Friday, December 26, 2008

Andrew Hem's Oblique Perspective

If you were to see Andrew Hem out in public, he might remind you of one of the characters he paints – breezing by with a shy but affable sideways glance, his smile partly obscured by a trailing scarf. At 27, he has won the respect of his peers as a street artist, established himself as a freelance illustrator and made a solid start at a career as a gallery artist. Andrew insists that he's "as boring as they come," but I find that a little hard to believe, so this will be the first of a two-part profile of Andrew, with the second installment being an interview.


The characters in Andrew's paintings are caught in quiet moments of reverie, worry, distraction, realization or self-expression. Their gaze is usually averted – as if their attention is directed inward – and when they do address the viewer directly, they often do so with a particular power and intensity that makes it clear that this moment is a rare, meaningful, soul-baring instant in their otherwise private lives.

"Stuffed Animals"

Andrew has a real talent for describing character and emotion in a variety of different ways – often with a touch of humor – and the aesthetic he developed while working as a graffiti artist leads to balanced, flowing compositions with interwoven layers that build upon each other. His palette tends toward cool muted green and blue tones with delicious touches of red that provide energy and warmth – though recently he's been exploring darker, more atmospheric environments.

"Hey Jude"

Although he was born in Cambodia, Andrew grew up on the mean streets of L.A. In 1981, when he was just four months old, his parents fled Cambodia, displaced by the genocide the Khmer Rouge perpetrated on Cambodia's urban and intellectual classes in the late 1970s and the invasion and occupation of Cambodia by Viet Nam in 1979.

"Khmer Rouge"

Eventually, his family arrived in Los Angeles. Andrew's mother opened a doughnut shop, where his skill at capturing character had a chance to blossom. He recalled:

"I worked at my mom's donut shop for 11 years! I started when I was 12. It was the best job ever. We had one customer per hour, so by the time my parents sold the place, I ended up with 19 full-page sketchbooks."


Growing up an immigrant kid in a tough neighborhood wasn't easy, and the trials and tribulations Andrew experienced would later have a profound impact on his art. In an interview with Guu Press, he explained:

"I've always been the shy guy growing up. I grew up in a place where I was one of the few Asians in an all-Hispanic community. This led to many occasions where I got beaten up and picked on because of my race. I think this is the reason why I’m so shy.

I tend to paint scenes with tons of people, which is strange, all things considered. A lot of my paintings are like still shots of my life. When I'm driving, my mind wanders off and I think about the past. I’ll get home and draw several quick sketches of that particular memory."


"Bullies made my middle school years really tough. I remember every time my mom bought me a new pair of shoes, I’d put mud on them. If any bully found out that I’d gotten new shoes, I’d walk home shoeless. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been jumped.

My friends and I found a way of prevention, after years of getting punked. Every time we’d see a group of gangsters hanging around, we’d find a rock and start kicking it. We'd kick it off the path, and start a whole new route away from them."


Andrew began tagging on the streets when he was 12 – an occupation which would earn him enough credibility in the halls of his high school to give him some much-needed breathing room.

"By the time I got to high school the bullying had ended, probably because I was winning the respect of gangsters and taggers. While every tagger was getting up in the school bathroom, I was the only one going out on the streets every night. By my senior year, a gangster approached me and asked if I was a tagger. I thought history was going to repeat itself, so I said no. But he told me to keep up the good work, and then said my name."

"Ill Squad"

For nine years, Andrew ran with a crew that included talented writers like Dzeas, Rek2, Lifer and Zoueh, developing the composition and design skills which still serve him well. Though he remains close to his graffiti roots, lately he's been seeking a more settled existence as a fine artist.

After high school, he considered becoming an architect, but when he took a figure drawing class during his last semester at Santa Monica College, he immediately realized that he needed to pursue painting as a career. Toward that end, he enrolled at Art Center College of Design, graduating in 2006 – though he never completely gave up embellishing the streets of Los Angeles.


In an excellent 2007 interview, Andrew described the distinction between painting on the street and in the studio.

"It’s different in many ways. One, the street is never booked for the whole year. It's always accepting submissions and showing to the public. That can be a bad thing a majority of times, because kids who are just starting will paint on anything, anywhere. More people will see your work on the streets, but you're only capturing the interest of other graffiti artists. Gallery work, on the other hand, captures the interest of many people, including those who don't do art.

It's a totally different feeling once you see a piece on a canvas. When I'm painting on a canvas, I have a strong light source, so I can get great details. When I'm on the streets, I use bright colors because there’s no light source at all."


"Graffiti is basically a game of design. You're constantly thinking about the composition and placement of your letters. Each letter should be consistent with the others and should flow. When I'm painting on canvas I think about the same thing, but instead of using letters, I use figures. Each figure is like a letter to me, so I’m always thinking of the best way to arrange the figures so they connect. Color, composition and value are strongly emphasized for both lifestyles. However, on canvas I also think about focal point and texture."

Andrew's expertise with creating flowing text designs has also found its way into a lot of his gallery work. On canvas, his lettering can take the form of freeform calligraphy, bubbly retro lettering, or even a blocky, stylized take on Khmer script.


Though there is often an element of the imagination in Andrew's paintings, they are usually based on observations from real life. Most days, he takes long bike rides through the city, punctuated by sketching breaks that yield material for the studio work he does into the wee hours of the night – a creative schedule he believes was fixed by his years of clandestine nocturnal tagging.

"Often paintings are inspired from quick sketches through observation of my surroundings. Paintings like 'Spring Dance' and 'Bus' are based on quick sketches that I did on napkins. I try to carry a sketchbook with me wherever I go, but usually forget and end up having tons of sketches on receipts and napkins."


Andrew is also known for his matchbox paintings, which group together a wide range of characters – from realistic portraits to caricatures and even odd creatures – often interspersed with intriguing bits of text. Even though he's painted hundreds of them, he still feels that "making matchboxes is fun – but making the frames for them is boring."

"I don't know why it's so fun to paint on a matchbox. I guess it’s kinda like eating potato chips – you can’t just stop at one. I used to collect them, but by accident spilled paint on my favorite 1920 Cuban matchbox. I was so upset, but by the next day I’d decided to paint a face on it."

Currently, Andrew's work is evolving into interesting new areas, with intriguing Old World architectural details, dreamlike distorted perspectives and ominous atmospheric environments. Be sure to mark your calendar to check out his next show at Roq la Rue on February 13th, where he will be unveiling some work that explores this new direction.

If you'd like to find out more about Andrew Hem, you can read my interview with him here.

"Bigger Than"

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