To the Muses


May 11, 2021

Whether on Ida’s shady brow,
          Or in the chambers of the East,
The chambers of the sun, that now
          From ancient melody have ceas’d;

Whether in Heav’n ye wander fair,
          Or the green corners of the earth,
Or the blue regions of the air,
          Where the melodious winds have birth;

Whether on crystal rocks ye rove,
          Beneath the bosom of the sea
Wand’ring in many a coral grove,
          Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry!

How have you left the ancient love
          That bards of old enjoy’d in you!
The languid strings do scarcely move!
          The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!

– William Blake

When I graduated from art school in New York in 2001, I went to see a major exhibition surveying the work of William Blake at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Blake toiled in obscurity for all of his life, and there was something about his outsider status that felt like a harbinger of my own nascent career. In this particular moment, I was caught between worlds: one firmly rooted in oil painting/drawing from life, and the other in the digital realm. I was also orbiting the world of fine art while struggling to make a living as an illustrator. In search of a sense of place, I asked the questions, but the sound was forced, and the notes were few.

Blake’s prophetic images were created using an innovative mixed media technique combining relief-etched copper plates and painted pigments on paper. Similarly, my work was also cobbled together from a variety of different techniques inspired by the multi-layered etchings I had made in art school. I’d make a painting or drawing, scan it into photoshop, color it digitally, print it out, paint on top of the prints, and then scan them back into the computer again, creating layers upon layers of digital mille-feuille…using whatever means necessary to bring the image to life.

As a 1.5 generation immigrant, having moved to the US from Taiwan at the age of three, I was accustomed to existing in the margins, an observer but never a full participant. Perhaps that’s why I felt so comfortable sketching commuters on the subway and random passersby during my travels – the sketchbook was a screen behind which I could hide and mediate any real interaction. Barriers upon barriers emerged constantly, and as a young artist without any art world connections in a world before social media, I was stumbling blindly through an inscrutable maze. A few months after the Blake show, I drew the Twin Towers as they fell across the river from my apartment in Brooklyn. For a while, making art seemed inconsequential in the face of this scar on the landscape and on the national psyche, and it was difficult to get any work.

My dense, narrative images were too esoteric for the editorial illustration world, and they were too technically proficient for the fine art world, but somehow they were just right for comic book covers. For seven years, I did hundreds of covers for DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse Comics. This surge of work finally pierced the veil between worlds, and I eventually did album covers (The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance), expansive fashion collaborations (Prada), and movie posters (The Shape of Water, Blade Runner 2049, mother!) for Academy Award-nominated and winning directors.

Despite my inherent shyness, my work had gained notoriety on the internet. People collected my drawings and paintings, and I noticed they were trading actively on the secondary market. Requests for original drawings and paintings increased. Eventually, I stopped illustrating and, turning my focus back to painting, had my first solo show in January 2009 in New York, right after the global financial crisis. The show sold out, but it took over half a year to settle the payments, and the gallery never quite recovered, eventually closing.

My second solo show opened in 2011 in Los Angeles, and during the opening, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. Friends from Japan were attending my show, and instead of celebrating afterward, we convened late that night in our shared studio space to follow the news and contact loved ones overseas. (A woman named Chihiro cried as her father told her to stay in Los Angeles for her own safety, and a few years later, we would get married and start a family together.) The gallery would also close, as it became increasingly difficult for mid-tier galleries to survive amid the consolidation of power among blue-chip galleries.

My father grew up on a small farm in Taiwan and had the opportunity to move to the US and work for a large company—eventually, he left the safety of the corporate life to start his own business. He was in control of his own destiny, but lurking in the periphery was always the danger of failure. When I was a child, he had me deliver newspapers with him early in the morning at 5 am, and during our visits to the optometrist, he would try to sell titanium eyeglass frames on the side. I cringed at the sales pitches, and the hustle was ever-present. Though I rebelled and went to art school despite his disapproval, I now realize that I have inherited his entrepreneurial drive and the awareness that the structures around us that signify security and salvation are all but fragile illusions.

As we ineptly emerge from lockdown from yet another global disaster, I’m reminded that the life of an artist is especially precarious. Early on in my career, I started selling digital prints of my work, and became immersed in the technology. Most of the discourse around color gamut, paper quality, and the lightfastness of ink was generated by photographers, but I saw this as a means to sell my digital work, which would otherwise have no physical component. I coded my own web store and connected it to PayPal. The orders started coming in and I would fulfill each one by myself. Now, almost 20 years later, my prints and editions have developed into elaborate achievements in printmaking and fabrication, and the work that I make directly contributes to the livelihoods of numerous teams of people. The structures I have created to support my art have grown, the stakes are higher, and the vision for the work is grander.

In 2019, I had my first solo museum show in Seoul at the LOTTE Museum of Art, following and preceding institutional artists like Dan Flavin, Alex Katz, and Basquiat. This was a major inflection point for me, and also represented another tear in the veil of the ever-shifting cultural landscape. I was an artist that didn’t have the proper trajectory or the right pedigree, but through sheer force of will, the foresight of the curators, and the momentum of my audience, a new path was forged through the bramble.

Though I continue to hide in the shadows, the work declares its own existence. It burrows into the eyes and nestles into the brain. It is the resonance of the image that is the most essential aspect of my practice. I have always made digital work in parallel to my physical work, exploring different techniques and methods to create the image. Drawing from diverse art historical periods, I attempt to access the timeless mythologies that are the building blocks of our subconscious, mining the unknown with gestural and precise marks.

Though I deeply connect with the physicality of paintings and sculpture, the digital image can be powerful and effective in its own way. When my son plays Animal Crossing, the representation of himself in the virtual world and the digital items that populate his island have become more desirable than physical toys and accessories. His young brain immediately and seamlessly projects his mind into the metaverse. He puts in the proof of work to earn Robux and exchange it for the rarest of armor and access to forbidden realms. With the advent of blockchain technology and its utility in collecting and authenticating art, I see that it’s now possible to fully pull back the veil of reality and elevate digital art into a more serious context. No longer does a physical item need to be exchanged for currency – with a metaphysical exchange of contract addresses and hashes on the blockchain, a patron can instantaneously establish their faith in an artist’s vision and career.

With the veil removed, this radical transparency has also caused some painful reckoning and divisiveness among artists. The relationship between collector and artist has traditionally been mediated by a gallery or advisor, and the process has always taken place in an insular environment. Prices are obscured and obfuscated. Even when a work is sold at an auction house, the process is opaque, and mechanisms like guarantees and anonymous bidding are commonly employed to achieve record prices. It is uncomfortable for some artists to participate in the commerce that supports their practice, and also difficult to witness how the market accelerates and throttles the careers of their peers. By applying the innovation of NFTs to the art world, the structure of transacting and collecting art is laid bare for all to see. And with social media used as the means of communication and promotion for collecting NFTs, what previously took place underneath a duvet of politesse is now exposed in raw clapping flesh.

The systemic inequality and financial dynamics at play have created debate and polarization online, but the promises of blockchain technology, such as decentralization, transparency, and trustless transactions without the need for third parties, are a corrective force in a consolidated art industry. It’s not a perfect force, as hierarchies are already being established in this chaotic new landscape, but it’s a huge disruption that opens up possibilities for many more artists to establish or regain their sovereignty and control their own careers.

Perhaps the most important innovation of attaching NFTs to art is the implementation of smart contracts and the ability for the artist to receive royalties from the secondary market. Historically, artists have been excluded from the secondary market and auctions as the value of their work increases. The enforceable bits of code in the smart contracts allow the artist to control the pace of speculation on the secondary market by customizing the terms of the sale and automatically dividing the proceeds to each party in the equation. Charitable disbursements can also be made automatic and transparent on the blockchain as well.

Much of the initial criticism of NFTs comes from the intensive energy usage by proof-of-work blockchains, but this issue has been solved by WAX, a well-established delegated proof-of-stake blockchain that was invented expressly for digital assets. LGND is built on WAX, and their authentication process is a staggering 125,000 times more efficient than other blockchains. Also, due to its efficiency, artists and buyers on LGND are fully liberated from the gas fees that plague the dominant platforms. Essentially, any concerns about an artist participating in an energy-intensive protocol to attach an NFT to their work is rendered moot if they use a proof of stake blockchain such as WAX. I encourage artists to challenge the energy usage of proof-of-work blockchains by migrating their work to green alternatives.

These musings are meant to introduce my history to a new audience, explain why I became interested in the technology, and describe how my practice fits within this space. Selling digital assets and recording the work onto the blockchain will merely be another layer in the multitude of methods I use to sustain my studio and creative endeavors. This space is meant for industrious artists who seek to bolster their independence in an increasingly digital world and for tech-savvy collectors who are interested in direct patronage. Collecting, and the compulsion and connoisseurship behind it, completes the ecosystem of art production, be it physical or digital. The legacy structures of galleries and corporations will still function for artists of different ambitions, and the challenges of gatekeeping, inequality, and distribution of financial resources will continue to exist in the matrix of competing human desires…perhaps one day an AI will break the encryption of our deeply embedded yearnings and liberate us from pain and suffering, but for now, the machines have created network effects that will continue to astonish and devastate at a rapid pace. Though much is uncertain, what I can be sure of is that I will continue to explore new territories and break old boundaries until the muses have ceased their song.