I had the pleasure of spending a summer afternoon speaking with Joseph Pang at his Brooklyn Navy Yard studio whilst between two successful solo shows, exhibiting his Willets Point inspired works. The first show was here in New York at John Molloy, and the second at Gallery Sejul in Seoul, Korea.
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Joseph Pang’s work is very compassionate to materials and ideas, where the unexpected becomes art. You can see why he is so visually and philosophically attracted to the salvage of the Willets Point automotive industrial zone, the series title and inspiration of his recently concluded show at John Molloy Gallery. Those industrial activities say so much more about the outcomes of the human condition, than a contrived—no matter how unpretentious—mimetic work could ever touch.
When you hear Joseph speak about Willets Point, and the people that he has met along the way within the hidden village of the soon to be no longer automotive enclave, are as much a part of his work as a meticulous stack of worn out carburetors. Yet he insists, within his expression of compassion, that his work is not a sociocultural statement.
What’s happening with our beloved New York City? The daily grime on the hands of those mechanics can be washed away at the end of a hard day’s work. Their livelihood dismissed as a wasteland on toxic ground that needed to be cleaned up, so we trade not a livelihood, but a brownfield for a 23 acre parking lot, a mega-mall, and entertainment complex.
Only now and then will unintentional beauty, like the kind of patterns Joseph Pang intuitively recognizes, transcend our cultural values. The poetic nuances of our actions are often overshadowed by the usefulness of our industrious activities. That’s a pity. Here is where the beauty lyes, the step back to see what it is exactly you’ve been busy doing, doing, doing. Where the workers saw the outcome of their work, Mayor Bloomberg saw blight, Joseph Pang saw beauty. Remnants and photographs of items made with a specific purpose, intuitively layered with precision onto canvas and wood; the salvage yards of meticulously shredded Tyvek. The noesis of pre-existing conditions, the patterns they contain, and the visually rhythmic molecular dotting taking precedence, and also subsiding against the patterns of a typical Willets Point landscape. All of this describes the delicate genius of Joseph Pangs discerning taste for beauty—between the seen and the, quite frankly, unrecognized. We are a living embodiment of patterns and perspectives.
Joseph Pang: Along the line of beauty in the salvage yard, the title of the show at Molloy was Willets Point. That’s the area where all the auto repair and wreckage shops are. I happen to visit a place to get my car fixed, it was after-hours, when shops are typically closed, so I went there. It was just beautiful.
I heard some of the guys who just drive by that really rough uneven with huge potholes, while you’re driving to fix your tire, you get a flat! Maybe a little bit exaggerating, but I heard someone say that. That’s how bad it is. So when it rains, it’s just all the small ponds all over the place. And that is beautiful.
Douglas Turner: So you see a kind of accidental beauty?
Something we cannot intentionally manufacture. It’s like a miniature manufactured landscape, filled with all of these auto parts. And then they just go and pile them up. We may think it’s installation, but they have no idea. I think that kind of beauty, is way more sophisticated then the kind of beauty that fine artists do. So it was very refreshing. That was not the only placed where I felt refreshed, but it was very refreshing and I wanted to focus on Willets Point. I went to the site and took tons of photos, and I developed them, and I collaged, and de-collaged. Played with images. The industrial beauty at Willets Point is dealing with a lot of social political, and economical—many, many calls—you know, the issues. Because these guys—the tenant auto shops were forced to leave, because of the cities re-development plan with three phases. I don’t know where they will go next, it is very devastating. The auto workers are all nice. So it is pretty much like third world in our backyard. And people think it is their world, and some of the workers get paid day to day, maybe undocumented, and right next to it is City Field. I used to go to the US Open and play tennis when I was younger, so I am very familiar with this area.
Their labors are unappreciated?
They work so hard. These guys, the community of Willets Point, is sort of detached from us. But it is not really detached. It is part of what we experience. Right now you’re using an iPhone. For Chinese workers to make an iPhone, it is pretty intense. I’m not sure how much they’re getting paid, so someone is going through pain for our success. So there are a lot of issues in this industrial beauty that you can expose. Anyways, I am not a social activist, that is not my focus. My work is dealing with primarily beauty, but where is that beauty coming from?
The beauty of Willets Point comes out of a utility, but the organized salvage piles come about out of a necessity?
Yes, people that work there are working so hard just to survive. To a point we all do this (laughing) and very direct and genuine, bottom line. I think that is where beauty lyes.
My initial reaction to Willets Point was a genuine reaction to that sophisticated beauty in salvage yards. One of the pieces that I showed at the John Molloy Gallery is called “Madison Avenue of Willets Point.” It is some kind of juxtaposition. On the left hand side as you look at the work, it is of images from Madison Avenue—advertisements, fashion. You know it is another kind of beauty. You might want to call it artificial beauty, some is just great. And on the right hand side I put together images from Willets Point. The images are developed in juxtaposition to make a statement that Madison Avenue means beauty, whether that’s conventional or non-conventional. Something to do with beauty, whether it is artificial or non-artificial. But on the right hand side I put more literal images of Willets Point, and that is way more sophisticated. Very genuine, very natural. It’s not so much about the contrast, but more of a statement contained within Willets Point.
The long history of Willets Point… every Mayor since the 1960s has tried to get rid of, or clean up that area. That was one of the main projects, but now they have succeeded. I don’t know who eventually finalized the development plan, but maybe it was Mayor Bloomberg. (Yes, it was under his administration.) So I can really explore social political issues, but I don’t want that issue to be too overwhelming. Some artists may do it, but that’s not the point. I may have interaction with the community and that can be, if necessary, a focal point for discussion because their issue is different. My issue is all about the beauty that may encompass all of the issues I listed. In the title of the show I thought about, it is hard for me to title the show with geographic specificity. But I think it sends a very strong reference.
Yes, there is a very defined connection. Do you feel the geographic reference point contextualizes a starting point?
A lot of people ask where is it located. (Joseph laughs) People know where [the] Mets are, but they don’t know City Field. So I explain to them all of this, and that it is right next to Willets. Another key word is industrial beauty. It is everywhere.
Of your work are you most inspired by the Willets Point series?
At this point yes. After I hung the show, I have an idea of what the next series will be. Although it is not fully realized. I think I see progression. Along the line of what I am doing, most likely more detailed work. The grain.
It is the industrial landscape, and the beauty that is everywhere including salvage yards. It is of a subconscious mind, like you do some kind of doodling. I think that is an important element in my art. It has to be visually pleasing, but it has to come out natural. To a point where, ideally, you don’t really feel like your making art. It is just part of you. I think that is the value. Maybe there are some people who have some similar genetic nature, DNA or however you describe it. But I think it is quite unique, because it expresses or states who I am, and what I’ve been doing, and how I perceive. It is a lot of information. Each time I put the tiny dots down I wonder “Who is doing this?”
The dotting in your work, does that come after you have laid everything out?
Usually, but I can also start and then cut, and also put on top of already dotted areas. So it’s more interactive, the dots may be hidden but what I put on top of it is what I wanted to be seen. So there is a process, but sometimes I reverse the process.
Somebody asked my wife, if I had some stress. I don’t think it was stressful. Well, dealing with a deadline is stressful. And that stress can be healthy, because that will motivate you. So not every stress is bad. I think it is some kind of privilege. In a way.
Yes, it’s a creative stress. You’re doing something that you love and are engaging with the most creative part of your mind. At the same point it seems that while there is some structure, there is also at play. You are free from the structured approach to classical painting. There is a lot of space in your work to explore materials, ideas, and space.
It is good to be found. I really appreciate the work that was done with almost no intention. I know it is very hard to define, what it means to say “There is no intention.” Maybe we are dealing with a semantic issue. There are ways to combine ideas. I did my double major in philosophy and art at Yale. We all do inter-disciplinary stuff. I think it is a good match.
When I say philosophy, I don’t mean the referencing of who said this and that, it is more of a known and existing discipline that is available. It is a tool. It is a discipline. I visually explore. It is more than just an experiment. Day to day it is different. I will look at a painting with a fresh perspective. So everyday is new.
Your work seems to let go of, to an effective degree, conscious design. Willets Point is something with a rich historical context, embattled in eminent domain controversy, and makes it all completely impersonal without loss of compassion.
That’s right. A lot of people ask me what did I have in mind. It is a very difficult question. I don’t even know what I have in mind. I want to find out!
That’s an interesting perspective because while there are no hard and fast rules, an artist must work an idea firmly in hand before you can start making. And that is one approach. Would you agree that the greatest challenge for abstract art is that often there is no idea? There are just materials. True you had a specific place as a foundational idea, but nothing from there. The rest was all free to create.
Yes, that’s right. And if I may qualify the statement that I made about wanting to find out what I have? I think it is consistency, even the work that I did when I was much younger. When I look at my work, I think it’s consistent—a stylistic difference there is, but very consistent. I guess in a way I am very consistent, in terms of visual intelligence. Lately this is industrial stuff, this beauty. All of those elements have been consistent in my work. But in this series I deal with it in a more specific way, because its geographical specificity. It became a reference to my work, and I did have direct interaction with the surroundings of Willets Point. Also I talked to people, and they don’t want to be bothered by artists. I would like to spend more time making friends, and if necessary getting involved. But the social activist as a practice is not my main focus, I just want to make a statement: This is a beautiful place. Really beautiful place, and often times we find profoundness of beauty in a place where it is neglected.
Contemplating wreckage and salvage… I can remember as a child I loved junk yards. As an adult when I started driving, I had a friend who could work on cars. And it was with him that I got to visit my first junkyard and just walk around. Just to be in that space, there was a quietude.
And meditate. One of my pieces is titled Meditation. I might do more series on that particular one. And I don’t necessarily have to make that distinction between Western and Eastern.. I don’t even know where I am. I have maybe both. (DT I think so) Typical is, one way of practicing Western art, like sometimes they just study… and then they elaborate, in a way this may sound a little derogatory, but in a mechanical way of really laying out and all of this detail… I don’t do that. First of all I don’t have time, if I had time I would just do it whatever scale, small or big. And then I make the vision, so the approach to art is different. I think mine is more intuitive. I just want, like many Afro-Americans playing Jazz—let’s just do it.
I don’t know how you identify yourself, as black or? DT: I go back and forth.(lots of laughter) JP: Maybe it’s not necessary. Let’s just do it, as it goes. We all work together; interactive.
There is a type of artist and work that commands, like you say, to just begin with the work, and there is a certain amount of trust there.
I am not against doing a study. Sometimes I do, in a different way. I try not to be too conscious of exact size. It tends to prevent me from doing a lot of great work. If necessary I will. But you can also work first on a very large piece, and work it into a small piece. The reason why I am addressing this issues, is because I want it to be more based on intuition. It can require more calculation. It is like CPU’s get heavily loaded, you know, my brain. It is not like you boot up and decide which application you use. It is just like all of a sudden you know, like the storm.
In that trusting there is also a manifestation of natural beauty as well. As those ideas come flooding in you have to be able to put them in their place, so to speak, to organize, or your circuits might overload, and your hard drive crashes.
When it’s overloaded there’s something wrong with it too. Maybe it is an acknowledgment If that happens then, maybe I’m not doing the things that I am supposed to do. Everything has to flow, just let it go. Sometimes we tend to think too much, that’s the killer.
You can also view more of Joseph Pang’s work on his website.