Photographer Johnny Tang looking behind him down an empty alleyway

Artist-in-Residence Johnny Tang: Seeking Perfect Imperfection, One Photo at a Time

Are you seeing double? Triple? Quadruple? Yes, and then some.

In the surreal and mind-bending images of "World of One," his exhibition at Pearl River Mart, artist-in-residence Johnny Tang explores themes of individuality, conformity, and otherness. Using only himself as the model (yes, that’s all Tang), he juxtaposes contrasting actions and emotions in the same frame, each representing different facets of the same personality.

We had the chance to speak to the photographer about the various traditions and philosophies that influence his work, how art helped him navigate grief and loss, and if losing (or gaining) a horse is good new or bad.

Tell me a little about your childhood. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Boston and raised in a nearby town called Lexington. Its claim to fame is being where the first shot of the American Revolution was fired.

Where did you go to college?

I started in Chicago at DePaul where I was a history major for two years. But when I took my first history classes, I realized two things: one, I was very bad with names, and two, I was very bad with dates. [Laughs] Clearly that wasn’t going to work out. I mean, I enjoyed the storytelling aspect of history, but the nitty gritty of the day to day wasn’t appealing to me.

That got me thinking, What am I actually good at? Well, I remember being very good at art in high school even though I didn’t try very hard. So I thought I should stick to my strengths and try to make something happen. That’s when I decided to transfer to SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] in Atlanta, Georgia.

How did your parents react to that?

I asked my mother a couple of years ago why she let me be an artist. When I was thinking about transferring schools, she asked me, “Aren’t you afraid of starving?” and I replied, “No, because I don’t eat that much anyway.” She said hearing that answer made her feel like I had the determination to be an artist.

I actually regret saying those words now because I really underestimated how difficult it was going to be. Sometimes I wish I could be more passionate about something else. Like finance or software engineering! That would have made my life easier. But I feel like you don't get to pick what you like or what you're good at.

What did you do after college?

I graduated in 2009, which was right in the middle of the recession. I went through a slew of terrible jobs. I had moved back to Boston to reconnect with family and friends, but kind of got stuck. During that period I went through eight different jobs. I had three photo internships, was working for my dad, worked an assembly line, and was looking for permanent work. I even had brief stints working in a restaurant and as a parking valet.

Eventually I found a job in a frame shop, which gave me a new appreciation for fine art. When you’re a creator or the maker of something, you might tell yourself, "If it gets messed up I’ll just make another one." But as a consumer, you don’t feel that way at all. You feel really attached to that piece of art.

Working at a frame shop really showed me the level of appreciation people have for their art. I was making deliveries and doing installations so I also got to see a lot of cool collections. That had a pretty big impact on me because I got to see how art actually lives. When you see art in a gallery or museum, it’s so far removed from the context of what it’s like to see it every day. When you see it in someone's living room, it becomes a totally different experience.

Were you also pursuing photography on your own at that time?

Yes. The big turning point for me was in 2010. One of my closest friends died that summer. She was that girl who shattered all my preconceived notions of girls. Basically she showed me the world. To lose her was totally devastating. It just shocked me.

When I was coming back from her wake, I started to think about what I wanted to accomplish with the time I have left. Up until that point, I was just trying to be a good photographer, to make pictures other people thought were great. I was shooting and working for other people but not for myself. So at that point I made a promise to myself that I would only make things I thought I had the potential to love.

There’s a big difference between things you might think are good and have respect for, and things that you just irrationally fall in love with. Things that are imperfect but that you love anyway, like Philly cheesesteaks. [Laughs] That’s when I started making the "World of One" images. It began with combining different things I like to form a Frankenstein-esque monster that I could love. For instance, "World of One" combines long form scroll paintings with philosophical concepts that I enjoy.

What philosophical concepts are those?

How can you tell reality is real? Or as I prefer to think about it, How can you tell if you’re awake or you’re dreaming? What is truth? How do I know I’m me?

What were you working on before "World of One"?

My first long-term photo project involved folding a thousand white paper cranes and burning them in the snow. It took me about a year to complete the folding process. But the picture didn’t even turn out the way I wanted it to. By the end of it, I thought, I can’t do this. This is not a good look. I can’t just make one picture per year!

So I came up with smaller projects to keep up appearances. It took me about 20 hours to complete “Dichotomy,” which would be the first photo in the "World of One" body of work.

"Dichotomy," 2010

It was the first photo I shot after my friend’s wake. The next year, after some arm-twisting from a collector, I submitted it to the MassArt auction. They ended up selling I think three or four copies of this one piece. At the time, it was the most money I had ever made at once, and the first time I was even close to making a living wage at all, let alone with my photography. I thought maybe I should make more.

At the time I finished "Dichotomy," I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever made and I was terrified to try again. I thought, There’s no way I can make something that good again. But then I met a girl, which gave me the courage to keep trying, even if I was just trying to impress her. Then I started to make more and more.

After I shot the first eight photos in the series digitally, I wanted to try shooting it on film to improve the picture quality. “Reflection” became the first image in this series to be shot on film.

"Reflection," 2012

When I saw it, it just blew my mind. Right away it felt better and looked nicer than anything I had ever made up to then. That was a huge turning point for me. Also, the added cost forced me to think more deeply about what I was trying to express. Because every button press on film costs you something. "Reflection" cost me something like $80 on materials alone. Whereas when you shoot things digitally, it costs you nothing to push that button.

This is when I really started to impose a narrative on my images. Prior to "Reflection," I hadn’t been focusing on any particular narrative. I just thought a particular setting or situation would create a cool picture. I’d go to a site and just freestyle what the composition would be. But once I started shooting film, I never did that again. I would plan my shoots more meticulously. I would make sketches, scout locations beforehand, and decide on the time of day and kind of lighting before shooting. Basically I became much more careful, which made me a much better photographer.

How did you come upon the idea for "World of One"? Was it sudden or had it been brewing in your mind?

A bit of both. I discovered the work of Phunk Studio and fell in love with their strong black and white style. When I saw that I thought, I want to create something like that. Those were the creative constraints I placed when I set out to shoot "Dichotomy." Something long with a black and white concept. As it evolved, it became more about what it meant to divide these two sides black and white  and to show two different sides of one personality.

My friend who’s a painter said of the early photos, "None of the guys are interacting with each." It was at that point that I started incorporating those philosophical concepts that I talked about.

What made you think of having yourself repeated in the photos?

That was a limited resource kind of thing. Doing the first photo with just myself was low risk. I mean, I know I’ll always be available. After the first few, I realized I had to keep using myself in order to build consistency in the work. Otherwise it wouldn’t look coherent.

Tell me a little about the b-boy stuff. You are one.

Yes, I’m a b-boy. I started in high school, and it's greatly influenced how I think about creativity and what it means to be a creative person.

To me the mark of a great dancer is if you still enjoy watching them even when you don't know much or anything about dance. My approach to making art is that I want to be like those dancers. You can appreciate the art even if you don’t know it’s hard. That’s why I try to make my pictures seamless, to completely immerse the viewer in my world. But if you do happen to know something about photography, it's easier for you to see the level of craft.

You’d be surprised how many people who ask, “Are these all you?” and “How did you do these?” To me they're obviously photoshopped, but I think the difference is that usually these types of photoshopped images are overly lit with artificial lighting. It already looks fake before you even photoshop it. They do that because a picture that’s evenly lit is easier to photoshop. It’s quicker.

I think people read my pictures as somehow more realistic because of the organic way they look from using whatever lighting is available in the streets. I would like to describe my style as striving for perfect imperfection.

What’s your next project?

The next big project I want to do is a book burning. I want to make 451 little red books [referencing Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel, "Fahrenheit 451"], have people fill them with their secrets, and collectively burn them together. This is one of those year-long things in which I immensely enjoy the process but don't get to make too many of them.

What advice would you have for a young artist just starting out?

I would tell them, "It’s not supposed to be easy." That’s what I tell myself all the time. Some of my friends say they really admire that I’ve chosen this path and I’ve stuck with it. I tell them that it’s supposed to be difficult and it’s worth it in the end. When we die we can’t take anything with us, but you do have control over what you’ll leave behind. I’d rather leave something meaningful behind rather than just making lots of money and spending it. Although that can be fun too.

What would you tell your younger self?

I would like to tell my younger self, “It will work out.” Life is always up and down. It’s hard to tell if something is good or bad. I heard this Taoist fable recently. There’s a farmer and he has this beautiful prized horse. One day the horse runs away and his neighbor says, “Oh no, that’s too bad.” The farmer replies, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day the horse comes back with a whole herd of beautiful horses. The neighbor says, “Congratulations! Now you’re even richer.” The farmer replies, “Who knows what’s good or bad?” The next day his son is trying to ride one of the horses and breaks his leg. And the story can just keep going on and on.

I would like to reiterate to my younger self that you don’t know what’s good or bad in that moment. All you can do is try to be stable. Even if your life is unpredictable, if you yourself are stable, it will be easier to navigate through those ups and downs.

Is there anything you’re finding particularly inspiring right now?

I recently started bachata dancing. It’s a style of Latin dance, a partner dance. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from breakdancing. With breakdancing, your weight is centered and you only worry about yourself. With bachata you share that balance with somebody else. You’re much more mindful of what they’re capable of, are you giving clear signals, etc.

Lately I’ve been trying to expand my identity. I try to regularly see work in galleries and museums. I try to travel as much as I can. Outside of the galleries I rarely look at photography. I prefer to look at paintings, illustrations, comics, and sculptures. I try to find anything that’s visually appealing. It can even be movies or video games.

When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to take Mr. Brown's film class instead of English literature my senior year.  It was one of the most influential classes I’ve had in my life. The teacher was very strict but also very good. He gave me a system on how to value all kinds of art. He taught us that all art is true in that it needs to reflect the human condition. He also said that all truths are paradoxical. These lessons also had a profound influence on the "World of One."

What does Pearl River Mart mean to you? What was it about the art gallery that made you consider it for your exhibition?

Showing at Pearl River Mart is something of a dream come true for me because it’s a space focused specifically on Asian American artists. New York is the fine art capital of the U.S., if not the world, but I haven't seen any other spaces in the city as dedicated to creating a dialogue about the Asian American experience. You've got the Eli Klein gallery that's focused on contemporary mainland Chinese artists, but other than that I don’t often see much art by any Asians (let alone Asian Americans). After going to a few openings at Pearl River, I felt like our goals and interests were aligned and knew I had to reach out.

Pearl River also represents a particular archetype for me of the Chinatown gift shop. Some of my earliest memories of discovering art are from shops like it in Boston, where I was initially drawn to the ceramic kung fu sculptures. As a kid growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, this was one of the few means I had of accessing anything even remotely resembling Asian art. To finally be able to show my art in such a space makes me feel like I'm coming back full circle.

WORLD OF ONE will be on view in our TriBeCa gallery from March 23 through May 5. Free and open to the public.

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