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For Wendy Park, it was the soothing scent of her mother’s Tiger Balm, the memory of her father’s nightcap (Crown Royal with three ice cubes), and the ambient sound of the Korean nightly news. For me, it was my mother stealing away for a piece of dark chocolate as my dad dozed on the couch while watching Antiques Roadshow. In the exhibition OFF THE CLOCK, Park took great care in rendering the relished rituals of rest that her parents looked forward to at the end of each workday. There’s an almost cinematic quality to the way that Park suffuses the familiar routines of L.A.’s immigrant working class with unexpected luxury—her references to objects of ’90s childhood nostalgia mirrors the trappings of my upbringing as the daughter of working class Eritrean immigrants. Many of Park’s early memories center around labor, and the objects in her paintings—even the trinkets that she associates with rest— are inescapably tied to work and commerce. What does it look like when our most potent memories, of those intimate, in-between moments shared with loved ones in domestic spaces, are mediated by labor? Park takes these fleeting occasions and stretches them out on canvas to present a new, inspired way of reconciling with the working class experience.
In these large-scale compositions, deep evergreens and reds give way to pastel pinks and purples, the hues at once garish and banal. Park’s paintings have a precise and realistic, yet highly graphic, quality to them—unmistakable renderings of Crayola markers, a Shin Ramyun container, and a pair of dark-wash Levi’s are met with the playful, collage-like 2-dimensionality of colorful storybook illustrations in which perspectives warp and each element feels compositionally grounded. The Sony remote in the foreground of Off the Clock (all works 2022) feels larger than life, pointing perhaps to the irresistible pull of an evening on the couch after a long work day. Her vibrant palette and rounded shapes suggest a kind of ’90s-era nostalgia (a Gak-green color appears in several works, a speckled, fuschia linoleum in others) that make personal reflection irresistible to a viewer of a certain age.
Heart Apples and Hangers is an affectionate blend of the ever-present ephemera of working life and the just-as-ubiquitous tenderness of home. Three apple wedges loosely resembling hearts wait to be eaten on a plate that rests atop a table strewn with clothes hangers. The snack feels representative of the sweet slivers of respite that cut through the relentlessness of making ends meet. Time waits for no one, and yet, a parent who manages to stop the clock long enough to present their child with a little treat feels emblematic of the familiar, perseverant spirit of leisure that is safeguarded against the otherwise labored existence of immigrant life in this country.
Park’s paintings celebrate the particular brand of immigrant resourcefulness that long predates the phrase “zero waste,” a practical duty to reuse almost anything that is brought into immigrant homes. In Crown Royal Supplies, the regal purple drawstring bag once containing her father’s Crown Royal has been repurposed as a school supply pouch—Crayola crayons and markers, pencils, and a pink eraser tumble out of their new home. In Poker Story, a giant cardboard box and a thin slab of unfinished wood become an outdoor game table. In Lemon Soju, a cinder block stacked with soju and lemons makes for an elegant bar. The pink-tiled backdrop makes the ordinary translucent green bottle pop, giving it the star quality of a glossy magazine ad and transforming the cinder block into a worthy pedestal—a testament to Park’s painterly treatment of otherwise discardable things. Growing up, before my mom left for the diner where she waitressed, she would leave missives for me and my sisters on the back of restaurant slips with old orders for Grand Slams and over-easy eggs scrawled on the other side. Metal cookie tins became sewing kits; empty glass tomato sauce jars became containers for clarified butter.
Working class life has been a recurring theme in Park’s previous paintings, with a special focus on the Southern California swap meet—the commerce culture was a big part of her childhood. She continued to play with these subjects across many of the paintings in OFF THE CLOCK. A closer inspection of Lemon Soju reveals a tiny neon orange price tag. The repurposed box in Poker Story is spackled with price stickers, too. Levis Inventory shows folded blue and black iterations of the popular denim jeans hung beside an L.A. swap meet mainstay: a white cotton Pro Club heavyweight T-shirt. In the upper corner of the painting, an oversized placard reads “$6.99. ”—Park has said that as a child, her father’s workplace (the swap meet) “became her playground.”1 I imagine her on adventures through racks of clothes as she patiently waited for her dad’s shift to end, not unlike the way I’d once sat at the diner counter, daydreaming over a plate of fries and a raspberry iced tea as I waited for my mom to clock out.
First-gen kids with working-class parents often lament the disproportionate degree to which our parents’ identities—and thus our memories—were shaped by labor. Park acknowledges this reality, but shifts her focus. Instead, she honors the treasured moments when the authentic, most relaxed versions of our parents would come out and sit for a spell between shifts. This romantic and revelatory approach invites sweet reminiscing about heart-shaped fruit and dark chocolate stashes. It manages to zero in on these provisional pleasures and offers a new lens through which we can mine our most formative memories.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 30.