So Style: Jordan Wong at the Akron Art Museum

The 10,000 Things art exhibition at the Akron Art Museum. Phot by Bob Perkoski

In September, the Akron Art Museum’s galleries will open an expansion of The 10,000 Things, an exhibition of murals and freestanding works by Jordan Wong. The first phase—four original pieces of Wong’s art—have stood in the museum’s Bud and Susie Rogers Garden since May. These outdoor works introduced Rubber City to Wong’s distinctive style—colorful, slyly referential, bursting with the enthusiasm of a kid in a toy store.

One piece simulates a character selection screen for a nonexistent, but intriguing video game. Viewers can peruse options like a pink-haired ninja, an orca effortlessly swimming through lava, a smiling wolf made of purple flames, and a rough-looking cat in a leather coat and eye patch.

Jordan Wong, Journey (to the West), digital image

A mural on one of the museum’s outdoor walls depicts a towering robot from the Japanese franchise Mobile Suit Gundam. Its armor is white and blue, and it stands with a knightly bearing. The space it inhabits is filled with snake plants and shoots of bamboo. The challenge Wong set for himself here was making a harmonious image with both the robot’s manmade, mechanical, and hard-edged shapes and the organic, soft, rounded forms of flora.

On the other side of the courtyard stands a huge portrait of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. Sun Wukong is an early literary antihero, a trickster of immense magical power sent on a mission of redemption by the Buddha. In Wong’s depiction, Sun Wukong wears a dashing red cape, dragon-faced shoulder pads, and a tiara adorned not with jewels, but a sapphire tongue of flame. He winks and flashes a devilish grin across his pink face.

Around the principal figures in each of these pieces swarm geometric shapes, arrows, animals, monsters, and snippets of text, usually words of affirmation: “YES,” “YAY,” “SHINING,” “READY,” “NO PANIC,” “DEFY,” “JOIN,” “FWD.”

Jordan Wong, Choose Your Character, II, digital image

It’s a lot to take in. Wong himself cheekily acknowledges this. In the Sun Wukong mural, one floating message reads simply, “SO MANY ARROWS.” This maximalism lends itself to a unique form of engagement. Viewers can go on a scavenger hunt, and try to find dozens of images and symbols catalogued in a pamphlet printed by the museum.

Wong has witnessed the kid-friendliness of this concept firsthand. Children eagerly run around the garden, guidebooks in hand, racing each other to finish the hunt. Sometimes they recognize Wong, and ask for his autograph on their pamphlets. It’s an experience Wong is still getting used to.

“It’s kind of a surreal moment when people come up and ask you to sign things. It’s cool. I’m so lucky. You put something out into the world, and people want you to sign the little part they take home with them,” Wong said.

Jordan Wong, Choose Your Character I, digital image

When discussing his career, thankfulness is a theme Wong returns to again and again.

“As I progress, gratitude remains at the top. It’s the most prominent thing,” he said.

Monumental-scale pieces such as these are perhaps unexpected given Wong’s background. He graduated from California University of Pennsylvania with a degree in graphic design and marketing. Originally from Pittsburgh, Wong relocated to Cleveland in 2015 to accept his first job. Very shortly after the move, Wong was fired. But the experience didn’t sour him on creative industries—or, for that matter, Cleveland. He stayed in Northeast Ohio, operating freelance and literally making a name for himself: the brand Wongface.

“The idea of working for myself wasn’t even on my mind” before being fired, Wong said. Working one-on-one with clients, Wong came to appreciate the cooperative skills needed for any artistic collaboration. He came to see his role as helping other people achieve their goals by using design. To keep all sides happy, Wong learned communication was vital at every stage in the collaborative process. “You make your lives easier in communication. Updating each other so there are no surprises, always coming from a place of gratitude.”

Wong now finds himself on the other side of the artist-client relationship. More accurately, he is on both sides at once. For his public art projects, Wong depends on fabricators to make his designs into tangible objects, and installers to put them in their intended places. Despite having more freedom to realize his personal visions, he still works alongside his partners with humility: “Relationships are such an important part of my work.”

Jordan Wong, The 10,000 Things, Akron Art Museum. Photo credit: Bob Perkoski

While building Wongface, Wong networked and organized with other local designers, eventually becoming president of the Cleveland chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), a professional association for design. Through his associations, he was invited into an endeavor no one might have predicted: public art. Wong has drawn murals for Public Square, Asian Town Center, and a building on Madison Avenue in his current hometown, Lakewood.

The Public Square project was Wong’s earliest, made in collaboration with LAND Studios and WestCamp Press. The most important text in that image was in a word bubble spoken by a white-and-black-striped tiger: “IT’S YOU!” For Wong, public art is not just art displayed “in public,” but art made for the public, for the people who make and inhabit common spaces.

“That whole piece is a celebration of the viewer,” Wong said.

He has public art pieces planned for the future. The September opening at Akron Art Museum will feature a scaled-down model of SUPER MEGA WONDER 1999, a combination art installation and little free library. Wong has also had meetings in Akron and Pittsburgh to discuss potential future pieces.

Wong is able to speak to broad audiences by first making art that excites him. He does so by tapping into the earliest memories of artistic engrossment from his childhood. Growing up, Wong’s father flew to and from Japan on numerous business trips. He often brought back gifts for Jordan. Those that made the biggest impression were model kits. Just as much as he was excited by the assembly-required toys, young Jordan was enthralled by their packaging and kaleidoscopic, attention-grabbing riots of colors, lightning bolts, explosions, robots, monsters, and heroes. By emulating the style and substance of those pieces of commercial design, Wong hopes to infect his audiences with that same enthusiasm.

“That’s what I want to offer with my work. A moment of imagination, a visual ‘Wow!’,” Wong said.

Wong lists as some recurring themes in his work growth, perseverance, whimsy, storytelling, and a narrative pattern named by Joseph Campbell—the hero’s journey. These themes might be embodied by original characters: Wong’s shirtless, red-caped Little Hero is a recurring personage in Wong’s works, and makes an appearance in The 10,000 Things. But Wong cheerfully reinterprets figures from the media which have enthralled him from childhood through today: anime, monster movies, video games, literature, Western and Eastern artistic traditions both contemporary and classic, and advertising.

Sun Wukong embodies perhaps the most complex and interesting fusion of influences. The Monkey King is often painted with brown fur; in Wong’s interpretation, his pelt is white—wild and spiky as if being electrified. Journey to the West’s legacy is unimaginably vast. But for Westerners, it might be best known as an inspiration for Akira Toriyama’s manga and anime series Dragon Ball. In the Dragon Ball universe, many of the main characters can transform into unimaginably powerful beings called Super Saiyans, abbreviated by fans as SSJ. Characters who achieve even greater heights of strength are given titles like Super Saiyan 2, or SSJ2; Super Saiyan 3, or SSJ3, etc. A Super Saiyan’s hair turns blonde or white, and stands on end from the raw crackling power within the user’s body. Wong conveys Sun Wukong’s power for a contemporary audience by portraying him with a Super Saiyan’s static-spiked hair. This parallel is made explicit in word bubbles surrounding the Monkey King which read “HAIRDO: SSJ2. 10/10. SO STYLE!”

Wong plays a back-and-forth game across time and space. Toriyama took inspiration from Into the West. Wong was influenced by this epic and by Toriyama’s Dragon Ball. Now, Wong has reimagined Into the West by synthesizing it with Dragon Ball. Influences run together, and seem to move backwards and forwards at the same time. Such crisscrossing happens elsewhere in The 10,000 Things. For example, the Gundam’s white armor has been painted with swirling blue patterns characteristic of Chinese ceramics. Elsewhere in the same image, one such ceramic vase has taken flight via the underside of a rocket booster. Halos hover over many characters. Halos are a visual trope in Dragon Ball, just as they are in the Christian art one would expect to see in a museum.

These chains of references don’t feel circular. A circle closes in on itself. It feels as if Wong has opened up worlds of possibility. He has taught us how familiar items of culture can be made new again by being recontextualized by our inescapably individual memories, or by being juxtaposed and combined with the art that came before and after them. We’ve been shown how to make many more than 10,000 things.