Hang Gao on colour field painting, the meme and why airbrush is the “perfect medium” for him

The Houston-based artist discusses how his past creative experiences have led him to a practice which “simulate[s] a modern production method but with a high fault tolerance.”

5 February 2021

We’ve seen quite a lot of airbrush pepper our feeds recently, as it fast becomes a popular medium for contemporary illustrators and artists alike. It’s also the technique of choice for Hang Gao, the Houston-based artist we’re meeting today. Having grown up in China, he spent eight years studying traditional oil painting in Beijing before moving to the USA in 2015. During his studies, he experimented with a variety of techniques which provided a great understanding of the “objecthood of the painting process.” Armed with these fundamental principles, upon moving to America, Hang then discovered a whole new way of using the medium.

He describes the experience akin to “a baby turtle going into the sea for the first time.” There was so much to explore both technically and conceptually, and in turn, he immersed himself in the contemporary art scene surrounding him. Encountering new artists, Hang pooled together his diverse experiences to develop a new artistic expression that remains unique to him. Conceptually, he explores the societal dynamics of his generation, more namely, the domination of social media and the online behaviours that have come with it. He refers to “the DNA/virus of this generation’s culture”: the meme. Interestingly, investigating these notions through colour field painting; an art movement otherwise known as Neo-geo which utilises geometric abstractions while criticising the consumerism of the modern day.

In order to find an apt way to bring these ideas together, Hang tells us, “the surface of the airbrush painting seems to be the closest one I could find.” In his words, “it is smooth, the smoothest, blurry, the blurriest, yet has the highest definition on its surface all at the same time.” By opting to use a neon colour palette, airbrush became the “perfect medium” for the artist. By studying the current oeuvre of the creative landscape, Hang noticed the search for higher and higher definition. It’s a technical achievement evident in many digital art forms (games, renders and so on) but in Hang’s case, he is seeking this through physical painting.

“Airbrush painting can give the sharpest/clearest images of blurry objects,” he adds on the matter. Making use of the entire spectrum that the medium offers, in Hang’s artwork, he achieves a mesmerising aesthetic which is both of these assets at the same time. Colour field painting remains at the core of his work, however, and the artist creates unique expressions through abstracting or enhancing certain features of a person. A direct feeling of the present is also elemental to his practice, something Hang communicates through a sense of movement achieved by the mixture of blurred and block colour.


Hang Gao: Their job is watching the dollar, 48x48 (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2021)

While he is expectedly influenced by the fine art greats like Hockney and Peter Doig, Basquiat and Agnes Martin, on the other hand, Hang also looks to comedy to inform his work. He mostly listens to stand up comedy while painting, saying, “I enjoy stand up comedy that challenges general beliefs and political correctness, yet at its core, is negotiating the observations, language and laughter of a given performance. Then you realise it’s no paradox, but a good conversation between the performer and the audience.” Continuing on from this line of thought, Hang likens his paintings to stand up comedy as “they can only do so much about solving real problems.” Nevertheless, brutal honesty, absurdity and humour remain to be powerful qualities in any conversation; something Hang taps into.

This can be seen in Hang’s recent series 21st Century Realism, a series exploring how the artist understands digital graphics as 21st Century “found objects.” Interested in objects that are bathing in the glory of technology, but expose a “rawness, oddity or awkwardness” at the same time, Hang depicts a creative stimulation birthed from the digital image evolution. He draws on his own experiences from the turn of the millennium for this series of works, remembering the unbridled creative impulse spurred on by this new digital means of expression which as a consequence, led to a shifting attitude too. The artist goes on to say of this work: “I want my practice to simulate a modern production method but with a high fault tolerance.”

As for the future, there is a lot on the cards for Hang including four solo shows scheduled this year across Houston, London and Eindhoven. He is also preparing for several group shows and art fairs in Germany, Taiwan and Shanghai; and to top off it off in an even more international display, Hang has a few collaborations coming up in Tokyo and London. A busy year to say the least, amidst all this travelling, Hang is determined to keep reading and experimenting as much as he can in order to challenge himself and take his work to the next level. “I have some concerns about my current work, some questions to figure out,” he finally goes on to say, “some respective people I want to talk to, and some new materials to be tested.”


Hang Gao: The legs, 48x24 (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2020)


Hang Gao: In your face, 40x30 (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2020)


Hang Gao: H1BO1B (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2020)


Hang Gao: conversation, 30x40 (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2020)


Hang Gao: A bigger cheetah, 72x55 (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2020)


Hang Gao: 146.2per lb, 8x10 (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2020)


Hang Gao: H1BO1B series, A very green card, 9x12x1in 2021, acrylic on panel (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2020)

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Hang Gao: James Bond 40x30 (Copyright © Hang Gao, 2020)

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About the Author

Jynann Ong

Jynann joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. She went freelance in 2022.

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