Alvin Ong’s 70 Self Portraits Make “In My Head” @ Various Small Fires, Seoul

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VSF, Seoul // October 28, 2023 – December 23, 2023

All images oil on canvas, courtesy of VSFAll images oil on canvas, courtesy of VSF

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Various Small Fires proudly presents In My Head, a solo exhibition by Juxtapoz favorite Alvin Ong, marking the artist’s Seoul debut and first exhibition with the gallery. One of the most exciting young figurative painters in Asia, Ong is known for his intimate paintings that capture quotidian moments in surreal bodily compositions, playfully combining diverse visual vocabularies alongside his own lived experience of hybridity and distance.

Consisting of 70 self-portraits, the artist has composed a visual symphony; a monumental and immersive installation reflecting the artist’s ongoing interests in the physicality of the body. We are taken on a very personal journey of nostalgia, longing, and intimacy. The vocabulary of the mundane has been transformed into a site of spectacle, a cabinet of curiosities through which audiences are implicated as flaneur and voyeur. Each work is intimately bound up with the artist’s memories and imaginations, unfurling through a fertile variety of impulses and desires, as they are edited, layered, and finally gathered into place.

Spanning the entirety of the gallery wall space, the overarching grid references the social mediums through which we connect and interact with one another; such as Instagram and various dating apps. The grid is a powerful unifying force, but also an ephemeral, transformative apparatus. Individual canvases function as windows, mirrors, frames, screens and filters. Venetian blinds and mirrored reflections simultaneously obscure and reveal their subjects in equal measure. Faces approach the edges of the canvas, its forms tethered to, contained, or supported by the frames which constitute them.

Experiments into colour and various formal compositional processes are laid out side by side, and appear to yield yet more ideas and unexpected results. Jadeite greens and lacquer reds are set against dusty pink hues and sombre blues, evoking both natural and artificial light. Figures appear to dissolve and retreat, individually isolated, weaving in and out of one another.

Also scattered across the show are intimate snapshots of existence; nights out on the dance floor, chess in a pub, a casual hook-up, a toilet mirror, a blackout, a local haunt, café and cigarettes, a solo violin, a dance, shower, and an embrace. These vignettes contain an anxious, searching, yearning quality in them, as a cast of recurrent characters journey to discover one another and encounter themselves in the process. Oscillating between desire and restlessness, they are coolly detached. Their eyes are often downcast. They rarely meet our gaze, so we are never implicated for watching too closely.

In juxtaposing the eccentric against the typical, and the pathological next to the normative, the artist has laid bare the multiple prisms of existence around us and within us. In so doing, In My Head reinterprets the act of “finding oneself” in all its paradoxical glory; A reality of attachment, multiple attachment, or attachment at a distance; one that is complex and multiple but does not cease to be a mode of belonging.

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