class, sexuality, disability, etc – as being interconnected with sexism. I also find that the community is inclusive of transgender people and sex workers, whereas previous generations of feminism go so far as to be hostile towards them. It’s hypocritical to exclude anyone from the conversation given the fact that feminists are fighting to be included. So we must listen to all voices, especially those of the most vulnerable groups, because they know the faults in our system better than anyone. Having friends of all kinds, I’ve learned the most from listening when they take issue with things I’ve done because it made me realize just how unconsciously ingrained so many biases are within every person, even myself. I don’t get a free pass to be ignorant of what others experience just because I experience sexism. It’s taken a lot of effort to be more conscientious of the things I say and do, but it’s worth it. Turns out it feels really good to understand others better, by becoming more accepting of everyone I’ve also learned to love myself a lot more.
BB: How do you describe your personal style?
MT: The word “ferocious” pops into my mind a lot when I’m deciding on how I want my work to look, although I wouldn’t say that that is what is conveyed in all of my paintings. The image of a woman as all-powerful, and at the same time emotionally vulnerable, is really uplifting for me to create. As much as I want to move away from beauty, it’s still present in my work and I’ve tried to just be okay with that. John Currin has said that you need to beat some things to death in your work because the most interesting results will come near the end (he was speaking about the use of pornography in his own work). My tendency is towards meticulous rendering of the human body and so I’m trying to use that to my advantage in the themes I’m exploring. Bright colour is also something I gravitate to because it hits such an emotional key, both for me while I’m painting and for the viewer. It took me a long time to accept what makes my work “mine” and not to try to push it to look like whichever artist I’m currently obsessing over. I’ve been dealing with a few work-related health issues as of late, (take care of your bodies, kids!!) which has forced me to be very efficient with my health/time by focusing on my strengths.
BB: I’m really interested to know what your process is like? How do you move from ideation, to execution, to completion?
MT: I always start with my emotions – “What is the most pressing feeling that needs to be expressed?”
It’s very much my therapy. I like to have a lot of reference photos on hand for when I’m ready to start something new, so I’ll do reference shoots with tons of different poses long before I know I’ll need them. When it’s time to start a piece, I flip through all of those photos until something grabs me and then I do sketches to work things out. During this stage, I’m playing with how I might alter things to give the work the right feeling but I try not to polish things so completely that I lose the inspiration to create the finished piece. I used to leave more room for experimentation but, with tight deadlines and only a few hours of working time per day due to my health, I now try to plan as much as possible. So for the final painting, I like to draw in everything to a high level of finish so it acts like an underpainting, before going over top with glazes/washes of paint.
BB: What is your artistic story? What drives you to create? What compels you to take your ideas/passions and translate them to a visual image?
MT: For me, art is a compulsion. It’s something that I need to do in order to feel balanced and satisfied, it’s a way to process things that happen in the world, and to learn about who I am. Art offers so much opportunity to question everything and the freedom to make mistakes. I also create as a form of communication, so it’s important to me that people see the work. I’m terrible at verbalizing my feelings, but I can draw them or write them down without inhibition. I see so much inequality and strife in the world and as much as I’d like to take a front-line position in changing things, I just don’t have the energy or toughness to deal with the stresses of those kinds of jobs, so I make art and write words that hopefully open people’s eyes.
BB: What does 2016 hold for you? What shows do you have coming up?
MT: In 2016 I’ll be showing for the first time in Tokyo as part of “Aestheticism”, with beautiful.bizarre and Vanilla Gallery. I’ve also been asked to write a monograph on art and feminism for a great publisher called Von Zos, which I’m very excited to do. The new Wes Anderson art book will have my work in it, thanks to Spoke Art, and I’ll be participating in a few other group shows at Baker+Hesseldenz and Gauntlet Gallery. I’ll be in a show exploring half-Asian identity at Untitled Art Space in Vancouver in August, which is being organized by Nomi Chi.