ZING art collective, first Exhibition. Catalogue text, by Joe Hedges
- Catalogue text, by Joe Hedges.
On December 3rd, 2016 Menagerie gallery in Redwood City will host the first public endeavor of Zing, a group of contemporary asian artists living in the Bay area. The Zing collaborative includes artists working across various media including painting, sculpture, photography, and video and addressing a wide range of subjects. For this inaugural exhibition, audiences are implicitly asked to consider the works in the context of both contemporary art and the Asian experience in the United States.
Now it must be said: I am neither young nor asian. My allegiance is to contemporary art. However, in the current political climate one would be challenged to avoid viewing the show through the lens of identity. Our challenge as viewers is to accept both the fact that contemporary art is a language that cuts across class and ethnic lines to celebrate individual perspectives, as well as the uniqueness of the Asian-American migrant experience. In the Zing exhibition, this tension between the universality of contemporary art and the uniqueness of the Asian experience of the United States is most apparent in the figurative works of Shi Feng and Rentian Qiu.
- Shi Feng, “Mist“, Oil on Canvas.
Shi Feng’s work Mist is portrait of a nude, seemingly asian woman crouched on the floor, buttocks to the viewer, twisting her torso and revealing her face with hands and feet curled into some unseen ground. Formally, every aspect of the painting is strong, with an intimate knowledge of human anatomy and keen observational skills on display. But while the title Mist draws our attention to the limited range of values and beautifully-handled atmosphere, try as they might, contemporary figurative painters have not yet transcended the double-edged project of objectifying their subjects. Here we are reminded that an Asian-American experience is at once conflated with ideas about race, and that ideas about race deal necessarily with the body. For what is a body if not the place where our differences are most superficially on display? In viewing Shi Feng’s paintings that often feature asian subjects, the viewer reconciles thoughts about race, flesh gender, while necessarily and simultaneously stripping the body of all labels but human.
Shi Feng’s second painting in the exhibition provides a strong conceptual counterbalance. In Bath, a man stands in tall grass wearing nothing but an oversized sweater. He lifts the sweater in order to gaze downward at his own genitalia as a tiger—a familiar symbol of Asia—looms toward him in the background. Here Feng again asks the viewer to consider ideas about flesh and identity, leaving it to the viewer to consider the symbolism of the predatory beast.
- Shi Feng, “Bath”, Oil on Canvas.
In another dark composition about identity, Ethan Zhao’s arrestingly slick film Samsara utilizes VFX-compositing to place disparate imagery into the same surreal black and white world. An electronic Radiohead-esque soundscape helps to set a brooding mood as a single masked figure slow-motion dances around chiaroscuro asteroids and foggy trees. As the character’s mask multiplies and floats around him, the mask’s function of obscuring one’s true face is at once on display and subverted. In a video piece by Yanling He, again the viewer is invited into another world where identity is obscured: figures frozen in water droplets, soundscape blending the digital and organic, extending the moments between drips from a leaky facet.
- Ethan Zhao, “Samsara”, Film.
- Yanling He, “Refraction”, Film.
Continuing with the theme of identity and the body, artist Rentian Qui’s four figurative watercolors feature women in intentionally provocative, compromising or disturbing poses. The subject of Tease is a woman in her underwear lying on a bed or couch, legs crossed in the air and touching the underside of her thigh. Dark pubic hair escapes from her red underwear. This painting evokes the work of the famous Viennese artist of the 20th early century, Egon Schiele. Like Schiele’s works, Qui’s figures have a somewhat geometric and expressive quality while the background remains relatively stark. Here we would be remiss not to acknowledge the impact of asian prints on the work of Schiele and his contemporaries: the use of negative space, a limited pallet, the twisting strangeness of the bodies. Formally, Qui’s works operate in a zone that can be seen as bridging cultural divides of east and west. While all Qui’s works implicate the “male gaze” of the viewer (and artist), Qui manages to do so sensitively with the inclusion of additional compositions that take on ideas about the body in more nuanced and critical ways.
An international traveler might recognize that the subject of another work by Qui, Peeing, is a woman crouched on a western-style toilet. Her backside to the viewer, face turned away, the scene contains at once the mundanity of a genre painting and the force of a social commentary. Art history buffs will recall that Marcel Duchamp famously signed a urinal with the words “R. MUTT”, and titled it Fountain, as a commentary, exclamation point or full stop on what can and cannot be art. As it turns out, it is not only ideas about contemporary art that are socially constructed: ideas about a seemingly simple act of urination are relativistic as well, and for this Asian-American artist, the picture plane remains a suitable battle ground within which to assert quotidian contrasts. For many individuals residing in or immigrating from asian countries, sitting on a toilet chair—rather than crouching over a floor toilet—is rightfully considered unsanitary and unhealthy. In viewing Peeing, the viewer may extrapolate an endless list of daily challenges immigrants encounter, as an object as seemingly familiar as a toilet becomes a container for struggle and difference.
- Rentian Qiu, “Tease”, Mix-Media.
- Rentian Qiu, “Peeing”, Mix-Media.
American and European art history textbook favorites like Schiele and Duchamp have had the luxury of being simply called artists—not having additional suffixes forced upon them. By contrast, minorities and women have faced a particular challenge when attempting to enter the world of contemporary art: they have often found themselves unable to avoid the labels of “black artist”, “asian artist”, “female artist” etc. Unfortunately, these labels have historically been read like caveats, putting artists in the position of asserting their seriousness in the best way they know how—by directly addressing their heritage or gender or some other aspect of their identity in their art. For minorities today, a refusal to explicitly take on the subject of identity in one’s work has itself become a form of postmodern subversion.
Working in a non-representational mode are Dongze Huo, Shi Dong, and Hung Ying Lee. These three pieces exist in the tradition of western modernism but each contain traces of asian aesthetics. For the first of these three artists, Dongze Huo, Escape contains muted negative space that subtly echoes asian landscape painting. At the same time the work also recalls the color-blocks of Hans Hoffman and other American Abstract Expressionists. Here one finds a certain quietude in contrast with vibrancy, that could be read as the contemplative history of Asian aesthetics meeting the so called “pure abstraction” of painters in 1950’s New York City. But while abstraction has appeared in essentially every culture known to human beings, it is often mistakenly presented as an invention of Picasso, who it is well known was largely inspired by African masks. Here Dongze Huo covertly participates in the project of returning abstraction to its rightful conception: a language that reduces color and form to spiritual elements that speak about the universal human condition.
- Dongze Huo, “Escape“, Silk-Screen on BFK Paper.
Secondly, Shi Dong’s abstract work Soul Comb is a blue color field upon which square dots are presented in a grid. The grid is a modernist tool that’s been employed in near infinite iterations, from Piet Mondrian and continuing up through Damien Hirst’s contemporary multi-colored spot painting installations. But in the hands of Shi Dong one might also consider the history of the grid in an asian context. Unlike phonetic languages, the Chinese language can exist in a neatly ordered grid, legible from left to right or top to bottom. In this reading Dong’s multicolored squares suggest a more semantic meaning. Is the language of color ideographic?
- Shi Dong, “Soul Comb ®”, Oil on Wood Panel.
The third artists working in a nonrepresentational mode is Hung Ying Lee. Lee’s modestly-sized abstract paintings I Can’t Avoid the Wet Trend and The Falls present varied approaches to paint application, from thin drips to highly impasto strokes that are almost sculptural. Although Lee’s title betrays some doubts about the legitimacy of this approach, she would do well to remember that nearly hundred years has elapsed since Van Gogh first famously began to think about paint strokes in relationship to the patterning and texture of weavers. Today, contemporary painters like Allison Schulnik and Conor Harrington continue to push the unique possibilities of paint to cling and drip (respectively), confirming again and again that an interest in surface is more than a trend. Lee’s complimentary color palettes and confident mark-making recall paintings of peach or cherry blossoms against a blue sky.
- Hung Ying Lee, “The Falls”, Oil Painting on Canvas.
Although more representational, Jihoon Choi’s 3D pixelated life-sized sculptures of animals also owe a debt to the history of abstraction—specifically cubism. These forms have a strangeness that evoke both Minecraft and Super Mario Bros., confronting our expectations about nature and the virtual. Ideas about simulacra are again on display in Max Luo’s three square ceramic pieces. These works function largely like paintings, presenting a figure peeking through a crack. First, the figure exists in the 2D space of the picture plane. By the third panel, the figure has receded to exist within the 3D space behind the picture plane, drawing the viewers focus to ideas about paintings as virtual containers. Luo essentially plays with the oldest and most implicit question in the arts: what is reality? In answering this question, we turn to photography.
- Jihoon Choi, “White Deer“, Steel - Body, Real Antler, Wheels, Paint.
- Max Luo, “Shh…”, Wood, plaster, Metal, Ceramic.
Xuebing Du’s photographic prints are spectacularly detailed liquid-scapes that disrupt gravity and space. Water here is presented as a mysterious and uncontrollable force, at once calming and terrifying. The prints of Ying Jung also confuse our expectations of space. Ying Jung’s works make use of traditional photographic techniques to create contemporary multiple exposures of disappearing figures in undergrowth. The black and white denseness of the images have the all-over-ness of a Jackson Pollock surface, but the addition of the figure reminds the viewer of the unique ability of photography to embrace decisive, overlapping moments in time.
- Xuebing Du, “Static Flow”, Photograph Print.
- Ying Jung Lucky Lu, “I Was There Before“, Silver Gelatin Print.
A third artists using the tools of photography is Shen Linghao. Linghao’s media installation makes use of light-sensitive photographs of a Jiangnan Shipyard and the former residence of Chiang Ching-kuo, a former president of the Republic of China and who is remembered in part for relaxing authoritarianism and prohibitions of free speech in Taiwan. The moody, monochromatic photographs are printed on light-sensitive paper but displayed in a dark box. Viewers are invited to shine a flashlight on the images and consider the cinematic afterglow. Recalling the repurposing of the shipyard and the destruction of Ching-kuo’s villa, Shen Linghao’s artist statement reflects on change, seeing his images as “a disoriented theatre, in which various self-conflicted dramas are presented”. However, a flashlight in the hands of an American viewer may also suggest the fraught history of perception of Taiwan and Taiwanese by outsiders: acknowledgement, followed by denial and willful obfuscation.
- Shen Linghao, “ The Scenery in Heart-Theater of History”, Composite Media Installation.
Finally, one encounters three artists making use of saturated color. Hsien Chun’s screen-prints present decorated figures that mash-up comic book chic with old-world spirituality emerging from dystopian landscapes. Alison Ye’s refreshingly whimsical works I Love Candy and First Date are ceramic wall-mounted figures. The figures are both cartoonish and freaky, utilizing color and pattern to first disarm the viewer, then stylized monster features like horns and a cyclops eye to surprise. Yuri Hyun’s works on paper use ink pen, colored pencil and marker to create fantastically detailed worlds that evoke ancient Cambodian architecture and 80’s cartoon funhouses for an aesthetic that is unmistakably contemporary.
- Hsien Chun Tsai, “Taiwan”, Screen Print.
- Alison Ye, “I love candy“, Ceramic, Underglaze, Steel, Epoxy.
- Yuri Hyun, “Spring”, Mix-Media.
When I spoke to Ma Shang, one of the founders of the Zing collaborative, about the exhibition he first told me there was no theme. After a pause, he then stated “the theme is we exist”. As white people like myself continue to fight our way down the semantic rabbit holes of terms like “identity politics” and “political correctness” this exhibition serves as a reminder that defining and redefining racial categories, Americanness, and contemporary art norms remains a privilege for a few. In the last few decades, identity has found ubiquitous expression in contemporary art through individual works and exhibitions not because artists and institutions wish to uphold boundaries, but because in order to break them down we first need more equal representation. The United States has a complicated and violent history with regard to minority groups, migrants and immigrants that continues today. We are a country of immigrants that quickly invented concepts like “white” and even the peculiar definition of “asian” in order to maintain power for some groups and withhold it from others. Of course, words alone are not enough: laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act forbid ethnic Chinese from entering the United States. The law was not repealed for 61 years—in 1943, even as Asians became the “model minority” in the white imagination. San Fransisco was always at the forefront of these issues, and Zing today is perfectly positioned to continue these conversations in a public way even if they are doing so covertly or implicitly.
We must acknowledge that no matter how its turned, the Rubik’s cube of “artist” in the popular imagination contains these tinges of whiteness and maleness. This puzzle is solved only by taking things apart and writing new histories. For Asian Americans and groups like Zing, flipping this narrative is a vital task. The challenges of immigrating to a new country remain prohibitive to creating art: acquiring language skills, navigating cultural norms, finding creative ways to extend continually expiring visas. These challenges are so far removed from the experience of most Americans that indeed, the theme “we exist” is itself palpable and most powerful. Artists in the inaugural exhibition of Zing engage the same themes that all artists engage: abstraction, the body, loss, time, etc. while using the same tools and techniques, too. Since romanticism, a large driver of artistic work and identity is the idea of alienation: that feeling that one does not quite belong. Here one relates in at least a tenuous way to the experience of immigration. For what artist, or indeed what human being, has not felt a pang of dislocation or separation? It is in compassionately recalling these emotions that one is able to recognize what it means to be human, and what it is to create and enjoy art.
In forming a collaborative around a minority identity these artists celebrate of the uniqueness of an asian perspective as it operates in the United States, and at once reject the notion that they are somehow wholly apart from American citizen artists and/or non-asian artists. In viewing the inaugural Zing exhibition, asians and non-asians alike must remind ourselves to do the same. This is the challenge and force of Zing: is it possible to stage exhibitions that assert the identity of minority groups in a way that also celebrates individuality? If Zing’s inaugural exhibition is any indication, the answer is yes, in San Fransisco and the world.
- Shang Ma, Founder and Curator of ZING.