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Chi-Irena Wong (1997-)

Rollarway, 2019

Materials: Watercolor, gouache, acrylic ink on paper, 15” x 28”

Location at Summa Health:  Dr. Gary B. and Pamela S. Williams Tower on the Akron Campus (141 N. Forge St.), blue neighborhood, fourth floor hallway, outside room H4-128

About the art and artist

This dynamic painted drawing drops us right onto subway tracks that have morphed into a rollercoaster and loop like a purple-red serpent high above a city rather than under it. Chi-Irena Wong starts with an idea -- a contradiction in this case -- and plays it out in surreal detail, as in this large, watercolor drawing on paper.

The coaster of the title snakes its way over, under, and through the upper reaches of a city that is a kind of cartoon translation of a Phillip K. Dick dystopia of the future. Inhabitants of nearby houses and buildings, along with those riding the rails, are details which we can see enlarged in rectangular insets that almost look like flat-screen TVs, connected by antenna-like lines to specific locations and functioning as blow-ups on a map. The artist elaborates these details with hybrid human, animal, fish, and fantasy figures who carry out various activities to create a busy skyway, literally animated by all kinds of odd gestures and activity: Popping eyes, mouths open in “O”s (talking? yelling? surprised?), and wide-armed gestures. The figures themselves can be robots and computer-headed people, or fish or frogs or snails or cats. Crickets wearing the conical bamboo hats -- "Non la" in Vietnamese -- that identify Asian farmers, assembly-line workers can be walking fruits or vegetables, mad-scientist guys and mice and TVs within TVs, all float in and among the coils of the Rollarway, a giant action cartoon – Wong’s almost feverish vision teems with action and activity that is both familiar and uncanny.

The energy of this work comes from the explosion of witty detail and vibrant color (her favorite is yellow), as well as from the overstuffed, roiling composition, typical of Wong’s current work. In other drawings, she is inspired by word-play (one piece originates in the phrase “let us/lettuce do laundry”) or surreal combinations. Or she seems to be working-out elaborate answers to “what if” questions. Many figures reappear as familiar characters in multiple works – the cats, anthropomorphized sea creatures and snails, the mad-scientist guy, the hard-hatted minions, the walking oranges and carrots ... . Wong also has made a series of small-scale glass sculptures that are based on the large drawings which she sandblasts and then paints with oils and colored pencils to focus on particular moments or explore minute details. Some of her visions and specific characters are derived from the fables about the zodiac with which she grew up as part of her Chinese heritage.  Many are selected for the tidings of good fortune that they bear.

Wong (whose Americanized first name is “Irena”, so she identifies herself as “Chi-Irena”) has “always been a doodler” and considered art school only when she began the college-application process. She graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in May 2020 and has been actively exploring her own direction as well as working to commission on multiple projects. Works like Rollarway begin as ink drawings, in which Wong lets her imagination fly and her cast of characters populate her vision. Then she fills in with watercolor and gouache to further raise the sense of the absurd, the busy whole presenting itself almost like a scene from a film. She acknowledges the importance for her thought of the popular Japanese Animé and manga genres, best known through animated cartoons/films and graphic novels. But she sees her creations primarily as the representation of her personal fantasy worlds, in which she manipulates perspective and color in order to heighten the beholder’s sense of the weird and wacky.

Where you can see more of this artist’s work:

In addition to the work represented on the artist’s website, you can see further examples that include several public commissions such as the mural at the Michael A. Ries Ice Rink in Parma, completed as part of an internship sponsored by the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2019. Wong’s sense of humor is on display as well in an online exhibition sponsored by the Akron Art Museum, which featured her work among others by students graduating from area colleges, schools, and universities at the end of the first months of the pandemic.

The healing arts at Summa Health


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