Practice: Hei Fok, Normalizing Fantasy

Sarah Granett interviews Hei Fok about influences from his Hong Kong youth, normalizing gay imagery, and painting around the workweek.

Hei Fok is a friend from many years ago. We studied painting and Adobe Flash together, played Dance Dance Revolution, and made zany art parties at California State University Sacramento in the early aughts. I drive up to his neighborhood on the western outskirts of Sacramento. It’s a cozy residential development. Fields surround the area which is accessible by country roads and highway. The entry to his home is off a thin strip of greenbelt around the corner from where I’ve parked.

Hei meets me at the door with a grin. His husband, Dennis, is in the kitchen up to his elbows in a haul of Costco chicken that he’s divvying up to freeze. I’ve been invited to stay for dinner, which I unfortunately have to decline on this particular day. Dennis does great dinners.

Hei and I head upstairs to the painting room to look at his work and talk.

Hei Fok, Studio
Hei Fok’s studio, Sacramento, California 2015

Sarah Granett: What influences have contributed to your art practice?

Hei Fok: Coming over to the United States from Hong Kong when I was twenty-one. In Hong Kong I had been involved in theatre. I wasn’t on the stage a lot, but I had written and directed plays and done lighting, sound and set design — a lot of things. Because of language, I didn’t feel confident to continue in that direction when I came to the U.S. I thought two-dimensional art would be easier and would avoid language challenges. That assumption was wrong, but I started taking classes with Laureen Landau at City College in Sacramento, and I learned that I could draw.

SG: It’s interesting to think about roots in theater and writing, I think I can see it in your painting.

HF: Maybe it’s interesting to share a monologue from a play I wrote  —

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The other day, mom got me an apple and told me to eat it. But who knows there was a worm inside the apple, and I didn’t find out until after I ate it.

Dad found me medication to take, but it didn’t get rid of the worm. It was still inside me, making me nauseated.

My older brother held me upside down to shake me, saying it would make the worm to come out of my mouth, but it didn’t.

My older sister prayed for me, hoping her god will cure me, but it didn’t work.

Grandma fed me with diet pills that made me poop a lot. I did it for days, but didn’t see the worm come out.

My baby sister suggested I eat more ice cream, giving the worm something nice and sweet, and it would settle down. I did exactly that.

It’s strange, but the worm didn’t bother me anymore.

And I have gotten used to it. Until now.

*

SG: Wow. It’s almost as if “until now” cues the pastel disquiet of your paintings. Let’s talk about your imagery.

HF: There are a few things. Men-imagery is always there. I don’t paint Asians and I don’t paint young people for the most part. They usually resemble my partner I guess. He’s my archetype. Then there’s a thing of dragging the brush that comes from Chinese calligraphy. Sometimes combined with geometric shapes.

SG: Did you study brush painting in school in Hong Kong?

HF: No, only calligraphy, which was required in grade school. I had five years of assignments using the traditional Chinese brush.

SG: Was that experience important?

HF: There were some assignments emphasizing the way the brush was held, and the ink and the interaction between the ink and the ground. In my paintings, these same characteristics generate forms. Sometimes it’s a plant like form, sometimes a feather. These forms have become part of the language that comes through my hand in painting.

SG: The men in your paintings often seem contemplative with eyes closed looking down. Your subjects exist in spaces that don’t have normal gravity, sometimes liquid or airy seeming spaces. The tableaux within the head shaped area in these paintings suggest a mind space also. Is there something about psychology or dream quality that’s important for you?

HF: Yes, I think the mind space depicted in the paintings echoes the idea of a stage in theater. My plays tended to have a quality of not so real. There was a stylized kind of domestic space, some familiarity in the characters, and what they say, but not naturalistic. I wanted to isolate and heighten the emotions. I think this dreamy space in many of my paintings is related to a kind of subjectivity.

A Little Bird Told Me. 2015, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in.
A Little Bird Told Me. 2015, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches

SG: Your imagery also includes natural forms that are sensual, morphing, often interconnected. There are fragments of architectural structures. In this painting here, the central grouping includes a brick fireplace on a boat, and two guys in what appears to be a charged interpersonal moment. Is there a story there?

HF: It might take a psychologist to draw it out of me. I don’t think I can say exactly why I think these things should go together. There are pieces of it that feel blind, or that I don’t know how to explain. I can construct parts of it. For example, I think it started with Twitter, and the blue came from Twitter, and there was an idea about my associations with social media and a seemingly flirtatious mode, something I wanted to express as a gay man, to quote unquote normalize gay life.

Untitled. 2013, watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 in.
Untitled. 2013, watercolor on paper, 10 x 14 inches

SG: You also make grid pieces, often with atmospheric color shifts, and in some cases juxtaposed with landscape, men, or hybrid forms. Can you talk about the grid? These pieces appear to take a long time.

HF: I wonder how much is a by-product of working full time at my job, and coming home and still trying to make work, feeling brain dead, yet still wanting to connect with painting. Often I would start with a martini, and then come up here to my studio. Those are times when it’s hard to invent, and working with geometric repetitions is an entrance. That was how it started.

SG: Is the repetition therapeutic for you, maybe akin to the martini, unwinding after work?

HF: Well, there are moments that feel therapeutic, but when it’s up on the wall, it’s not satisfying for it to be about an escape, or trying to reconcile. I’m not sure that these pieces are my most important works. They are there, they exist, and they help keep me going.

SG: Aside from these evenings after work, when do you paint?

HF: Usually Sunday. I have a pretty set routine in terms of how I live my life. Monday through Friday standard work. Saturday standard chores – laundry, ironing. So Sunday is a good day to paint.

SG: But you took a week off of work when you were doing these head silhouette paintings, right?

HF: Yes.

SG: Does that make a difference?

HF: Yes. My mind scatters a lot with a workweek in between painting time; I change my ideas. This time was more concentrated.

Foundation Above. 2015, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in.
Foundation Above. 2015, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

SG: What’s your feeling about your use of gay imagery? Has it been activist at all? You mentioned normalizing.

HF: It’s something that I’ve never really pushed as an activist. My angle was normalizing for myself. There’s a fantasy part of it, and the dreamy side, something more private than being an activist, speaking from the first thirty years of my life when gay themes were not out. So that’s a fantasy side of it that in earlier times I might not have stated in public. It’s a positive dream, rather than complaining or social critique or an underground. Even in the semi-pornographic work that I did in grad school — that was only semi-underground because I didn’t paint the whole thing. I didn’t paint the erect penis. I don’t do a full nude. That’s just not how I approach it. It’s always softer and dreamy.

SG: It’s non-confrontational.

HF: Yeah. It’s not there to offend or provoke. For me, it is so not poetic to go about it in that way. I’m not trying to shock.

SG: There’s something radical about not trying to shock, right?

HF: [laughter] I feel it’s just one way.

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Hei Fok is an artist living and working in Sacramento, California. His name is pronounced Hey Faulk. For more information check out www.heifok.com.