An Interview With Helice Wen and Her Latest Show "preludes" at Spoke Art

Sep 08, 2018 - Sep 29, 2018Spoke Art, San Francisco

Spoke Art's latest solo exhibition is titled preludes, featuring a new body of work from San Francisco-based artist Helice Wen. For her second solo exhibition with the gallery, Wen will exhibit new drawings, paintings and photographs exploring the patterns of everyday life. Helice Wen explains: “In music, the prelude is an introductory piece; the smaller motif that will appear repeatedly through the whole act.” Read below for an interview between Wen and Spoke Art director Dasha Matsuura.

Creating a visual prelude, Wen introduces the viewer to patterns throughout her everyday life. From the wink of a candle to the unfurling of a flower and its eventual death, the artist explores the beauty of these small, fleeting moments that can be overlooked. Incorporating her traditional training in Chinese watercolor and calligraphy, Wen’s work displays both a tightly controlled command of her medium alongside fluid and serendipitous mark making. The gallery is also exhibiting her photographs for the first time, giving a behind-the-scenes view into Wen’s artistic process, one that involves carefully photographed subjects, delicate drawings and richly colored paintings that offer the viewer a small glimpse into intimate moments and recollections of her memories.

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You were born in China and moved to San Francisco at a young age and went on to get your degree in illustration here in the city. How has studying art and creating work in San Francisco influenced you?
San Francisco is a multicultural city with a relatively open-minded and relaxing environment, compared to China back then, it was more systematic and tried to box everyone into certain roles. I have had a chance to make many mistakes and know myself while growing and studying in San Francisco.

You have a background in traditional Chinese watercolor. How are you incorporating that knowledge into the latest body of work for preludes? Chinese watercolor and calligraphy was my first art training. I didn’t like it back
then. Starting in the last few years I went back my interest in it after I had worked with graphite for a while. I was trying to combine these two things in my drawing and create my own visual language. Chinese watercolor and calligraphy demand great hand control, it’s very good practice for me.

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Many of your pieces incorporate speech bubbles with patterns or images in them or are left blank. Do you like leaving the exact narrative open to the interpretation of the viewer? Are your figures saying something in particular for you?
Empty speech bubbles in my art represent the unspoken mind. I like that the viewers can relate to it and put in their own narratives.

Your painting process involves a lot of photographic work you create with models and sets. Is this the first time you are exhibiting your source materials alongside the paintings and drawings?
It is the first time and I am showing them and I’m glad that Ken made the suggestion. Sometimes I am more excited about my photoshoots than my actual works. I am happy to share them with the paintings and drawings.

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This body of work feels even more contemplative than your previous show at Spoke. What was the core concept or inspiration behind the new work? We’ve talked about the incorporation of poetry in your early inspirations for the show. What piece of writing resonated with you for this show?
I read T.S.Eliot‘s ‘Preludes’ years ago and often think about the scenes he describes in it. Events happening every day and repeating without us noticing. As human beings, we are just patterns and pieces in it. The first painting I did for the show, Cake, was starting with looking through my phone and realizing how many candle pictures I took. Many from birthdays (not even my birthday) and some from churches I visited when I traveled. My parents were often sick and I always lit candles and pray for their health when I saw candles and alters, even though I am not religious. Then there was one a vivid memory I have from childhood. I was about 5 or 6 and I had this big white icing cake for my birthday. I felt like as I grow up, I keep making the same mistakes and get disappointed by the same things over and over again. Yet the same time every year, I still make wishes in front of the cake and blow out candles, making wishes that most likely won’t come true. But I still feel hopeful, because, like sadness and suffering, joy and happiness will come again. For this body of work, I wanted to capture the patterns and emotion of daily life.

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Your figures have a softness and a vulnerability but also a sense that the viewer is being given permission to see this very private and intimate scene. What draws you to painting and drawing women in this way?
That applies to me, probably a lot of other people in this society now, you can see many, many parts of my life but you may not ever see through my real mind. The body is not the most secret part of ourselves.

There is an innate sense of sexuality in your work with the incorporation of lingerie, shibari and fetish accessories. How do those elements influence your work?
I feel those works are sexual, not sexy. It’s about embracing your sexual side without not doing it to please anybody or fit into certain social standards.

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You’re always chicly dressed. You’re obviously interested in fashion and your use of fabrics and clothing in your work is really beautiful. How does fashion influence your work?
Ha, thanks for saying that! Fashion is a great reference for me since the designers and photographers have a good knowledge of culture, history and body form.

Anything else to add?
Thanks for the opportunity! It pushes me further on creating.

preludes opens Saturday, September 8th with an opening reception from 6 to 9 where the artist will be present. The exhibition runs until September 29th at Spoke SF.