Alumna Christine Wong Yap's Work Is Fueled by Positive Psychology

Christine Wong Yap during The Great Balloon Giveaway, June 5, 2010 (photo: Paul Kuroda / Kuroda Visuals)

Every artist has an inspiration, whether it is another person, a piece of art, or something more abstract. For two-time CCA alum Christine Wong Yap (Printmaking 1998, MFA 2007), positive psychology is her inspiration and fuel. Positive psychology is about finding and nurturing one's talents to make normal life more fulfilling; it focuses on what you have, not what you don't have. Much of Wong Yap's artwork toys with viewers' optimism or pessimism, mirroring (sometimes literally) their perceptions of themselves and the world they live in.

Her May–June 2010 solo exhibition, Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors) at Sight School in Oakland—an artist-run space directed by CCA alumna Michelle Blade (MFA 2008)—is an exploration of positive psychology, in particular what she sums up as the intersection of "modest daily pleasures and discount culture: pleasure, ambition, cheapness, and cheerfulness." The artist transformed Sight School into a colorful interior resembling a shop and displayed reconfigured discount-store items, illuminated pegboards, and a text-based light box.

"My interest in 'cheap and cheerful' started during my Breathe Residency at Chinese Art Centre in Manchester, England," says Wong Yap. "There are a lot of pound shops—the U.K. equivalent of dollar stores—in Manchester. They sell utilitarian goods as well as things like garden gnomes, glitter pens, and stick-on rhinestones. I found compelling the idea that people who frequent pound shops should be able to access pleasure and feed their decorative impulses. Experience matters more than things."

In conjunction with the show, she organized the event "As Is: Pop and Complicity", which featured an open dialogue with the critic and curator (and CCA faculty member) Glen Helfand and the artist and writer Ginger Wolfe-Suarez, moderated by the curator and writer Patricia Maloney.

Wong Yap's largest project to date, The Great Balloon Giveaway, was also an exploration of optimism, pessimism, and other human emotions. In this site-specific social sculpture, 25 children from Oakland's Chinatown gave away 1,000 helium balloons to passersby on Saturday, June 5, 2010. Before their distribution the balloons were attached to the Camron-Stanford House, a historic Victorian home on the shore of Lake Merritt (and yes, it was indeed inspired by the Pixar movie Up!). The project was commissioned by the Mills College Art Museum for Here and Now, a series of site-specific installations in historic Oakland architecture, curated by CCA visiting professor Christian L. Frock.

Wong Yap describes what she identified as the essential aspects of the piece: "The immediate one was the gesture of interactions between kids and passersby. But in an imperceptibly subtle way, I was also interested in recontextualizing the history of the Camron-Stanford House. One of its early residents was David Hewes, who amassed his fortune thanks to Chinese manual labor during an era of exclusion."

There was also the visual pleasure of the brightly colored balloons, their temporary and brilliant punctuation of the public's circumambulation of Lake Merritt, and an opportunity to explore people's reactions to small acts of generosity. "And on a personal note, it was meaningful for me to do a public project in Oakland before I move to New York with my husband, Michael Yap. (He's a CCA adjunct professor in the Graphic Design Program.) Ever since I first moved to Oakland in 1994 when I came to CCA for my BFA, I've appreciated the diverse cross-section of joggers, workers, families, seniors, and neighbors who frequent the lake. It was really an honor to be invited to do such a large public project."

Wong Yap did not begin her specific exploration of optimism and pessimism until graduate school. "When I first came to CCA, I was interested in graphic design, but I fell in love with printmaking and became a fine artist. In my BFA studies, I focused on relief woodcuts. When I came back to CCA for my MFA, the interdisciplinary bent to the program encouraged an expansive practice, so I applied my printmaking and graphic design background toward my new interests in text, paper cuts, multiples, and conceptual practices, and started exploring optimism and pessimism.

"Going to grad school at CCA helped me reinvent my work. It was where I laid the groundwork for my idiosyncratic practice. My willingness to experiment has been boosted by the confidence that comes with having the critical and conceptual tools to engage contemporary art practices. Being an artist requires a high tolerance for uncertainty, which becomes more manageable when you have faith in your process and ideas, because you know they've been put to the test by rigorous professors and peers."

Wong Yap is a regular contributor to Art Practical. Her work was included in We have as much time as it takes, a spring 2010 exhibition at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts.

Read more about Christine Wong Yap at Artopic.org.