A month ago, I posted the first installment of my ruminations on Andrew Hem's work. In the interim, Andrew has undertaken a month-long backpacking trip through Cambodia, the land of his birth. That goes to show that Andrew is no procrastinator, because on February 13th his two-person show with Stella Im Hultberg will be opening at Roq la Rue in Seattle. Andrew was also featured in the most recent issue of Hi-Fructose. If you haven't picked it up yet, you should – their reproductions of his paintings are magnificent.
In his newest work, Andrew has shifted into a darker, more muted palette which he achieves with oils rather than his customary acrylics and gouache. His female subjects linger before Old World cityscapes with dramatic skies that suggest an impending storm or the falling of night. Their expressions are calm and perhaps a bit sad as they pause briefly, as if for a snapshot, before going on their way. Their surroundings are deep and atmospheric, and seem somehow outside of time, but retain elements familiar from Andrew's earlier work – majestic animals, vibrant birds, swirling graphic patterns, and enigmatic colorful creatures surreptitiously lurking in the backgrounds. The overall effect is idiosyncratic, haunting and lovely.
As soon as he got back from Asia, Andrew graciously answered a few questions for me, revealing some fascinating details about his work.
Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a little about your experience of growing up. Was anyone in your family an artist? Did any specific events or mentors influence the direction you took in life?
Andrew Hem: My dad was an artist, and an art teacher in Thailand. When my cousins would come over, everyone would say, "I like your dad's painting better." My uncle was a writer, and that inspired me to write. I started out tracing out every one of his works, then moved to magazines. In high school, I traced out a Saber piece in a magazine. I had no clue who he was at the time, but someone came next to me and said, "Oh shit, Saber's in the house." That someone became my lifelong friend.
My story is just like Pose from N.Y. It was hard for me to make friends, but when I started graffiti, I was finally labeled into a group, and that's when I started having friends. I often wonder what would've happened if I never went into graffiti.
EP: When did you realize you were going to be a professional artist? Was there any particular event that gave you the confidence to make the leap from clandestine street murals to fine art?
AH: There is an event that made me switch over. A while ago, me and the guys went to San Francisco with a trunk full of spray paints. The night we were leaving, we painted a big abandoned building. The cops came and took me in and let everyone else go. They thought I was the ringleader. My four days in county jail were horrible, but disappointing my parents was a million times worse.
I think that a majority of graffiti artists pursue the life of an artist or graphic designer after their graffiti career is over – mainly because there aren't that many jobs available for felons. When they turn graffiti into a felony, you kind of have to be self-employed after you get caught. A few of my friends can't find any jobs because of this, and turned to a life of drug dealing.
EP: Shyness seems to be a major subject in your work, and I think you consider yourself to be a fairly shy person. Do you think that being a bit reclusive helped develop your imagination, or was there some other aspect of your life that sparked your creativity?
AH: I lost my shyness when I went to city college, but yeah, it's still a big part of my paintings. I wouldn't say that it helped out my imagination. My creativity usually happens when I'm driving. My mind just wonders when I'm driving – and sometimes when I'm reading.
EP: There is also something quite dramatic about how both you and your characters present yourselves to the world. For instance, despite your retiring nature, you're really into breakdancing – an activity not usually associated with introverts.
AH: It took me one year to get down windmills – a move that usually takes breakers three months – but getting down windmills made me the happiest kid around. For breakers, getting down a move was to show it off the next day in a circle. Even though I got it, the only people who knew were my friends. If I had a mask on, then I would be brave enough to go into a circle.
"Red Monkey and Blue Tattoo"
EP: Recently, you've been painting a number of characters with extraordinary full body tattoos. Their skin almost seems to be a transparent surface that reveals the swirling thoughts and emotions inside – as if they are a glass jar filled up with their memories and feelings. Yet in a way, their tattoos are also a bit like clothing that obscures our view of their bodies – while simultaneously drawing attention to them. It seems that you might be playing upon the intertwining personalities of the introvert and the exhibitionist. Do you feel that there is a juxtaposition of those characteristics in your work, or am I missing the mark?
AH: The full body tattoos are life stories on people. They do have that juxtaposition of introvert and exhibitionist – something I wanted to paint for a while. Even though some of the personalities don't quite work together, I like creating that contrast.
EP: Are these characters based on people you've encountered, or are their narratives springing solely from your imagination?
AH: Oftentimes I start a painting as if I was getting ready to act out a role for a movie. I have to do research on the characters and live a life in their shoes. I would say that it's 50 percent truth and 50 percent made up. I had a friend in school who started his paintings similar to me. He went to Mongolia just for reference for his new series of work. He came back with tons of pics and then just lost interest. He ended up giving me over 300 pics of reference.
EP: Many of your paintings have a dreamlike quality – distorted perspectives, impossible size differentials, the appearance of strange creatures in the backgrounds, and the like. Are you trying to capture dreamlike scenarios on canvas, or are these attributes meant to represent emotional states – or maybe something else altogether?
AH: I love creating worlds that do not exist. A world where people don't care about others' appearance, and nobody has to worry about fitting in or being an outcast. Where everyone is accepted. No necks, long arms, no nose, blue faces are all normal. This is a world that doesn't exist, and that's why I love creating it. I've experienced and witnessed too many times where people are disgusted with the different.
EP: Throughout your work, colorful rounded blank-faced creatures – some of which seem semi-human – intermingle with people in everyday environments, and occasionally peek surreptitiously from behind a car or building. Though they are often surrounded by these odd beings, the people appear to be oblivious to them. Sometimes these creatures seem as if they could represent feelings, or memories, or just the impersonal teeming masses that surround us in everyday life. They also feel like they could be a bit of a legacy from your graffiti days. How do you intend them to be perceived?
AH: People usually think I'm crazy, but I believe in UFOs and ghosts. I had a ghost experience when I was a kid that scared me until I was about 16. I took me several years to be brave enough to be home alone. I won't get into the story, because the few whom I've told think I'm crazy. But those blank faces are spirits to me, floating around trying to find their path. I've really had no experiences with UFOs, but I'm positive they're out there.
EP: You seem to have a real affection for birds, as you feature them prominently in many of your paintings. Do they have a special significance for you?
AH: I love birds, especially colorful ones. My fascination began when I went to Europe and got to see birds up close and in person. Over there, birds are not scared of humans.
EP: Recently, you've been depicting quite a few endangered species, such as lion tamarins, wolves, tigers, lions, pandas and bears.
AH: I love discovering about new animals. I'd never seen a lion tamarin before, so when I first found about it, I was pretty blown away. That's when I really started looking into other endangered animals. Going to zoos in Asia was amazing, because there were so many endangered animals I never knew existed. For me, it's like documenting something rare.
"Prey and Pray"
EP: You have a close attachment to your grandmother – you once said that if you were ever forced to get a tattoo, you would want it to be your grandmother's name in Khmer script. Sometimes you use Khmer lettering in your work, as well. Could you tell me a little bit more about that? Have you spent much time in Cambodia?
AH: I just recently went to Cambodia. I never went back since birth until now. My grandma raised me when I was young. It was hard for me to communicate with her, because she didn't speak English and I didn't speak Cambodian. I would try so hard to communicate, but I was just too young to pick up things. Now I feel like I can communicate, and she is not around for me to talk to. The reason I tried to learn how to write and speak Cambodian was because of her.
"Wait For It"
EP: Even though you've established yourself as an illustrator and gallery artist, you still find time – and take risks – to paint on the street. What in particular about the clandestine nocturnal enhancement of the city still excites you?
AH: I still hunger for it. I have friends who are still active in the scene, and I want to paint whenever I can, but it's kind of hard when you're constantly painting.
EP: Recently, you've been exploring different media – oil on canvas, gouache on board, and acrylic on paper. Does your choice of subject drive which medium you use? When you move from one medium to the other, does your method change at all? Do you prefer one over the other these days?
AH: I tend to turn form more when I paint with oils. Gouache forces me to be graphic, and acrylic is the in-between medium. Each medium has its own specialty and strength. Before I start a painting, I always think about which would look better. Right now, all my illustrations are done in gouache and my personal pieces are done with oils.
EP: Your personal work has recently been evolving toward a richer, more atmospheric palette and deeper architectural environments with an Old World feeling. You seem to be quite fascinated with painting cathedrals at the moment. What prompted your move in that direction?
AH: My interests are culture, patterns, and architecture. I backpacked across Europe back in 2002, and didn't start painting cathedrals until now. I recently was looking at my photo album and it just hit me. I just came back from Asia, and I think my new series of work will include straw houses.
EP: Are there any great painters or illustrators from the past who inspire you? What aspect of their work do you find intriguing?
AH: Van Gogh for his life story and his colors, and Henry Darger for his life story.
"The Wizard Will See You Now"
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring at the moment?
AH: Right now, my inspiration is Cambodia. I'd never been to a third world country before, and I don't think I can ever forget it.
EP: Favorite esoteric or archaic word?
EP: What are you excited about right now? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
AH: I'm thinking about my next trip, next year. It's either going to be Brazil or Peru.
EP: Thanks, Andrew!
Make sure to check out Andrew Hem's latest work at Roq la Rue in Seattle on February 13th. If you'd like to find out more about him, you can read my earlier profile of him here.