waiting // dec. ‘21

attempt, ‘21

The last time I made a serious attempt at my life, it failed. I carved into my wrist until I lost consciousness while my roommates were away. As I sat in the tub, my thoughts digressed, and my energy drained. The paranoia led to a feeling of criminality often felt during episodes of self-harm. I must have compartmentalized all my attempts on the spot because they rarely come into consciousness for how salient they were. Compared with less troubling experiences, they integrate poorly with daily life. One of the first series of paintings I made was sketches in oil of scenes I've struggled to integrate. I hoped putting them down on paper would somehow dispel the limiting effect of identifying with them.

The first out of three sketches was of me sleeping in a recycling dumpster, the green steel ones with black plastic lids that I slept in when I spent the night outdoors in the winter months to avoid or escape violent confrontations with my father. When it wasn't raining or snowing, I slept on the ground in wooded areas, or I'd stroll around town until classes began the following day. The only time a car stopped me, I got in; the two men drove to Milwaukee, handed off a bag of meth in someone's driveway, took my cash at the gas station afterward, and dropped me off at a local high school.  The next sketch was the first time I was brought to be evaluated, then placed in a mental health in-patient mental program in a cop car. After the officer handcuffed me to the hospital bed, he talked about how things aren't so bad and recommended the movie It's a Wonderful Life. I'll be admitted five more times. And the final scene depicts me watching porn with the workers for my father's restaurant that lived in our living room before the family grew and moved. The first time it happened, I was 10 or 11, my father was gone, and I wandered downstairs well past midnight and saw them watching it in a circle. The atmosphere wasn't sexual; it felt more like a prank. None of them seemed aroused or embarrassed, just amused by my presence. Usually, they watched Chinese or Taiwanese films from the nineties and early aughts. My fascination with porn entertained them, and some would lend me their laptops before going to bed so I could stay up to watch on my own; this was how I watched porn for some time. I developed a porn addiction  that lasted until I was 24.

oil on paper, ‘16

They were mostly undocumented workers. I had little understanding of the precarity of their lives then, but I think we had a shared longing for home, which only existed in the past. I desperately wanted them to remain part of my life; I saw some of them as family. The dynamic with these workers exacerbated my attachment issues when I arrived in America escorted by a stranger I never saw again; I met my father in person for the first time and was separated from everyone I've been around until age 9. As a result, I was despondent for months and became more traumatized. I recall having recurrent nightmares, unpeopled landscapes filled with dread, and waking up and wandering around in the dark, carpeted hallways, disoriented by the thought that I was so far from my family that when it was daytime for me, it was nighttime for them.

I spent most of my time outside of school working at the restaurant. The first weeks in America were spent peeling shrimp in the kitchen while I waited to be registered for school. I bonded with the workers over the boss's shortcomings. I tried to entertain them with my impersonation of characters played by the Hongkonese actor Stephen Chow in his slapstick comedies, reenactments of stand up routines I memorized from the Chinese New Year's Gala from previous years, and ironically reciting lyrics by the singer Jeff Chang and other romantic ballads. I was obsessed with regurgitating the zeitgeist of the moment and place that was home. I hoped the workers would like Waukesha, Wisconsin so that they would stay, but they never lasted long, and the longer they stayed, the more painful it was to see them go, often without warning. They worked 72 hour weeks, and on their precious day off each week, they logged onto QQ to chat with their families, played computer games, did laundry, and cooked meals with minimal ingredients. I would become distraught when they mentioned anything hinting at plans to leave. The same emotions would arise when my future colleagues mentioned going to grad school, looking for other jobs, or moving, which is what people my age talk about in entry-level jobs. The emotional whiplash leads to a greater conviction of the futility of secure connections.

So I sat in the tub and started to fade out. The last things I recalled were cutting into a part that felt like the bows on a violin, watching an exposed tendon moving back and forth while I opened and closed my palm, and squeezing my upper arm as blood sprayed onto my chest. I woke up to my roommate knocking on the door, realizing the cut wasn't deep enough, and the drying blood clogged the wound. When the paramedic arrived, one remarked that it looked like I had lost half a pint of blood. I thought it was a low estimate since most of it had run down the drain, and I felt ashamed for all the times when I didn't injure myself enough to end my life. I've long identified with the boy who cried wolf in my experience with suicidal behaviors because my aliveness contradicts my cries. But there really is a wolf, and they go as sneakily as they come. I also identify with the fable because I often dread that my life is shaping up to be a cautionary tale of the "fool" variety.

When I returned from the hospital, I was fined a $600 fee for "suicide attempt cleanup" by the apartment complex, which the memo helpfully listed, along with a letter of eviction. That seemed honest to me. I consider it the same kind of violence as future employers responding to low morale by hiring external consultants to share research on living wages and then continue to pay its workers less than three-quarters of the listed amount. It's the same type of disregard for the precarious but slower and equipped with a robust public relations apparatus.

The urges are amnesiac in nature, and things turn absurd after a few days of contemplation. It changes the brain; there was a period where I routinely counted on my eventual suicide to avoid things, primarily bureaucratic stuff like applying for healthcare and the mounting paperwork required of someone in a persistent crisis. Mundane choices get filtered through the new mindset. The amount of groceries to get, how to interact with people, and whether to continue habits developed to prevent these feelings or sink into a brief hedonic spell. Every little thing becomes a reluctant commitment to a future. The dissonance goes wild; why did I purchase new contact lenses? Why am I still eating turmeric?

Loneliness and hopelessness drive these urges, and I've found those to be self-perpetuating states. Seeing couples and seemingly happy children brings up a wave of resentment on bad days. They appear so far from my reality that they look like a commercial. It's obvious most socialized kids become integrated adults who have good enough social lives. The necessary social ties to be acquired as a lonely person become riskier to attempt, for even perceived rejection comes with an unpredictable period of dysregulation. The intense loneliness becomes a barrier to connection, which feels akin to a starving person being rejected food due to poor meal etiquette. Perhaps a nourished person would appreciate the culinary experience more. The same gesture that appears savage for the starved person might be perceived as quirkiness or enthusiasm for the well-fed. God forbid the desperate person commits a faux pas while trying to obtain what is essential to survive.

A sign that the urge has crept in is when I begin to obsess over a few stats that define my life, like a sudden realization of how things really are or discovering a stench that has kept others at bay. The fact that I am a college dropout, shorter than the average American adult male, no friends in the state in which I reside, and has spent nearly six years making art that resembles the collective effort of a high school art class for whom mercury is in permanent retrograde.

But I digress. The best advice I've gotten for not acting on suicidal urges is from a doctor who oversaw my treatment twice at an in-patient program in Boston. He told me the next time I find myself in a moment of acute suicidality, which I probably will, to wait. If the urge is still there at the end of the day, wait until the morning, and repeat.

desk // oct. ‘20

desk, ‘19

Desk is one of five in a series I painted in the final weeks of 2019. The series is about my ambivalence to keeping a routine when everything feels broken. The painting depicts my job; a broken monitor, the keyboard, and germs. I work in the member and visitor services department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The style of this series was inspired by the painter Philip Guston. Around this time, I learned the MFA was involved in the upcoming Guston retrospective, which included three other museums. Here, desk serves as a segue to my thoughts relating to the postponement of this exhibition. The show, Philip Guston Now, already rescheduled to open this fall due to covid-19, has been postponed until 2024. The reason given for the postponement was a chance to reframe the programming and bring in additional perspectives to shape the presentation of Guston's work in response to the shift in contexts due to recent events.

The call for more perspectives led me to think about what contexts are most relevant to me, as someone who relies on one of the institutions for employment and access to art. The perspectives I'm engaging in do not address racism directly. I don't feel physically or emotionally threatened by the characters Guston drew and painted, nor do I think my experience is misrepresented or minimized. Still, I can imagine someone having such reactions. With two to three years to reframe a completed show, I hope additional conversations can be had alongside a dialogue about the ongoing anti-black racism in America.

Guston's late work had many themes; loneliness, evil, the artist, his admiration for Italian Renaissance painters, doom, and ways to cope, but the two I find most relevant and all-encompassing is power and self-reflection. Guston exposed corrupt power with the Nixon comics, stripped power away by painting KKK figures as cartoonish characters in compromised states, and resisted it by parting with his generation's dominant style, abstract expressionism. He reflected on his capacities for evil by painting hooded figures as a stand-in for the artist in the studio, contemplating canvases, and performing mundane activities—artists and critics as the evildoer.

The proposed topic of conversation concerns Guston's reminder of the enduring threat of corrupt power. A self-reflection by the Museum's administration on power dynamics within its organization and its culpability in race/class disparities. The museum claims in the plaque for the newly installed mural, No Weapon Formed Against Thee Shall Prosper, at the MFA's front lawn: "...[T]he MFA works to be a site where critical dialogues can take place in the presence of, inspired by, and provoked by great art of the past and of our own moment." The dialogue I'm proposing is a critical one and very relevant to the Museum. Failing to engage this dialogue can also be seen as a gesture of nonchalance with existential consequences because, in short, there is a looming climate catastrophe. The crisis exacerbates pr-existing disparities, including racial discrimination addressed by Guston's late motifs.

There is another context that encourages this reflection by the admins of the 150 years old cultural nonprofit. The day before the Guston postponement announcement, MFA staff filed a petition to form a worker's union, representing 231 staff members. An election date by mail is set for late October. The union is a challenge to concentrated power. A small collective is in charge of decisions that impact the institution's employees, visitors, local communities, and the kinds of services provided and to whom. I hope Guston's reflections on power and corruption resonate within the Museum's administration, leading to a candid conversation with the community within and outside its walls. The MFA is a nonprofit, a public cultural institution, not an amoral corporation. To be inclusive, the institution has to exclude conflicting ideologies.

The administration communicated their opposition to the union, and in response to the announcement, hired a law firm with an anti-union history. A weapon can take many forms. Perhaps I was naive for thinking the administration might include in their artillery anecdotes from art history.

In 1980, when Guston died, a homeless teenager in New York City named Jean-Michel Basquiat was transitioning from making word-based graffiti in public spaces to drawings and paintings on moveable surfaces. As I'm writing this, the member preview is taking place for a show featuring Basquiat and his contemporaries at the MFA, titled Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-hop Generation. The context in Basquiat's work is diverse. Things he depicted include slave auctions, police brutality, black people's contributions to culture, and mural-sized triptychs filled with art historical references. Some of the themes addressed in his work are anti-black racism in America, capitalism, tokenization, and the art world's brutal commercialization, which contributed to his demise. He died alone at age 27 of a drug overdose.

The Basquiat show is sponsored by Bank of America. The admission fee is $30. There's a discounted option for the final entry timeslot on Wednesdays; the price type is labeled "$5 Wednesdays Presented by Chase". The shop displays aggressively priced merchandise covered in Basquiat's art, hoodies, bags, toy mascot figures. Shirts in collaboration with a clothing brand. There's a $600 chair featuring a painting with the phrase "per capita" drawn twice on the backrest. Since preparedness to present a show in contemporary context and respect for the artist mattered so much that three major American museums postponed a five-year effort by 2-4 years, how does one justify this showcase of Basquiat's work with its insensitive disregard for the context of his life and work?

family tree // oct. '20

family tree, ‘18

I made family tree in December of 2018, preceded by a period of deterioration in my self-care.

I saw the pictures I was making as transitional works, a transition of skill and content. I was preoccupied with the notion of before and after; dichotomies as the framework. This approach encouraged incremental steps. Each picture called for an expansion or a repudiation by another, a serial process. I had just finished a few pairs of paintings. A depiction of the pulse-y afterimage darkness when I close my eyes, paired with its opposite, blinding light, an almost pure white picture with faint washes of warm and cool tones. A pair of abstract landscapes of large patches of deep reds and violets alluding to doom and ruin.

Family Tree was made throughout an evening, done without any premeditation about the actual mark-making, as I often experience transitional works to be. After settling in from a day at work, I brooded for a while. I thought about death. Then I thought about the passing of my mom. She was 27 when she died. Her death had a new relevance because I was 23, and I knew some 27-year-olds. Besides our generational difference, trauma and despair are universal, and I could empathize with her situation as a peer.

I remembered the changes that took place during her final years. At 23, she got married and gave birth to me. My father had left a few months before for America to find work as a cook. After two years, she left me in my paternal grandparents' care and headed for America to join him. They lived in New York City. At 26, she gave birth to my brother. Then the family relocated to central Florida, where she died shortly after. During the final years of her life, she dealt with her partner's absence, gave birth twice, parted with her toddler, and transitioned to a precarious life in a foreign land.

Then I looked over the pictures I saved of the police reports and newspaper clippings. She died upon impact when she walked into the path of an oncoming car on a highway one night in December. The newspaper report named the driver of the westbound minivan. I typed that name into a search engine, and I found an obituary for the driver's son, who had the same name, from three months prior. The text mentioned that the father had passed away four days before Jr.

Is there a proper way to act and feel when you're a young person experiencing one separation after another due to circumstances beyond your control? How might witnessing firsthand a gruesome death alter your and your family's life?

I felt moved by intense grief and simultaneously, its release, enchantment via trauma. I treasure these moments, for they often lead to healing tears and an afterglow of gratitude and compassion. What I got from that particular night was an improved readiness to acknowledge the unthinkable, devastating characteristic of life, never far from the periphery.

I made some marks on canvas with soft charcoal. This followed by a crude sketch of the moment of impact, done with leftover paints from the night before. Then I copied an excerpt from the newspaper report and wrote the late father and son's names in the blank spot. Lastly, I sprayed fixative over the paint to make it run like gasoline on wet asphalt. The compositional choices of the picture were arbitrary. It could have been a journal entry. I was using up materials and filling in a blank canvas, which seemed like a good enough reason to do it.