Anna Wong: Traveller on Two Roads spans a life of work that's visually and emotionally arresting

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      At the Burnaby Art Gallery until November 3

      Occurring five years after her death, the Burnaby Art Gallery’s Anna Wong retrospective spans the career of one of our most accomplished and yet underappreciated printmakers. Composed of some 70 artworks, including ink drawings, etchings, serigraphs, lithographs, block prints, and textiles, and complemented by a major catalogue, the show reveals significant aspects of her life, times, travels, and creative aspirations.

      Born in Vancouver in 1930, into one of the city’s most distinguished Chinese-Canadian families, Wong was the fifth of 10 children of Wong Kung Lai and Chu Man Ming. She greatly benefited from her parents’ desire to give their offspring a comprehensive education, ensuring that their western schooling was supplemented with teachings in Chinese language, history, culture, and, significantly in Anna Wong’s case, calligraphy. Early on, she also worked in the family business, Modernize Tailors, and gained experience in cutting and sewing that, many years later, would inform her large-scale, screen-printed and quilted textile works.

      Wong’s art education took place over a long period, arguably beginning with those calligraphy lessons in her childhood and enriched, when she was in her late 20s, by Chinese brush painting studies in Hong Kong. The show features four of Wong’s untitled ink works on paper from 1957, their depiction of traditional, nature-based subjects revealing her quick fluency in the medium.

      Anna Wong.

      Hung next to these is a grid of 16 small pen-and-ink drawings—again untitled—that Wong produced while attending the Vancouver School of Art in the early to mid-1960s. Characterized by either densely layered networks of crosshatched lines or airy swirls of jots, dashes, and squiggles, they demonstrate her deft shift from brush to nib, her developing interest in mark-making and overall abstraction, and the influence of a few of important instructors, particularly Ann Kipling.

      At the VSA, Wong encountered the printmaking that would seize her imagination and define her career. Her subsequent works are executed with amazing technical skills through many different processes, techniques, and motifs, from geometric abstraction to Chinese symbology. The resulting images, such as Praying Wheel and Pi, are extended experiments with colour, texture, layered imagery—and transcendence.

      On graduating from the VSA, Wong travelled to New York to further her studies at the famed Pratt Graphic Art Centre, and stayed on there for nearly 20 years as an instructor. During this time, she established a pattern of teaching in New York through the fall and winter and returning to the West Coast each summer to spend time with her family, teach again, and work in her Vancouver and Quadra Island studios. Among notable prints she created during this period are Pine II and Weeds #10, from a series of lithographs based on humble and overlooked natural forms such as leaves, grasses, and, yes, weeds.

      Anna Wong's Eastside, circa 1984, serigraph on paper.

      Significantly, Wong made seven trips to China following its opening to the West in 1978, and a large body of her prints and mixed-media works are based on photographs she shot on her extensive travels there. Subjects range from humble village architecture to Buddhist sculptures, and from tea thermoses to snowy mountain landscapes. Often, as in The Great Wall #6, Wong incorporated images of family members, reinforcing her deep commitment to her personal and cultural origins.

      Anna Wong: Traveller on Two Roads is both visually and emotionally arresting. Kudos to the BAG’s Ellen van Eijnsbergen and Jennifer Cane, and to the Wong family, for bringing together a comprehensive show and catalogue that honour an artist whose personal modesty and indifference to self-promotion might otherwise have allowed her work to slip into obscurity.