On January 16th, we're in for a rare pleasure, as Andrew Hem's solo exhibit, "One Leads To Another," will be opening at LeBasse Projects in Culver City. If you're new to Andrew's work, you might want to skip backwards to the in-depth interview I did with him a year ago, on the occasion of his last solo show.
"Beginning of an Era"
Exploring a vivid dream-palette of twilight blues with splashes of brick-red and bursts of golden light that blaze forth unexpectedly, Andrew is moving toward more dynamic compositions with deeper layers of texture, atmosphere and meaning. His lifelong fascination with architecture and multiculturalism are at the forefront in this body of work, which envisions an alternate history in which his native Cambodia was never devastated by the genocide of the Khmer Rouge era, and the countless thousands of children who died during that period – not to mention the million or more who fled the country with death at their heels – had instead grown up in the cities and countryside in which they were born. The images are complex and intensely emotional, suffused simultaneously with hope and sadness, beauty and decay, serenity and anger.
Andrew was still at work finishing up a few sculptures for the exhibit when he sat down to tell me a bit about where he's coming from right now.
Erratic Phenomena: In our last interview, you said, "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... I've experienced and witnessed too many times where people are disgusted with the different." Growing up as one of the few Asians in a Hispanic Los Angeles neighborhood was not a particularly pleasant experience for you, and you didn't really find acceptance there until you began to paint graffiti in high school. Is this dream of a world without bias an idea you've contemplated all your life? Do you make a conscious effort to draw attention to our ingrained xenophobia in your work?
Andrew Hem: I just enjoy seeing different cultures in one image. Every time I'm in LAX, I spend extra time looking around in the international section. That's the only place I know where you have so many races in one place. For some strange reason, I enjoy being there. Maybe it's because everybody's so busy trying to catch a plane that they don't really pay attention to their surroundings. You could find any ethnicity at any time at LAX, and nobody looks twice. I just want to transfer that feeling into my work.
"Nobody Will Notice"
EP: When we last spoke about your influences, you said you found Van Gogh's tragic life story and use of color inspiring. You're also intrigued by the lonely life of Henry Darger – a reclusive eccentric who created a vast illustrated narrative that detailed an epic struggle for freedom by a group of fierce little girls. Both of these men were visionaries who lived tortured lives haunted by delusions and paranoia – yet produced stunningly original work that was revered by later generations, though it went unappreciated in their lifetimes. Do you think that creating truly groundbreaking work requires some strain of divine madness, eccentric genius or spiritual agony? Are artists who are literally "visionary" the ones who push our aesthetic boundaries outside the norm, driving us forward into new realms of artistic exploration?
AH: I think you can be a simple, normal person and create groundbreaking masterpieces. You just gain my utmost respect if you do it at a disadvantage. Their disadvantage is their inspiration, and that inspires me. Everyone plays the cards they are dealt. Creating "Starry Night" with a bad hand is truly remarkable. Most can't even do it with a perfect hand. So yeah, I think they are indeed the ones who push our aesthetic boundaries.
EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?
AH: Funny, my friend and I recently had this conversation. He asked if there were any artwork from any time period, and I told him the Pietà by Michelangelo. I was obsessed with Michelangelo for some time. When I first discovered his work, I went out and bought five blocks of stone and started chiseling away. So with no hesitation, I would love to own the Pietà.
A painting, on the other hand, is tough to decide, but I'm going to have to go with Tiepolo's "La Verità svelata dal Tempo" ("The Truth Unveiled by Time"). I absolutely love Tiepolo's color and compositions.
EP: More than most artists, perhaps, you seem to feel a constant drive to improve yourself. Toward that end, you've been doing some plein air painting recently. Tell me a bit about those paintings, and what you've learned from the exercise. Will we be seeing any of these landscapes incorporated in your gallery work in the future, or do you consider plein air painting more part of a training regimen than a goal in itself?
AH: Plein air painting and figure painting are both fun for me. I like to think of painting from life as off-the-head rapping, and personal paintings as writing a rap song. I used to think the two were the same, but it's completely different. I've seen amazing painters paint from life and come out with below-average work. I've also seen amazing life painters paint at home, and the work becomes below average. I think it's because they spend all their time doing one field and neglect the other – just like most rappers who are played on the radio can't rap off of their head. Doing one will help out the other, but I don't think it's necessary. You could make it in one field without even touching the other. A good alla prima painter would be Richard Schmid. He always paints from life. He's a master, so I think if he was to paint from reference, it would still be amazing.
I just love to paint, so I'm always looking for new methods to apply paint. In the long run, I just want to better my direct observation skills and indirect painting skills.
"Times Are Changing"
EP: Though you have long painted in gouache, and then began to work in oils, you have chosen to return to acrylics recently. Do you think you will continue to evolve through new paint media, or do you see yourself settling on one eventually? Do you get bored with painting a particular way and decide to mix things up, or do you find yourself changing media because you're not getting the results you seek?
AH: Every medium has its purpose. I feel like it's my duty as an artist to try and figure out that purpose. I'm not trying to master any medium. I think that can take a lifetime. I just want to understand the medium and figure out its purpose.
I recently started using charcoal again. Charcoal was the hardest thing for me to use, so I gave up. It crumbles easy, it's extremely messy, and smudges way too easily. I'm revisiting it again because I want to figure things out. It's extremely frustrating for me, but I'm just starting to understand how to approach it now. I intend on trying out cel vinyl and egg tempera in the future.
EP: You once told me that the colorful faces and figures that float in the backgrounds of your paintings are spirits, trying to find their path. You also revealed that when you were young, you had a frightening encounter with something otherworldly, which left you shaken. Could you tell me more about that experience? Is that what made depicting these lost spirits important to you?
AH: One morning, I heard a soft voice whispering, "Help, help." I woke up looked around and tried to go back to sleep. I was a little freaked out at the moment, but didn't think too much of it. The voices started getting louder and louder. At this point, I was thinking it was my sister, playing a dumb joke. I yelled her name, and she responded from downstairs. I flew downstairs and covered myself with several blankets.
I've always painted things that fascinated me. Things like culture, architecture and nature. I can't say that I'm too fascinated with spirits and ghosts, but I can honestly say that I've gained a little curiosity since that first experience. That's the reason why I always make them a fourth or fifth read – they fit in with every piece I do, because spirits are everywhere.
My cousin recently came back from Cambodia. She showed me pictures of a place where the Khmer Rouge executed thousands. She took about 15 pictures at that site. My cousin asked if I could find anything out of the norm in one picture. I couldn't see anything at first, but she kept on telling me to look harder and closer. After a few seconds, I noticed the picture had 60+ images of skulls floating around in it. When I realized what was there, chills ran down my spine. Not even joking!
EP: It's been a year since your last major show, at Roq la Rue. Since then, you've been working hard on evolving your aesthetic so that it lives up to your own very exacting standards. What would you say you've learned over the past year? Have your artistic goals shifted in any way? What can you tell me about the the theme or aesthetic of the new work you'll be exhibiting in January?
AH: My paintings haven't shifted that much from my last showing. I'm still fascinated with the same things, so unless a new fascination comes along, I don't think it will shift anytime soon. This new series will focus on the butterfly effect. I wanted to paint the "what ifs" and the "could've beens." I've always wondered what would've happened if I went to my local high school. I commuted far to be in a less gang-infested neighborhood. It was at my new school where Dreams to Reality was formed, and that led me on a path to becoming an artist.
I try to live a life of no regrets, but sometimes you can't help but wonder what might have been if you took another path. During my trip to Cambodia, I started to wonder what would've happened if the Khmer Rouge didn't happen. Millions would still be alive, and I would most likely be there, working in the rice field. I went to the Khmer Rouge museum, where they have pictures of millions who were executed. In one room there were portraits of thousands of kids and teens before they were killed. Immediately, I wondered what they might have become if things were different. I decided to paint the children in modern settings, and imagine how they would look 20 to 30 years later, if they were alive. How successful they could've been, and how they could've changed people's lives.
"Best Find a New Way"
Andrew Hem's solo exhibition, entitled "One Leads to Another," opens on January 16th at LeBasse Projects in Los Angeles.
"Enemies Even Closer"