16 Rising Artists of the Asian Diaspora in the United States
Even as artists of color begin to gain a foothold in the upper echelons of the art world, naming widely celebrated Asian diasporic artists with cemented legacies in the art historical canon remains challenging. Oftentimes, it feels as though we’re constantly excavating long overlooked or ignored artistic practices. However, thanks to decades of activism and advocacy from BIPOC artists and art workers, greater attention is being given to contemporary artists of color during their lifetime. Here, we focus on rising artists of the Asian diaspora currently based in the United States. Many of these artists have been experiencing substantial career momentum in recent months, exhibiting in art institutions or international biennials one after the other. Some have honed their craft and bypassed educational barriers, exhibiting in solo shows at leading galleries without an MFA, and sometimes even without a BFA.
My conversations with these artists and close readings of their works reveal an engagement with similar ideas through varied approaches and media, suggesting a collective consciousness created through shared experiences within the diaspora. Multimedia artist Catalina Ouyang and figurative painters Oscar yi Hou and Timothy Lai spoke about losing the Chinese language or never having a firm grasp of it to begin with. Informed by theorists Gilles Deleuze and Isabelle Stengers’s writings on how stuttering acts like a glitch, Ouyang pushes the English language to points of deterioration. Yi Hou, on the other hand, visually obscures the English texts in his paintings and drawings, relegating them to the space of inscrutability often reserved for Chinese characters. Meanwhile, painters like Lai, Bambou Gili, Sasha Gordon, and Dominique Fung expand on the color palettes used to render Asian skin—not only with shades of yellow and brown, but also hues of red, blue, and purple.
The artists featured also pay tribute to those who came before them, acknowledging the continuum of the diasporic experience. Gili includes the late Matthew Wong’s spotlighted door from 5:00 PM (2019) in Blue Summer (An Ode to Matthew Wong) (2020). Ouyang’s “Lift me to the window to the picture image unleash the ropes tied to weights of stones first the ropes then its scraping on wood to break stillness as the bells fall peal follow the sound of ropes holding weight scraping on wood to break stillness bells fall a peal to sky” (2020) borrows its title from the last line of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1982 publication Dictee, and features a portrait of the artist as the late poet. Multimedia artist Kang Seung Lee’s labor-intensive reproductions of photos of painter Martin Wong and photographer Tseng Kwong Chi illustrate both the precarity of these artists’s lives during the AIDS epidemic and their diminished presence in art history. While charting careers of their own, these rising artists bring their predecessors with them.
B. 1996, New York. Lives and works in Brooklyn.
In Bambou Gili’s surreal paintings, women in various shades of blue, green, and purple look for ways to occupy their time during the long hours of the night. Painted in a Mannerist style akin to Parmigianino’s Madonna and Child with Angels (Madonna with the Long Neck) (1534–40), a green woman in Gili’s Blue Summer (An Ode to Matthew Wong) looks longingly out of a window, a cigarette in hand. In another work, a purple woman with an elongated torso, comparable to the spindly figures in Jacopo Pontormo’s The Deposition from the Cross (1525–28), attempts to play the flute, unaware of or unbothered by the woodland spirits that dance around a large fire behind her.
“The night has always been inexplicably surreal because people allow themselves to do weird shit under the cover of night,” shared Gili following a recent virtual studio visit. “It’s kind of like looking at the world through a fun-house mirror where consequence comes at daylight. That being said, the night is also a lonely place; characters revel in their solitude and all at once they weep and wallow in it.”
Bambou Gili, Ghost Ciggie, 2020. Courtesy of artist and Monya Rowe Gallery.
Bambou Gili, Blue Summer (An Ode to Matthew Wong), 2020. Courtesy of artist and Arsenal Contemporary.
Leading up to her September solo exhibition at Arsenal Contemporary, Gili’s newest body of work reads like a collection of short stories set during the span of one night. In each painting, she continues her experiments with color, pushing them to their limit to create nocturnal landscapes, often without relying on the color black.
Among fantastical scenes in the artist’s studio—a green woman experiencing her version of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781); an egret attacking a bullfrog in front of a disinterested water nymph; a purple woman lying in a bathtub while posing like John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851–52)—is a sobering painting of a white pickup truck. The work initially reads as a disruptive aside, a brief commercial intermission of a very real product before returning to the regularly scheduled programming of Gili’s dreamlike subject matter.
Bambou Gili, Ophelia in the Tub, 2019. Courtesy of artist and Arsenal Contemporary.
Inspired by Gili’s unexpected time spent in New Mexico during the pandemic, the pickup truck painting recalls a moment in which Gili never felt more American—driving a truck while listening to songs about trucks. “That an object could be held so close to the American identity is a funny testament to what it means to be American these days; it really doesn’t stand for anything,” Gili said. Taken within the context of her surrounding pieces, the symbol for Americanness and white masculinity becomes just as silly and surreal as a bacchanal in the woods.
B. 1982, Queens, New York. Lives and works in Brooklyn.
Kenneth Tam, performance view of The Crossing at the Kitchen, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.
Over the past few years, Kenneth Tam has formed a robust oeuvre exploring masculinity by placing groups of men he finds online through Craigslist and Reddit posts into a variety of unscripted scenarios. The Crossing, performed at The Kitchen in December 2020, is one of his first works that explicitly grapples with how masculinity intersects with race. The first thing the viewer sees is a quote by writer Jay Caspian Kang: “‘Asian American’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian American, nobody sits down to Asian American food with their Asian American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian America.” Taken from Kang’s New York Times essay on the 2013 fraternity hazing death of Chun Hsien (Michael) Deng, the lines frame Tam’s inquiry into masculinity. Defanged from its 1960s genesis as a term created to uphold anti-racist and anti-imperialist aims, Kang and The Crossing explore how “Asian American” has since become a rather ambigious and unstable descriptor.
Honing in on Asian American fraternities, The Crossing comprises three acts—the search for a collective identity that may lead Asian American men to pledging; hazing, understood here as a form of ritualized violence to form bonds of intimacy or brotherhood; and finally, the eulogy. Although Asian American fraternities were first formed as support groups on predominantly white college campuses, they’ve largely maintained white masculinity’s heteronormative values, similar to the neutralized fate of the term “Asian American.”
Kenneth Tam, installation view of Silent Spikes, 2021, at Queens Museum, New York. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.
Sprinkled throughout The Crossing are signifiers of “Asianness,” including religious and cultural symbols and practices severed from their original context. The performance begins with the sound of drums and cymbals reserved for Taoist funerals. In the background, we see an ancestral offering being made, but a closer inspection reveals not ceremonial joss paper being lit aflame, but $100 bills. Much of the performance is organized inside or around the Taoist diagram of a bagua, nodding to the yin-yang symbol in the coat of arms belonging to Deng’s fraternity. Tam mimics this practice of self-appropriation that pieces fragments together in an attempt to form a solid sense of racial identity. In early June, he will continue this work as part of a group show at The Shed.
Meanwhile, Tam’s current exhibition, “Silent Spikes,” on view at the Queens Museum until late June, turns to less recent but equally potent material. In the eponymous two-channel installation, Tam weaves fictional scenes imagining the thoughts and longings of the Chinese men who worked and died on the Transcontinental Railroad with contemporary footage of Asian American men dressed as cowboys. The laborer’s recollection of the 1867 strike—during which thousands of Chinese workers demanded higher wages and shorter work days equivalent to their white counterparts—is interrupted by improvised scenes of present-day Asian American men awkwardly complimenting each other. Though occasionally disjointed, Silent Spikes is perhaps most impactful when it touches upon what the film articulates as the Asian American “inheritance of sorrow and stone,” locates a sense of “home” as being outside of the United States, and hints at the need for class solidarity in addition to racial solidarity.
Maia Cruz Palileo
B. 1979, Chicago. Lives and works in Brooklyn.
Maia Cruz Palileo, Flores, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche.
Throughout Maia Cruz Palileo’s oeuvre are gestural reflections on both familial oral history and colonial documents. Heavily influenced by photographs and stories related to their family’s migration from the Philippines to the United States, Palileo’s work initially explored their own personal archives. They dressed their figures in patterns drawn from their aunt’s shirts and decorated interiors reminiscent of the house their grandmother grew up in. Several paintings, such as Afterward (2019), take place in classrooms, referencing both American re-education campaigns and Palileo’s maternal grandmother’s occupation as an English teacher.
Palileo’s scenes, rendered in broad and loose brushstrokes, imagine Manila as their ancestors would have experienced it and parallel the fragmentary nature of memory to present an alternative history. Existing between figuration and expressive abstraction, the worlds they create embody what the artist has called their hyphenated or malleable concept of home.
Maia Cruz Palileo, We Walked for Hours, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche.
Since 2017, Palileo’s paintings have also reckoned with ethnographic photos taken by Dean C. Worcester, who served as secretary of the interior of the Philippines until 1913. The zoologist amassed thousands of photographs that perpetuated notions of Filipinx natives as uncivilized savages in order to justify U.S. occupation. “Suddenly, so many of my grandparents’ stories gained a lot of powerful context,” Palileo told Artforum in 2019. “I felt like I was finally glimpsing my ancestors, albeit through someone else’s eyes.” The artist extracts figures and vegetation from Worcester’s photographs and recasts them in scenes with rich and vibrant colors, removing the anthropological colonial gaze. In contrast to the authoritative texts accompanying Worcester’s photographs, Palileo’s works allow for multiple interpretations.
In “The Answer is the Waves of the Sea,” Palileo’s recent solo exhibition at Monique Meloche in Chicago, they continue the motif of painting doubles, as seen in Flores (2020) and Night Crocuses (2021). The recurrence of twin-like characters in Palileo’s compositions serve as reminders of the existence of multiple versions of history, some well preserved and others lost to migration and colonization. The barely visible people and animals that slowly materialize from Palileo’s bright flora after a close viewing of Through the Fronds There Were No Stars (2021) honor those absences in the historical canon and suggest the possibility for some to reconnect with their family history. In September, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco will present “Long Kwento,” Pailileo’s second institutional solo exhibition after their 2018 presentation at Pioneer Works, curated by Vivian Chui.
Kang Seung Lee
B. 1978, Seoul. Lives and works in Los Angeles and Seoul.
Kang Seung Lee, Untitled (Tseng Kwong Chi, Los Angeles, California, 1979), 2019. Photo by Paul Salveson. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.
Kang Seung Lee, Untitled (Martin Wong by Peter Bellamy_1985), 2016. Photo by Ruben Diaz. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.
Materialized in a variety of media, Kang Seung Lee’s practice is deeply involved in queer archives. In one series, he meticulously reproduces photographs of queer artists in graphite. With subjects ranging from Martin Wong to David Wojnarowicz, Lee replaces their bodies with puffs of smoke. Their presence is felt not by a marked absence, in which the artists are removed from their surroundings without a trace, but an evaporation; their faint apparitions remain. Lee’s time-intensive process of creation becomes an act of mourning in itself.
In Tseng Kwong Chi’s New York, New York (Empire State) (1979), the artist is seen photographing himself beside the Statue of Liberty and appearing just as monumental, if not more. Dressed in a Mao suit, Tseng embodies the role of an important Chinese dignitary pausing—as many tourists do—to document his presence in front of the landmark. In Lee’s rendition, Untitled (Tseng Kwong Chi, New York 2, New York, 1979) (2019), created 40 years later, Tseng’s once imposing body that dominated the original image’s picture plane nearly dissolves into the sublime clouds in the background. Through Lee’s intervention, Tseng’s performance gains an additional reading, one that further complicates the symbol of the Statue of Liberty and its associated myth of the American dream, demonstrating that its promise of refuge does not extend to all. In June, Commonwealth and Council in Los Angeles will present a solo exhibition of Lee’s works honoring and building on Tseng’s legacy.
Kang Seung Lee, installation view of Untitled (QueerArch), 2018–21, in the 13th Gwangju Biennale, Gwangju, 2021. Photo by Sang tae Kim. Courtesy of the artist and the Gwangju Biennale.
In the recently closed 2021 Gwangju Biennial, Lee’s immersive installation, Untitled (QueerArch) (2018–21), challenges the narrow perspectives within the canon of queer history, expanding its border to include queer people in Korea. By repositioning records from Korea Queer Archive—the personal archive of activist Chae-yoon Hahn, who was editor in chief of one of the first queer magazines in South Korea—from the margins of history to the center, Lee reframes queer liberation as a global movement.
Currently featured in MASS MoCA’s group exhibition “Close to You,” Lee’s Untitled (List) (2018–19) pays tribute to Goh Choo San, then resident choreographer and associate artistic director of the Washington Ballet, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1987. Though internationally recognized during his lifetime, Goh’s contributions to the field of dance are less widely remembered. On a hammock-sized scroll made of sambe—a hemp fiber used in traditional Korean funerary practices—Lee embroiders the names and dates of Goh’s works in 24-karat gold thread. The delicate and ephemeral nature of Lee’s materials—graphite on paper and thread on fabric—emphasizes the physical fragility of archival documents and the tenuous legacies of queer artists of color.
Lee’s upcoming solo exhibition at Gallery Hyundai in Seoul, scheduled to open in November, will imagine a space that holds intergenerational connections in the queer community both in and outside Korea. Lee will also be participating in the New Museum’s 2021 triennial and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art’s “OMNISCIENT: Queer Documentation in an Image Culture” group exhibition later this year.
Oscar yi Hou
B. 1998, Liverpool, England. Lives and works in Harlem, New York.
Oscar yi Hou, birds of a feather flock together, aka: A New Family Portrait, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery
The margins of Oscar yi Hou’s painterly portraits of friends, lovers, and exes reveal the artist’s symbolist approach. All American Girl, aka: Cowboy of Ohio (2020), for example, depicts fellow figurative painter and friend Amanda Ba wearing a cowboy hat. To the right, two sheriff stars appear alongside the initials “AB,” a crane, and a butterfly. Referencing yi Hou’s given Chinese name, 一鸣, the crane acts as a signifier for the artist. Meanwhile, other animals come to represent the sitter, manifesting as their Western astrology sign, Chinese zodiac sign, or in the case of Ba, a butterfly tattoo.
Pairing her cowboy hat with a crucifix necklace, yi Hou’s rendering of Ba evokes Peter Bellamy’s 1985 photograph of the artist Martin Wong. Pictured on his bed, Wong dons a cowboy hat with an image of Jesus with a crown of thorns; behind him, a blanket draped over Wong’s bedframe presents Christ in a gesture of blessing. “It’s almost performing a kind of drag—a gay yellow guy play-pretending as a cowboy, inhabiting this mythical white figure,” yi Hou said of Wong. “By playing dress-up, by donning the cowboy hat to almost bastardise its very integrity, it kinda shows the fictitious nature of the myth itself.”
Oscar yi Hou, IMUUR2, aka: Cowboy Crane, 2021. Photo by Daniele Molajoli. Courtesy of the artist and T293, Rome.
In IMUUR2, aka: Cowboy Crane (2021), yi Hou places himself in conversation with both Wong and the artist Danh Vō. The self-portrait borrows its title from Vō’s I M U U R 2 (2013), an installation of knickknacks and Americana once belonging to Wong. I M U U R 2 functions as a creative exchange between Vō and the late Wong that transcends Wong’s death in 1999. By extending the narrative to include himself, yi Hou shows his affinity to two queer artists of Asian descent who came before him.
In yi Hou’s sold-out solo exhibition at T293 in Rome, Italy—on view until May 22nd—the artist expands his practice into the realm of what he calls “poem-pictures.” While yi Hou’s portraits serve as a testament to his relationships, both platonic and romantic, this new body of work is primarily concerned with language. Reminiscent of the artist Qiu Zhijie’s Writing the “Orchid Pavilion Preface” One Thousand Times (1990–95), in which Qiu obscures his Chinese characters through repetitive layering, yi Hou’s graffiti-like lettering renders the English language inscrutable. His current online solo show at James Fuentes continues to embrace illegibility, opting to leave racialized experiences opaque. Entitled (Chinaman 1) (2020), for instance, prominently features a poem connecting 19th-century Chinese indentured laborers to contemporary Chinese immigrants working as UberEats delivery cyclists. However, yi Hou does not readily offer these parallels in the artwork, forcing his viewers to participate in a more strenuous act of engagement in order to learn more. This August, James Fuentes will present a solo exhibition of yi Hou’s paintings at the gallery.
B. 1989, Kabul, Afghanistan. Lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut.
Since receiving her MFA from Yale University in 2020, Hangama Amiri has already shown in three solo gallery exhibitions around the world, including at T293 Gallery in Rome, Towards in Toronto, and Albertz Benda in New York. Her fourth solo show is currently in the works, slated to open in September at Cooper Cole Gallery in Toronto.
Through immersive textile installations, Amiri expands perceptions of contemporary Afghan feminism in her own visual language. In “Bazaar, A Recollection of Home” at T293, the artist’s deft ability to construct entire worlds through a variety of textiles shined through. Wielding cotton, chiffon, silk, suede, and handmade Afghan embroidered fabrics, Amiri evoked the bustling atmosphere of Kabul bazaars in post-Taliban society and commented on the ways in which economic power at these markets shifted after the regime’s fall.
Hangama Amiri, installation view of “Bazaar, A Recollection of Home,” 2020, at T293, Rome. Photo by Roberto ApaCourtesy of the artist and T293.
In her childhood memories of visiting bazaars, the artist recalls the prevalence of men managing businesses dedicated to providing services and products to women. In the years following the fall of the Taliban, Amiri was struck by how many of these businesses were now led and owned by women. For her T293 exhibition, Amiri culled from her memories to recreate storefronts of beauty parlors, nail salons, jewelry stores, fashion boutiques, and tailor shops—places that spoke directly to women in their advertising. Amiri’s deliberate inclusion of items banned by the Taliban, such as red lipstick in Madam, Mariam Beauty Salon (2020) and nail polish in Sahar, Nail Salon and Eyelash Extensions #3 (2020), further establish the increased sense of agency Afghan women possess in expressing their femininity.
For her recent exhibition at Albertz Benda, titled “Wandering Amidst the Colors,” Amiri shifted her attention to Afghan diasporic communities in New York. Developed over the course of a year, this body of work anchors the viewer in specific locations from throughout the city: Kouchi Supermarket in Flushing, Central and South Asian restaurants in Jackson Heights, and an Afghan-owned fabric shop in Chelsea. Assembled from an array of textile materials, the works point to the hybrid-like quality of diasporic identity that’s similarly pieced together from a wide range of sources.
Stephanie H. Shih
B. 1986, Philadelphia. Lives and works in Brooklyn.
Stephanie H. Shih, installation view in “Same Same” at Perrotin, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
Through sculptures of rice bags and soy sauce bottles, Stephanie H. Shih conjures childhood memories created in Asian American kitchens. Folding hundreds of porcelain dumplings in her studio, Shih recreates the meditative and ritualistic practice that many Asian Americans have participated in with their families at the kitchen table.
To evoke such strong culturally specific feelings of nostalgia, detail and specificity are integral to the artist’s practice. Shih sculpts identifiable brands often found in small markets in Chinatowns, sometimes even adding a small yellow price sticker on the bottle. Her ceramics articulate a sense of community formed between working-class immigrant families, as revealed by the viewers who instantly recognize the items from their parents’ pantry. Through the common act of grocery shopping, exchanges between aunties as simple and brief as asking which brand of chili oil is superior create momentary bonds through a shared language and culinary palette. This becomes apparent in the myriad of enthusiastic responses to particular works, such as Shih’s representations of Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce and bottles of Yakult.
Stephanie H. Shih, Salmon Head on Ice, 2021. Photo by Robert Bredvad. Courtesy of the artist and Dinner Gallery.
Carefully testing color swatches to achieve the closest possible match to the grocery item, Shih’s trompe l’oeil techniques occasionally give way to evidences of the artist’s hand. In place of the smooth texture expected of a glass bottle, for example, there is hand-molded clay, unconcerned with the bumps created by textured fingers. Recently, Shih has undertaken more experimental and ambitious projects, sculpting a hanging roast duck a ceramic rendition of a raw salmon head on ice for her participation at The Hole’s “Nature Morte” and Dinner Gallery’s “In Good Taste” group shows, respectively. In July, Shih’s work will be presented in a solo show at Stanley’s in Los Angeles and a group exhibition at Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francisco.
B. 1992, Hong Kong. Lives and works in New York and Hartford, Connecticut.
Susan Chen, March 16th Remembrance Mums, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Susan Chen, MFA: Pay to Play, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
In MFA: Pay to Play (2020), the artist Susan Chen ventures through the locked gates of the art world dressed in her Columbia University graduation gown, diploma and paintbrush in hand. Unlike her other self-portraits, Chen depicts herself in this painting with blonde hair, bringing to mind ideas of assimilating into the predominantly white art world through appearance, education, and artistic practice. “You’re going through this training and learning about art history through a very Eurocentric aesthetic, because your work is meant to look a certain way in order to be accepted as good art in the market,” Chen said in a recent virtual studio visit.
In her current MFA thesis show, Chen’s works function as personal markers of time. Snail Mail (2020), painted during that year’s presidential election, remembers the severe underfunding and consequential backlog of letters and packages at the post office, along with the artist’s anxiety of whether her mail-in ballot would arrive in time to be counted. In Hand Soaps Galores (2021), a shrine of hand-soap bottles surrounds a mirror shaped like a cathedral window, recalling a period in which our only known defense against the spread of the novel coronavirus was washing our hands, not yet realizing the need to wear masks. The pairing of hygienic products with religious motifs evokes the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness,” as well as the history of colonial-era imagery that declared soap’s ability to lighten the white man’s burden and “civilize” colonized populations.
Susan Chen, Snail Mail, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Susan Chen, Hand Soaps Galore, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Chen reflects on particularly difficult recent events in March 16th Remembrance Mums (2021). The still life includes a vase filled with eight white chrysanthemums—one for each person killed in the 2021 Atlanta shootings—and three candles, representing the three massage parlors where the events unfolded. “A few days after, I saw how people brought flowers and turned these spas into memorials,” remembered Chen. “I wasn’t there and couldn’t bring flowers, so I made this painting.” While white chrysanthemums are typically reserved for funerary contexts in some East Asian traditions, Chen also uses them for wordplay. Sometimes referred to as mums, the chrysanthemums in Chen’s work articulate how a majority of the shooting victims were mothers, including Hyun Jung Grant, Xiaojie Tan, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Yong Ae Yue, and Suncha Kim. Adjacent to the flowers and candles is a blank legal pad, signaling both empty justice and an uncertainty for what that justice would look like.
For her upcoming September solo show at Night Gallery in Los Angeles, Chen is working on a large-scale painting related to her participation in a number of protests against anti-Asian violence. Accompanying the piece will be a series of portraits Chen painted with sitters over Zoom, acting as an extension to the works Chen presented in “On Longing” at Meredith Rosen Gallery in 2020. Meanwhile, this June, Chen will exhibit the painting Chinese Take Out (2021) alongside Oscar yi Hou’s birds of a feather flock together, aka: A New Family Portrait (2020) in “Breakfast under the Tree,” curated by Russell Tovey at Carl Freedman Gallery.
B. 1987, Ottawa, Canada. Lives and works in Brooklyn.
Dominique Fung, Double Happiness, 2021. Photo by Cooper Dodds and Genevieve Hanson. Courtesy of the artist; Jeffrey Deitch, New York; and Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles.
In Dominique Fung’s current solo show at Jeffrey Deitch, her painted vessels inhabit physical space outside of the picture plane. Titled “It’s Not Polite to Stare,” the exhibition marks Fung’s first foray into the realm of ceramics and sculptural installations. While Fung’s previous paintings explored Asiatic femininity, this new body of work focuses on the extraction of Chinese cultural objects by dominant—oftentimes Western—forces.
A shared motif uniting Fung’s paintings and ceramics are the recurring presence of cigarettes. I’m reminded of the French photography collector Thomas Sauvin’s Until Death Do Us Part (2015), a collection of found photographs from the 1980s depicting Chinese wedding guests engaged in various activities involving cigarettes. Now in its fifth edition, the publication is infamous for mining private memories and framing Chinese people as foreign and bizarre. Reviews have often noted one photograph in particular that shows a toddler balancing an unlit cigarette between their lips, mistaking the scene as that of a baby smoking. In Vice (2021) and Tobacco (2021), ceramics replace the small child and are seen taking tongue-in-cheek drags.
Dominique Fung, installation view of “It’s Not Polite To Stare” at Jeffrey Deitch, New York, 2021. Photo by Cooper Dodds and Genevieve Hanson. Courtesy of the artist and Jeffrey Deitch, New York.
In Double Happiness (2021), two vases and a large snuff bottle bearing the Chinese character for double happiness are encased behind glass fractured by bullet holes. Created in the aftermath of the 2021 Atlanta shootings that resulted in the murder of six women of Asian descent, Double Happiness reflects on the recent rise in anti-Asian violence especially following the outbreak of COVID-19. At the same time, the work also recalls a recent controversial exhibition at The Hole. Originally titled “Double Happiness” and on view from January 7th to February 14th, aligning with the 2021 Lunar New Year, the two-person show featured chinoiserie ceramics by Roxanne Jackson. The works evoked patterns often seen in Jingdezhen porcelain, mutated by the inclusion of pouty red lips with outstretched tongues. While past works by Fung, such as An Alluring Vase (2019), engage in similar eroticized imagery to critique the hypersexualization of Asian women, Jackson’s pieces perpetuate such characterizations held by Robert Aaron Long, the Atlanta shooter who targeted Asian-owned massage parlors to eliminate “temptation.”
Dominique Fung, Look Steadily and Intently, 2021. Courtesy of the artist; Jeffrey Deitch, New York; and Nicodim Gallery, Los Angeles.
Through Fung’s past exhibitions, the artist has shared a multitude of narratives surrounding her objects. In her current presentation at Jeffrey Deitch, they’re captured, contained, and displayed devoid of context—paralleling the canonical showcase of Chinese cultural and historical objects of unknown provenance in both art institutions and homes. Fung’s thesis comes to a head in Look Steadily and Intently (2021), which depicts large classical sculptures looming over a fish tank of objects previously rendered within Fung’s oeuvre. The statue from Handbell (2020) and fishing rods from Fishing Lines (2020) are displaced from their original environments and reduced to aquatic decor, a fate the stone-like woman in Will You Keep Singing? (2021) tries to prevent. In the painting, she watches over a porcelain vessel locked in a bird cage; behind her, another cage is partially covered by a nondescript cloth. The statuesque woman’s attempts to conceal these objects are ultimately futile, as they’re showcased at Jeffrey Deitch like exotic specimens for the public’s visual consumption.
B. 1984, Nasiriyah, Iraq. Lives and works in Berkeley, California.
In March 2020, when relatively little was understood about the novel coronavirus, the artist Wesaam Al-Badry drove more than 1,500 miles through California’s Central Valley to capture the daily lives of farm workers as the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing inequities. His ongoing series “Migrant Workers” is the result of his personal conversations with and photographs of the individuals and families who continue to feed America.
Although touted as essential workers, farm laborers found little protection from the federal government or their employers. While producing a quarter of the nation’s food during periods of panic purchasing during the pandemic, Central Valley farm workers continued to face threats of deportation while being paid insufficient wages, making it difficult to afford the very food they harvest. In living and working conditions where social distancing is nearly impossible, most farm workers were not provided personal protective equipment by their employers. As the pandemic worsened and their livelihoods became even more precarious, laborers found some relief from the United Farm Workers (UFW), which distributed food, school supplies, and masks to thousands of farm workers. In Al-Badry’s photographs, we see workers in the fields engaged in action, looking into the distance, or returning the viewer’s gaze. Avoiding the position of a voyeur, Al-Badry’s presence is always made known as he considers his process to be highly collaborative.
Al-Badry’s previous bodies of work similarly engage in this empathetic form of photojournalism that avoids sensationalizing hardship. Others take a more personal turn. In “It Smells Like Sweet Apples” (2016), the artist revisits the photographs he took as a child in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. Al-Badry writes over the discolored and blurry images, recalling his father’s PTSD and the fear of smelling mustard gas.
In “Al Kouture” (2018), Al-Badry examines our relationship with Muslim head coverings in a post-9/11 world. By tailoring and repurposing couture silk scarves into niqabs, Al-Badry asks in his artist statement: “Would the Western World accept the niqab if it were on the racks of luxury fashion designers?” In fact, “Al Kouture” anticipated Gucci’s controversial Milan Fashion Week show for its 2018 autumn/winter collection that accessorized white models with hijabs and Sikh turbans. Al-Badry’s portraits in this series explore the impossibilities of assimilation through high fashion’s signaling of wealth and status.
B. 1987, Kota Bharu, Malaysia. Lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island.
Although Timothy Lai now primarily works in figurative painting, he was working in the vein of Abstract Expressionism when he first entered the Rhode Island School of Design for his MFA in 2015. “When I started exploring ideas of biracial identity, I didn’t know how to paint figures at all,” Lai recalled during a virtual studio visit. “They all turned out muddy.” When a friend suggested looking at how Paul Gauguin paints skin, Lai—whose mother is Mexican American and father is Chinese from Malaysia—started thinking about the ways color helped facilitate Gauguin’s portrayal of Tahitians as “primitive.”
In his 2020 works, such as After an Abrupt Realization and Untitled (That messed me up), Lai depicts himself with shades of brown and yellow. The current in-progress works in his studio, meanwhile, experiment with skin tones verging into gray. In one painting, a dark-skinned figure with ashy green undertones turns towards his reflection in a mirror, but the face that gazes back at him is pink in complexion. “The tinting and grays in these paintings bring up the point that, in the system that we inhabit, nothing is pure and everything is always in service to someone else,” Lai said. A small Gauguin reproduction pinned to his studio wall acts as a reminder of this.
With contorting and bending figures, the artist uses real events and conversations as starting points for his compositions. Though they include characters physically resembling people in Lai’s life, his paintings are not autobiographical, but better understood as larger interrogations of interracial love, family relationships, and the artist’s biracial identity. In Figure with tongue (2021), for example, Lai’s seated figure twists away from a plated tongue on the floor. The rejected dish suggests the loss of language while simultaneously referencing the use of duck and beef tongue in Asian cuisine.
For his September solo exhibition at Jack Barrett in New York, Lai focused on a beach excursion with his girlfriend last summer, during the height of the Black Lives Matter uprising. The paintings explore the diverging ways in which Lai and his white partner are required to negotiate space. In one of the works dissecting this dissonance, a large black-feathered eagle dominates the scene, squeezing the couple into the bottom left corner of the picture plane. Above their heads, a white picket fence sections off an empty beach, symbolizing the ways in which last summer’s events still occupy their minds and loom over their daily interactions. On the far right, a plate bearing Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (ca. 1427) sits atop a display stand shaped like a fishbone, evoking the exclusion of people of color from certain spaces.
B. 1998, Somers, New York. Lives and works in Brooklyn.
Sasha Gordon, Sore Loser, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Brown Los Angeles.
Sasha Gordon has been preparing for her upcoming solo show at Matthew Brown Gallery in Los Angeles for almost a year. Fresh from earning her BFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2020, the artist has come to be known for her glassy-eyed figures with bright gradient skin tones and silky black hair. Gordon worked predominantly in hyperrealism during high school, and her precise handling of paint can still be seen in her detailed renderings of window reflections, fingerprints left on cold beer cans, and condensation droplets streaking down shower doors.
In her recent works, Gordon creates a utopia free of differences with characters made in her likeness, sharing the same ethnicity, sexuality, or body size. Despite this uniformity, conflict and tensions still arise. Sore Loser (2020), for example, depicts the aftermath of a competitive tennis game. The assumed sore loser, with her face red and contorted in a manner resembling a battle cry, launches a tennis ball with enough force to leave shoe prints on the court. Her blue-faced opponent sits defeated on the ground, right leg puncturing the net, and looks up with a mix of embarrassment and fear. Meanwhile, a third version of the artist looks on, fascinated by the unfolding scene.
Sasha Gordon, detail of Bonfire, 2020–21. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Brown Los Angeles.
Sasha Gordon, Untitled, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Brown Los Angeles.
The theme of being watched comes across in a number of Gordon’s paintings. In Muse III (2021), a figure covers her face with a fan in an act that simultaneously protects her from the viewer’s gaze and exoticizes her by evoking the image of a demure woman of Asian descent. In another work, a shower scene, Gordon turns to face the viewer in a slightly suggestive pose, as if expecting to be walked in on. Her chrome showerhead reflects the scene back to us, referencing the convex mirror in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), without divulging additional information besides an open door.
In Bonfire (2020–21), Gordon’s largest painting to date, themes of self-comparison and performance converge. On the far left of the composition, three of the artist’s figures huddle around a campfire; one of them, her face lit orange by the glowing flames, assumes the role of the entertainer. As she lifts a beer can to her mouth, it’s unclear whether she intends to chug the beverage or use it as a microphone and belt out a song. In the center, another iteration of Gordon lifts her axe up to chop wood for the lounging group’s campfire. She’s dripping in sweat and grinning widely. On the right, two women are skinny-dipping. One looks on at her companion’s smooth and unblemished flesh, resembling that of an Ingres painting. Birkenstocks, blue Levi’s shorts, a digital Casio watch, and other symbols of white American culture populate the scene, revealing Gordon’s navigation of both an external gaze within predominantly white and heteronormative environments, as much as an internalized one in her painted utopic landscapes.
B. 1993, Chicago. Lives and works in Brooklyn.
Catalina Ouyang, installation view of “cunt waifu” at Lyles & King, 2020. Photo by Charles Benton. Courtesy of the artist and Lyles & King.
In Catalina Ouyang’s multimedia practice, trauma is made painfully visible. The sculpture otherwise, spite: 1. whores at the end of the world / 2. from every drop of his blood another demon arose (1829–40) (2020), for example, shows a gruesome murder, and quite possibly a rape. A two-faced yellow figure holds a long-haired woman by the throat with one hand, the other wields a pair of scissors stabbing the woman in her left eye. Her stomach is split open to reveal her pink intestines; her decapitated legs spread apart.
Through paralleled structure, the sculpture’s title is a direct reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés: 1° La chute d’eau, 2° Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) (1946–66). Widely accepted as depicting the aftermath of rape, murder, and mutiliation, Duchamp’s final major artwork (and, by extension, Ouyang’s sculpture) visually quotes Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (1866) in order to explore the theme of birth and rebirth. Ouyang’s sculpture also references a 19th-century drawing of the Thuggee Cult of India stabbing three strangled travelers in the eye before throwing their bodies down a well. Many contemporary historians contest the existence of such “Thugs” or organized groups of serial robbers and murderers in colonial India, claiming they are in fact inventions by Orientalist fears.
Catalina Ouyang, installation view in “THE SIREN” at Real Art Ways, 2021. Photo by John Groo. Courtesy of the artist and Real Art Ways.
Currently on view at “In Practice: You may go, but this will bring you back” at SculptureCenter, Ouyang’s common burn (2020–21) sees the voices of the artist and their mother spring forth from a well. “Her wisdom, trauma, and particular limitations have the potential to activate certain regions of material that I have no access to,” Ouyang said about collaborations with their mother, in a recent interview with Artsy. “Whatever generational knowledge or trauma lives in my body, I embrace but also am not trying at this time to identify or understand. The idea is to protect or respect it by not seeking its edges.”
Last April, New York gallery Lyles & King started representing Ouyang in collaboration with Make Room in Los Angeles. The artist will be presenting their second solo exhibition with the New York gallery in September. In addition to their inclusion in the current group show at SculptureCenter, Ouyang is also featured in the virtual exhibition “WONDERLAND” at EPOCH alongside Dominique Fung, and in Night Gallery’s “Delusionarium 5 (Adaptation).”
B. 1985, St. Louis, Missouri. Lives and works in St. Louis.
Yowshien Kuo, Natural as Prometheus Hating the Birds, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Yowshien Kuo, Faces of Death, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
In Yowshien Kuo’s depictions of the Wild West, Asian cowboys run amok. In Faces of Death (2018), for example, an Asian man dressed like the Marlboro Man in a red flannel shirt, tan cowboy hat, and leather chaps grips a small deer by its antlers. At his feet, lush vegetation blooms while barren terrain lays behind him as if awaiting to flourish under the cowboy’s touch. The abandoned fire in the background dispels the American myth of discovery, attesting to the existing presence of Indigenous peoples. Presenting an Asian man as this idealized image of rugged white masculinity, Faces of Death simultaneously recalls the role Chinese immigrants played in westward expansion and the absence of such figures in the U.S.’s imagining of the Old West.
These days, the Asian cowboy is becoming an actively explored character both in fine art and in film. The Oscar-nominated Minari (2020) tapped into this collective moment in promoting the film: Actor Steven Yeun wore Western-inspired garb in his GQ spread while his co-star Alan Kim dressed up as a cowboy during Sundance Film Festival. In her review of Minari’s handling of the American dream, scholar Anne Anlin Cheng writes that the film offers “a patient and tender view into what it means to be sustained by a dream you can never fully occupy.” Kuo’s latest works explore what it means when the artifice of that dream is not enough.
Yowshien Kuo, Infernal Affairs, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
In one recent painting, Infernal Affairs (2021), the sky and ground are scorched in a fiery red light as shadowy spirits sporting long coats, tall hats, and handguns surround a brown-skinned man. “These figures act as purveyors of systemic white culture and history, wreaking chaos onto these unsuspecting individuals,” Kuo explained. Often, the intangible forces operating in the background of Kuo’s works summon an entity—a white boyfriend, in the case of this painting—to forward their agenda. Violent explosions and bursts of color tear into the space to signal the disruption of regular life for the depicted Asian characters.
Meanwhile, red flannel billows around the scene, recalling Kuo’s previous paintings of plaid prints, such as After Paul Bunyan and Several Similar Folks Until Ice Cube (2017). In this earlier body of work, Kuo created large-scale paintings of rifles and tartan patterns; what one Jacksonville, Florida, exhibition visitor enthusiastically called “redneck art.” With the intent of misleading viewers into believing he was a white artist, Kuo’s practice of communicating through a white visual language can be read as akin to performance art.
Yowshien Kuo, But Victor Denies the Similarities Between Himself and the Monster, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
While his subsequent paintings asked what it would mean to include Asian people into the American cowboy mythos, his latest works are more concerned with the act of shedding those accoutrements. No longer dressed in what Kuo described as “the uniform of whiteness,” the artist’s Asian figures now struggle against the forces of white dominant culture.
Coming off his first major solo museum show, “Western Venom,” which opened at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis this past September, Kuo will have an online solo exhibition at James Fuentes this summer, a solo show with Praise Shadows Art Gallery in Boston this fall, and a solo show with Eve Leibe Gallery in London in early 2022.
Andria Lo and Valerie Luu
B. 1981, Providence, Rhode Island. Lives and works in Berkeley, California.
B. 1988, Sunnyvale, California. Lives and works in San Francisco.
Andria Lo, In Canadian Tuxes We Trust, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Chinatown Pretty.
Andria Lo, Joyce Wing, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Chinatown Pretty.
Photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu have been chasing after fashionable seniors on the streets of Chinatowns since 2014. Beginning in San Francisco, their ongoing project “Chinatown Pretty” has expanded to include photographs and insights from elders across North America. The documentarian collaboration features sensible shoes, quirky socks, bold patterns, and secrets to a long life.
Oftentimes, the photographed elders’ clothing choices reflect personal history. While Joyce Wing’s pink oversized sunglasses were what originally caught Luu and Lo’s attention on the streets of San Francisco, the pair became enamored with Wing’s Mandarin-collared floral shirt. During this chance encounter, they learned that Wing worked as a seamstress and sewed her entire outfit herself.
Andria Lo, Dorothy G.C. Quok in her cranes outfit, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Chinatown Pretty.
Andria Lo, Angie No Good, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Chinatown Pretty.
With subjects as far-ranging as fortune tellers and fruit vendors, “Chinatown Pretty” uses fashion as an entrypoint into the lives of individuals who give these historic neighborhoods their vibrancy. One eccentric elder featured in the series is Angie No Good, who is photographed wearing a black baseball cap covered with pins. One of the buttons pinned to his black vest has the words “LOWELL’S MIGHTY SENIORS,” and a drawing of what’s intended to be an Indigenous man running towards the number 79. I was in Lowell High School’s graduating class of 2014; by then, the school changed its mascot to the cardinal. The sartorial details that Lo and Luu highlight reflect not only on the elders wearing the clothes, but also speak to local histories.
Published by Chronicle Books, Luu and Lo’s 2020 photography book Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Most Stylish Seniors celebrates the individuals whose sartorial flair reminded Lo and Luu of their own grandparents. Coincidentally, Luu photographed my grandmother last March in San Francisco’s Portola district, calling her earth-tone outfit “a spot-on brown moment.” When I passed along Luu and Lo’s compliment in Cantonese—婆婆很亮 (“grandma’s very pretty”)—my grandma bursted out in laughter, surprised and flattered.
Header image: Yowshien Kuo, “The Myth of Liberty and Its House of Cards,” 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed a photograph to Andria Lo. The photograph was taken by Valerie Luu.