Standing at a bookshelf in her meticulously-kept Brooklyn apartment, Michelle Chang flips through the pages of two books, Carl G. Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul and The Undiscovered Self. “How transparent are these book titles?” she says. “Obviously, a lot of deep soul-searching in my wandering travels. And look, I’ve highlighted every other page.”
It’s true. The neon glow emanating from the well-thumbed volumes could have lit up the room. Chang devoured these works in her twenties, much of which she spent abroad. She became so captivated by Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious—the part of the psyche composed of universal archetypes that recur in myth and dreams—that she once undertook a few sessions of self-analysis. “Didn’t work too well,” she says, with the mischievous wit that spices up her soft-spoken manner. “I couldn’t remember my dreams.”
If Chang’s unconscious mind is disinclined to reveal the archetypes that emerge during her sleep, then the icons of dream life find expression in her illustrations. She dots her compositions with isolated figures, lonely houses on distant horizons and barren trees—a few sad leaves clinging. Bodies of water pervade her work. “Water is very calm and beautiful on the surface,” says Chang. “But beneath that, it’s very mysterious. And it’s vast and dangerous.” She became a certified SCUBA diver in 1990 because, she says, she wanted to experience the mystery beneath.
It’s fitting that a student of Jung should have taken first place in the 1998 RSVP Dream Competition. In the surreal landscape, rendered in her dependably moody palette of beiges and blue-greens, a young boy is shown playing in a stream. But Chang is too inclined toward thematic juxtapositions to allow the image to linger in one-dimensional tranquility. She interrupts the otherwise idyllic setting with an image of a man, digging a grave in the background. “I find images that are compelling to me,” she says, “and create relationships between them, but I don’t feel I need to articulate them in any way. The reason this represents a dream for me is because there’s a question mark there. To me, a dream has multiple interpretations.”
Well aware that the market is widest for illustrations with a light touch, Chang has rendered jolly pirates, A-list celebrities and shiny children with perfectly commercial buoyancy for a high-profile roster of clients, including the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Reader’s Digest, Fortune, the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal and Rolling Stone, among many others. As she clicks through her digital portfolio, famous faces from John Lithgow to Nicole Kidman flicker by like a Hollywood flip-book. But Chang is most attracted to commissions that allow her to create surreal worlds as immersive as the ocean, and often as haunting.
Chang’s flat, graphic shapes have been compared to the work of Alex Katz, a similitude most apparent in her 1998 Atlantic Monthly illustration of “Electric Wizard,” an Elizabeth Stuckey-French story about a boy who electrocutes himself in the tub. The illustration exudes a mournful hush, featuring the boy’s family in an oval room, seated around an empty, partially obscured bathtub. From it, a long extension chord winds across the floor, narrating the death without exploiting the grotesque reality of a dead child in the water. It’s typical of the economy with which Chang dramatizes profound narratives, often with a glint of unexpected humor. Her cover of Gojmir Polajnar’s Don’t Kill Anyone, I Love You (Spuyten Duyvil, 2002) tells the complete story of the protagonist’s transvestism through one pictorial allusion; the character, sitting alone on a stage, wears a conservative business suit—and a pair of sexy, red stilettos.
Her preference for dark subject matter might imply a ponderous artist who belabors every stroke. Chang is not that. She completes images in an afternoon to no more than two days, adding fast driers to her oil paints to speed up the process. In the tradition of the old Dutch masters, she begins each painting with a unifying umber ground from which she draws light and dark. But she’s most inspired by her frequent trips to Chelsea galleries, where she’s discovered evocative contemporary artists like Martin Mull, Peter Doig and Darren Waterson. “All the painters I like have a quiet, isolated sense,” she says. “Their subjects are separate from the world around them.”
Over lunch at an elegant Park Slope restaurant, Chang talks openly about her childhood. Her story does much to explain the solitary figures that populate her images. At age seven, Chang moved from Seoul, Korea, with her family to Queens, New York, where, without English, she was thrown into the gang-addled school system of the inner city. “It was a huge culture shock,” she says. “I became very withdrawn and shy, which I wasn’t before. The only two things I did were drawing and reading.” Chang took refuge in the public library, where she copied comic books and photography from National Geographic and, as soon as she’d mastered English, lost herself in literature.
Chang can’t tell you where she got her talent. She’s searched to no avail for some artistic relation perched on a high branch of the family tree. She can only venture a guess that her father, a dentist, likes working with his hands. Art was a solitary pursuit—not quite a secret but neither was it a family affair. Until her parents moved to middle-class Scarsdale, New York, where she benefited from the higher-grade arts education, her talent went largely unrecognized. That she was voted “Most Creative” by her high school class amuses her more than anything. Despite her best efforts, in other words, she hadn’t managed to disappear into the walls altogether.
These days, Chang is increasingly drawn toward simplicity, even as she finds herself pushing stylistic variances within compositions, shifting seamlessly from graphic shapes or loose line work to fully rendered detail. Her tendency to exaggerate portraits has yielded to a frank distillation of the unique features of a face, while she’s less inclined to skew interior spaces. When Chang does tilt floors or distort walls, she demonstrates a masterful command of perspective. For all her achievement as an illustrator, Chang didn’t settle into the discipline until she’d fully mined the potential of another, working as an interior designer in France, Korea and Japan.
With an undergraduate degree in environmental design and analysis from Cornell University, Chang was offered an interior design position while vacationing in Lille, France, and she leapt at the opportunity. Where she had failed to thrive as a child, she found herself flourishing in adulthood—a foreigner again, unfamiliar with the native language. “Often it was kind of lonely,” she says, “because of course I didn’t have good friends or family there, but it was exciting. I felt so brave.” As if to trick herself into tackling the ambivalence of the experience—as isolating as it was exhilarating—Chang adopted a habit of visiting a country on what she told herself would be a short vacation. And then she’d decide to stay. She changed her return flight to New York after a one-year “vacation” in Seoul to accommodate a Tokyo pit-stop; that pit-stop lasted more than three years. “Can you believe it?” she says. “I wasted that plane ticket.”
In the early 1990s, when she returned to the states after nearly five years abroad, Chang “accidentally bumped into illustration,” she says, while pursuing a second degree in fine art at The Academy of Art (now Academy of Art University) in San Francisco. When she says she had a knack for it, she’s understating the case; her student work earned the recognition by Communication Arts, Society of Illustrators and American Illustration, which continue to showcase her work today.
Appropriately, Chang was on the road—driving from California to New York, worldly possessions in her trunk—when she got her first commission out of school. She completed sketches for the Fine Cooking magazine assignment on hotel floors somewhere in the Midwest. For Chang, consummate traveler to this day, hotel floors have become a kind of drafting table away from home. During one trip, she found herself searching for makeshift drawing materials at a Hong Kong hotel when Institutional Investor unexpectedly commissioned her to render some two dozen Japanese businessmen. “Yeah,” she says. “I’ve done jobs in the oddest places.”
Walking into her brownstone after lunch, Chang chirps hellos to her elderly landlord, Mr. Loy, sitting alone in the entryway. This is Mr. Loy’s post, over which he dutifully presides all day, every day. An ex-merchant marine who once traveled the world, he responds to Chang with distant, drawn-out “yeah’s.” Mr. Loy is nothing if not separate from the world, and it’s a short leap to imagine that he might have walked off one of Chang’s canvasses into the dimensionalized universe. She admits that she likes the idea of Mr. Loy as a figure, and views him through the same nuanced lens that informs her work. “Mostly he sits at the door,” Chang says, “looking out the window, where it’s bright. And I like to think he’s thinking about all the things he’s seen and done.” ca