In Conversation with Phaan Howng: Standing with Nature and Women
Phaan Howng is a multi-disciplinary artist who lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. Howng was born in Providence, Rhode Island and is of Taiwanese descent. In her work, including large scale paintings and installations Howng, envisions a post-apocalyptic society that has been ruined by human negligence.
Her most recent work, a massive installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art in their third iteration of their Commons Collaboration, Phaan Howng: The Succession of Nature, envelops museum-goers in a cacophony of sound and color of one of these aforementioned post-apocalyptic landscapes. In collaboration with Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit which aims to educate the public about the pollution and toxic waste in Baltimore’s waterways, Howng transforms the gallery space in the museum’s education center to inspire a series of public programs about the concurrent exhibition, Imagining Home. This exhibition and others on view including those by artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Hank Willis Thomas & Kara Walker, Senga Nengudi, and Al Loving reflect the Baltimore Museum of Art’s steadfast commitment to women artists and artists of color, who reflect the local community. My conversation with Phaan with illuminated my understanding of her beautiful and community based art practice.
Imani Higginson: When and why did you first begin your art practice?
Phaan Howng: I graduated from Boston University with a BFA in painting in 2004 so I guess technically then, or maybe my entire life? But I guess not really hitting my current stride until after graduating from Mount Royal School of Art at MICA with my MFA in 2015. I guess as for the reason why… what is life without it?
Which artists or people more generally inspire your practice?
I guess contemporary artists that I have encountered working in new media, video, and performance are inspiring. All the recent work that I have seen has been very conceptually well thought out, installed in interesting and exciting ways, and always looks cool. But it could just be me wishing that I had the patience to either learn or just pick up their skills in seconds.
I also am inspired by the artist Alice Aycock, especially with her work ethic and dedication to her studio practice. She was able to handle all the white male large scale sculpture bros in the 70’s and is still working her ass off to this day, running her studio like a CEO of a business, but with soul and compassion. She’s my art godmother.
Beyond people, I am inspired by exhibitions that have huge production budgets (well maybe they don’t in real life) in amazing spaces, such as the Alex Da Corte, Jim Shaw, and Nick Cave shows at MASS MoCA, and Yayoi Kusama, Mark Bradford, and Ragnar Kjartansson’s shows at the Hirshhorn. Even super commercial galleries like Gagosian and Zwirner that may show artists--I don’t care too much about are a source of motivation because I want that. I want to be able to make work on that same scale in those spaces and destroy the universe.
"I want to be able to make work on that same scale in those spaces and destroy the universe."
How would you describe the art scene in Baltimore?
It is a small, invigorating, diverse, and active artist-run community with lots of potential to create great opportunities, whether it be an artist run gallery, local grant prospects, festivals and more. However, I am concerned about the community perpetually facing financial and real estate challenges, risking burn-out from all of us juggling too much between jobs, creating artwork, curatorial projects, and being involved in the greater community. Someone send money! Invest in Baltimore's artists and artist-run galleries!
"I also like how kids think the show is about what’s left of a party—which does make sense—humans trashed the earth after their big rager, and now we’re passed out somewhere in our own vomit.
What was the experience like collaborating with Blue Water Baltimore? What reactions to The Succession of Nature were most surprising?
I enjoyed collaborating with Blue Water Baltimore. I was very fortunate that my BWB point of contact, who was the person I worked with most from the organization, Michel Anderson, is also an artist and is incredibly knowledgeable about the local water issues in Baltimore, and that we got along very easily as if we were old friends. I used to be wary of doing collaborations, but after working with BWB I’ve learned how working collaboratively, especially with an organization, can help your work gain an audience beyond your immediate circle and can facilitate engagement with different communities.
I guess the most surprising reaction I know of from The Succession of Nature is how visitors do get very engaged or emotional with the space. I also like how kids think the show is about what’s left of a party—which does make sense—humans trashed the earth after their big rager, and now we’re passed out somewhere in our own vomit.
"I love challenging men, and emphasizing that I can do everything better than they do, especially those who claim to be “pro-women,” and especially in the art world, through a hard work ethic and independence."
What new projects can we expect from you in 2018?
An expansion of performance work of this “non-profit” organization I created called the Eternal Navigators of Doom (ENDO) that is funded by the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance Ruby’s Grant for Video and Performing Arts. I will also have a solo show at Arlington Art Center where I will take a break from immersive installation work and focus on exhibiting a good ol' body of painting and sculptures.
Lastly, in your own words, why are you a nasty woman?
I love challenging men, and emphasizing that I can do everything better than they do, especially those who claim to be “pro-women,” and especially in the art world, through a hard work ethic and independence. I also enjoy womansplaining to people that according to history, it has been proven that men have gotten us nowhere because of their pissing contests, blaming their problems on women, and that this is why we are on the verge of the apocalypse. So please step aside.
Phaan Howng: The Succession of Nature is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art until October 7, 2018
Follow Phaan Howng on Instagram @phaanlove