8 Artists Grapple with What It Means to Be Asian American in an Intergenerational Group Show
Installation view of “8 Americans” at CHART, 2021. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein. Courtesy of CHART, New York.
In March 2021 in Atlanta and Cherokee County, Georgia, a now infamous series of deadly shootings took the lives of eight victims—six of whom were women of Asian descent. This past November, CHART in New York opened “8 Americans,” a intergenerational group show featuring eight Asian American artists, honoring the eight lives lost. On view until January 22, 2022, and curated by gallerist Clara Ha, the exhibited works affirm Asian American experiences without explicitly referencing race. With group shows often highlighting artists’ ethnicities as the primary draw, the political act of refusing to include “Asian” in its title asserts that the term has been used as an exclusionary caveat from white America.
As photos of anti-Asian attacks flooded the media earlier this year, painter and sculptor Tishan Hsu and interdisciplinary artist Antonia Kuo culled today’s information-filled visual outlets to create their abstract artworks. In Breath 5 (2021), a body is submerged in Hsu’s undulating, sculptural landscape, stressing that technology has integrated into our very being. In comparison, Kuo’s collaged images seem slightly more hopeful. Their use of chemical applications degrades images beyond recognition, transforming it into something new. While the humans in Hsu’s oeuvre are stuck and unable to escape, Kuo suggests the possibility of change.
Hsu and Kuo maintain a sense of unemotive neutrality through abstraction, but painters HyeGyeong Choi and Timothy Lai use figures to evoke pangs of melancholy. Set in her usual brightly colored and fantastical painted environment, Choi’s Ophelia, Quieter and Colder (2021) references the composition of Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais’s famed depiction of Ophelia. However, the title of Choi’s work suggests an even more tragic fate for the Shakespearian lead. In Lai’s A Question, a Choice, a Question (2021), a mournful, hunched figure lifts the bed covers off of a body slumped below her. Known for his impossible contortions and dreary color palette, Lai creates characters that already seem dead. Both Choi and Lai illustrate a deeply felt despair that, as cultural theorist Anne Anlin Cheng described in The Melancholy of Race (2000), stems from an isolating lack of acceptance experienced by Asian Americans due to race.
The other artists in “8 Americans”—painter Byron Kim, ceramicist Jennie Jieun Lee, multidisciplinary artist Kang Seung Lee, and installation artist and sculptor Jean Shin—all invoke the body in their works as well, specifically skin and its ability to chronicle our lives. From Kim’s “bruise” series, Evidence of a Struggle (2016) and Mineral Multitudes (2016) are two large-scale and near monochromatic paintings that resemble the colors of contusions, evidence of injuries in the process of healing. Jennie Jieun Lee’s Cough syrup on the lips (2019) depicts an abstracted porcelain face; its eyes are covered in blue and purple splotches, suggesting a brutalization.
Both of Kang Seung Lee’s works in the exhibition are titled variations of the word “skin.” One of them, Skin (Young Joon Kwak) (2021), is a graphite drawing of the queer artist and activist who the work was named after. The other, Skin (2021), is a three-channel video featuring the scanned skin of those in Kang Seung Lee’s queer community. Like the drawing, the recorded body scans in Skin are stretched and altered to look fluid. And yet the video loop solidifies Kang Seung Lee’s friends and collaborators as a permanent presence. Meanwhile, in the series “S.O.S.” (2021), Shin gives new skin and life to found hemlock branches by upholstering the fallen pieces with scrap leather. The leather coverings suggest the prospect of telling new stories about the fallen. Each artist’s “skin” reveals adversity and transformation, exhibiting the tenacity of the human spirit.
“8 Americans” speaks to the resilience and power of Asian Americans to move forward in the face of adversity. The exhibited works share personal and collective experiences, including that of exhaustion and uncertainty. These American artists, as the title points to, inscribe their unique histories into the fabric of American culture—their traumas and the possibility of healing.