These are the dinner parties the painter invites us to. Banquets rendered in hot, hectic pastels, where women – and cats – indulge in unison. Where appetite, impulse and excess hold sway. ‘I call them my gluttonous works,’ says Wong, speaking from her studio in North London. ‘I want the excess of colour, of marks, of patterns, just the messiness of everything to reflect this unrestrained hunger. As if you’ve been starved for ages and you see this banquet in front of you, and you eat like it’s the last act of your life. I want to capture that frenzy.’
Feasting with Caroline Wong
Pull up a chair to one of Caroline Wong’s feasts, then ditch the chair, get down on your hands and knees, and eat. Bite, slurp and chew with abandon. Gorge yourself on party food, pasta, noodles and fizzy drinks. When you’re full – properly full, the kind of full where you might burst if you ate another mouthful – sprawl out, stuffed and sated, on tables and beds alongside the cats feasting next to you.
"ditch the chair, get down on your hands and knees, and eat"
For Wong, the parallels between eating and painting run deep. The artist was born in Ipoh in Malaysia, and grew up in South London. Despite harbouring a passion for painting from a young age, she was persuaded to pursue a ‘more useful’ career path. She studied languages and spent her twenties teaching in schools from London to Ningbo in the east of China. Wong only returned to painting at the age of 30, first with evening classes, then with degrees at Art Academy London and City & Guilds of London Art School.
‘Art and eating are the two pleasures in life that were encouraged in me and then denied to me. I was brought up to really enjoy food and then at a certain age I was told to take care of myself, to not get fat, etcetera. The same with art. Everyone said you’ve got the talent for it, and then I was told that it wasn’t useful and to just do it in my free time,’ she explains. ‘These feasts that I paint now – it really was that feeling when I got back into art, as though I was eating food for the first time in a long time. I lost myself in it. It was the only thing I focussed on when I turned 30.’
Six years later, Wong’s appetite for it hasn’t diminished. She’s developed a style that’s ‘scribbly’, inspired by the layered paintings of Alberto Giacometti. Straying outside the lines is Wong’s way of responding to ‘traditional, restricted representations of East Asian women’. ‘While studying, I began referring to the 17th and 18th-century Chinese genre of meiren hua, which literally means “images of beautiful women”. It’s these single line drawings, neatly filled,’ she says. ‘I’ve always been interested in the concept of beauty and what that means in different cultures, and in those paintings, beauty is associated with order and containment. My style is the opposite of that. It’s about a conflict between chaos and control.’
"Straying outside the lines is Wong’s way of responding to ‘traditional, restricted representations of East Asian women’"
This conflict is at the core of Wong’s ‘difficult relationship to food’, which plays out on a personal and cultural level. ‘I think it’s partly to do with the Asian obsessiveness about food,’ she muses. ‘Asian culture is always encouraging people to eat – so many events revolve around it. But then there’s this dilemma that a lot of women have in particular, where you eat to please people, but if you start putting on weight, you get shamed for it.’
Her Hungry Women series grapples with this taboo. Unable to paint models in her studio during the 2020 lockdown, Wong turned to the ‘visual glut’ of the online world, and to Mukbang livestreams. This collection of 150 paintings on board is inspired by the multisensory performances given by Mukbang hosts as they devour vast quantities of food for a virtual audience. ‘I focussed on the expressivity of the women when they’re biting into something and behaving in this greedy way,’ says Wong, who worked with ‘buttery and greasy’ oil pastels to emulate ‘food-like textures’. ‘Reading around it, there’s this issue of women feeling self-conscious of how they eat and how much they eat, and Mukbang is a rebellion for them.’
The composition of these works nods to Evelyn Axell’s provocative pop art painting Ice-cream (1964) and to Polish conceptual artist Natalia LL’s film Consumer Art (1972), which sees nude models sucking and slurping bananas, frankfurters and ice-cream in an innuendo-soaked satire of erotic and consumer motifs. The ‘hungry women’ Wong paints are by turns seductive, as though performing for the viewer, and entirely absorbed in their own pleasure.
Wong’s Cats and Girls collection, which enticed visitors at Soy Capitán gallery in Berlin throughout October, focuses less on the act of eating and more on the community surrounding it. These are large-scale scenes, brought to life in warm, sugary hues on big sheets of paper, ‘like the ones you’re given when you’re young and told to draw freely. I wanted to embrace the informality and friendliness of paper, as opposed to canvas.’
The women depicted here echo the friendship group Wong forged while living in China. ‘We’d meet up every week and have dinner and drinks and enjoy the food without feeling self-conscious. We’d open up about our lives and just talk about everything,’ she recalls. And the cats? ‘I’m fascinated by the link between femininity and felinity. Different notions of femininity are attached to cats, and they don’t always have the best implications. You think of the lonely cat lady, the spinster, you think of witches, or of Catwoman. There’s that scene in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, where Michelle Pfeiffer transforms from this frumpy cat lady to this sexualised predator in seconds.’
Wong re-purposed the title Cats and Girls from a 2013 Balthus exhibition at the Met, which showcased the French painter’s voyeuristic depictions of bare-legged girls lounging around with their feline counterparts. ‘I wanted my girls to be cat-like in a playful, mischievous way, to challenge the passivity of Balthus’s girls.’
"clashing, fluorescent works"
In drawing on memories of her time in China, there’s a nostalgic tinge to Cats and Girls that also inflects Artificial Paradises. Flowing from Wong’s interest in ‘the decorative and the pretty’, these portraits portray languorous women dressed in sequinned mini dresses and billowing feather gowns, who are revelling in ‘the pleasures of the cosmetic’. In these clashing, fluorescent works, currently showing at London’s Soho Revue, Wong pays homage to the ‘colour and clutter’ of the East Asian and Southeast Asian cities she explored in her twenties; Hong Kong, Bangkok, and all the other metropolises she considers ‘artificial paradises’ in their own right.
She recreates the atmosphere of brightly-coloured shopfronts, blinking billboards, neon signs, and the overload of sounds and smells. It’s the visual lexicon of Wong Kar-wai’s early films, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. ‘I’m trying to bring into these works that feeling of being in a hot, sweaty, bustling city, where everything is too much. For me, that feeling of too much is something positive. I thrive off too much.’
Like the conflict between chaos and control that sparks her creativity like touch-paper, Wong is aware of tensions within herself. Her paintings are noisy, rebellious, larger-than-life; they assert the right of their subjects to take up space, to take pleasure in a dizzying swell of senses. Wong, however, is a true introvert. ‘I’m quite an awkward person, really. I’ve always seen shyness as part of me,’ she admits with a small smile. ‘But I like my art being loud. I let my images do a lot of the talking.’