Nostalgia, Estrangement, Relationships: Depictions of Adolescence by Adrian Kay Wong

Adrian Kay Wong, an artist based in Los Angeles, offers colourful views of adolescence through his paintings—mainly focussing on sentiments of nostalgia and estrangement. He also investigates familial roles and relationships—between sons, brothers, fathers and friends. In general, he writes, he “attempts to affectionately glorify the innocent naiveté of youth, reconciling the vibrancy of juvenility and the struggling confusion associated with growing up.”

The figures Adrian creates are clearly representational—as in we can easily make out young characters on the playground, in school, at home; competitive, infatuated, isolated—but they are all devoid of definite individuality. We see no eyes or mouths, no expressions. Faces merge with shapes. Bodies are almost one with backgrounds. This approach gives the paintings an abstract, symbolic quality. The overall mood, however, remains warm and intimate, despite a lack of proper “personalities”.

Adrian with his artwork

Adrian, who was raised in the east San Francisco Bay area, realised that he was technically gifted in terms of draftsmanship back in high school. But he chose Art over Macroeconomics just at the last moment, deciding to pursue the creative life only after being accepted by all three institutions he’d applied to. He ultimately attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). “The first couple years were extremely difficult,” he says, “but I think my stubbornness forced me to work through my shortcomings and reach where I am today four years out of college.”

Rosy Embrace

Much of Adrian’s inspiration comes from daily life or talks with people about mundane things. Is there a visual artist he particularly likes? He mentions Japanese painter, sculptor and renowned pop artist Yoshitomo Nara (born 1959): “I think we address similar subject-matter, just in different ways. While I don’t think we share the same aesthetic eye, I find myself referring to his work often when I’m in a creative block.”

Adrian is also an avid reader, and uses Post-Its to save passages that resonate with him. Many of the authors he admires deal with issues of “growing up” and are of Asian origin: Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murkami, Frank Chin and Kazuo Ishiguro. Here are two excerpts from two books that have influenced the artist’s creativity:

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) by Yukio Mishima

When people concentrate on the idea of beauty, they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world. That, I suppose, is how human beings are made.

~ The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) by Yukio Mishima

Adrian comments: “The understanding of essentially any concept, in this case beauty, is built upon context. And thus, within that context, is the understanding of the ‘antonyms’ of said concepts. This mentality plays a large role in how I conceptualize paintings (for example, what I choose to represent in the paintings) as well as formal art decisions like color choice.”

Then –

Fair? What’s fair? History is war, not sport! You think if you are a real good boy for them, do what they do, like what they like, get good grades in their schools, they will take care of you forever? Do you believe that? You’re dreaming, boy. That is faith, sincere belief in the goodness of others and none of your own. That’s mysticism. You believe in the goodness of others to cover your butt, you’re good for nothing. So, don’t expect me to get mad or be surprised the bok gwai [“bok gwai” is Cantonese slang for white people, it literally means “white ghost”] never told our history in any of their books you happen to read in the library, looking for yourself. You gotta keep the history yourself or lose it forever, boy. That’s the mandate of heaven.

~ Donald Duk (1991) by Frank Chin

Donald Duk (1991) by Frank Chin

On this, Adrian writes: “A father explaining to his son the importance of initiative, free thought, and diligence – to make your own history and realizing the empowerment that comes from, but is often lost in, tradition and culture.”

Finally, what about his own “Asian-ness”? Has he ever gone through feelings of alienation, a divided identity while maturing in America and do they make their way into his art? Adrian has a story to share on this. At SAIC, he was asked by a professor, James Kao, about why he never painted Asian people.

“I struggled with that at the time: my figures were flat and yes,” the artist says, “personal, taken directly from my life, but I realized that I didn’t know how to portray an obviously Asian person without relying on stereotypical depictions—thinner eyes, yellow skin, etc. Nowadays, I do still struggle with that same issue but more-so in a ‘How obvious is this ‘Asian-ness’ evident in my work?’ I’ve found that my ‘Asian-ness’ is innately present simply through the decisions I make formally in my paintings. I think my aesthetic choices can be characterized as ‘Asian’—there’s a level of cleanliness, an obsessive need for perfection, a romanticization for the past, a sensitivity in process, etc.”

Embrace Love Seat

He continues on the difficulties of his childhood, the changes in perspective that he has experienced over the years: “The more I mature, the more conscious I am of the divided upbringing I went through. I experienced a lot of things that many other Asian-Americans share: self-consciousness about the fried rice I was bringing in a thermos for lunch, the ever present slanty-eyed jokes, the remarks like ‘you’re probably good at math’ or my favorite: ‘do you speak Asian?’. I always felt like I had to repress my cultural identity to be more ‘successful’ in a public or social setting. It wasn’t until late in my teens that I started to develop a strong sense of pride about where I came from.

“But in the end, in my younger mind at the time, it was all grouped into just one ‘struggle’ that’s combined with the turmoil within my family. There was a definite level of estrangement when I was growing up – a strain between the Eastern household and Western upbringing. My family and I are a lot closer now but I always felt like I couldn’t escape the strict, overbearing, and almost militant nature of ‘home-life’. There existed a burden of being the oldest son, acting a ‘proper’ way, being yelled at all the time—fear was a constant emotion I battled with.

“Now that I’m older, I have a much greater understanding of their own personal struggle: both of their childhood as well as of immigration from Hong Kong to America – a completely foreign country. And through that understanding, I now have an even great level of compassion, respect, love, and pride for my parents and my extended family.”

Adrian Kay Wong is represented by Johanssen Gallery in Berlin. An interview of his is available on Uprise Art (New York).

Links: Website ( | Instagram ( | Saatchi Art (

Images used with permission.

Whisper (Embrace)
Double Dutch Blue
Corner House
Double Play
Take Me Home Concrete Road
Love Seat Nap
Golden Room
Passenger (Sunset)
8 PM
Window, Fan, and Table