The paintings' similarities appear meaningful at first, like two people who share a birthmark.
This was their first date.
How many siblings do you have?
Florine says she has two and goes on talking about her sisters.
She recalls her summers away from the city. How Manhattan turns into a hot box overrun by tourists, and all her friends flee the city for upstate and Europe.
He always tells people skiing pictures in dating profiles are red flags because skiing appears to be more of a signal of status than interest, this claim makes him feel morally superior, but he admits he usually hits like on them anyways because they're always conventionally attractive.
He feels a vague but familiar loss for not having the experience to match Florine's summer getaways. As if lacking a similar experience disqualifies him, and the only way for them to be compatible is if he had a completely different life than the one he's had. The difference in their upbringing led to a rapid narrowing of possibilities; he thinks about the habit of filling our social circles with people who are just like us, and maybe he doesn't belong in hers.
She talks about her cousin, a professor at Columbia, whom she depicted driving the motor boat pulling the water skiing daughter in the painting.
He recalls earlier that day at work when two high school-aged boys asked him what book he was reading as they passed. He showed them the cover, Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami; he told them, "it's a good book"; they said, "nice" and let out a slight giggle as they walked away. One of them was wearing an Avon Old Farms School t-shirt. According to a search engine result, the boys boarding school in Connecticut charges 72k for boarding students and 54k for day students. He tries to guess what might have made the boys giggle, assuming their interaction caused it. Was it his appearance? The cover of the book? This puzzled him, and he wondered if the boys expressed a judgment that the others could better suppress. Was it evident to everyone that he was reading a book on the outer edges of his reading comprehension and had been rereading the same page over and over, or how his age, aesthetically confused outfit, and constant scan for approval and perceived rejection placed him in a vulnerable place in this courtyard of intellectuals and future high earners. Vulnerable because he was just interesting enough to notice, but the subtle signs of aspiring to a higher caste and the long odds he faced were apparent at a glance. Or they were just caught off guard by the book's cover, bathed in blue tint, with a translucent cloud hovering over a close-up of a face that resembled the reader.
He feels the need to contribute something to this topic of family getaways, but searching for this in a sea of abuse and neglect widens the incompatibility between them in his mind. There is no smooth way to integrate this thought into their small talk, nor does he have the skills to attempt it in this state.
But isn't the fact that they've met destiny enough? Of all the fish in the sea, they happened to bump into one another. From a river in Yangzhou to a lake in upstate New York, what destiny! But it took one exchange for this sea of potential to shrink to a puddle. Perhaps he has misjudged an accidental spill for an ocean, and this epic lack of clarity into the encounter, not unlike the interaction with the high schoolers, drains him of the little hope he has built up.
There might be a way out of the impending dysregulation by recalling the ideas embodied in the mural he made in another life. He remembers the four noble truths taught by the Buddha and meditates on the link between desire and suffering.
Imagine how the artist must have felt when they worked on this patch of the mural depicting spiritual salvation in that cave, perhaps representing something lacking in their surroundings, like a mirage of water in a desert, or sensing mutual attraction from someone who prefers their absence.
After all, a vision gave birth to the mural, part of which ended up in the Arthur M. Sackler collection in Cambridge. According to legend, a monk named Yuezun, upon arriving in Dunhuang, had a vision of a thousand Buddhas, leading him to establish the Mogao Caves by chiseling a space for meditation.
There are no visions here, just feelings of self-pity coupled with resentment and the delusions that propelled him to put himself out there in the first place. And so a lack of imagination cuts short the acquaintance between these previously creative souls.
Astrothunder, 2020 / Pastel on paper 24x18in
The first American album I listened to on repeat was Akon's Freedom from 2008. I paced the park next to our condo, trying to exorcize the longing for whoever I had a crush on at the time through Akon's celebration of beauty, airing of regrets, and mourning the imminent ending of that love. The artist I listened to most in China was the Taiwanese singer, Jeff Chang, the ‘Prince of Love Ballads’ in the mandarin pop world. He has been prolific since the early 90s. The lyrics are overtly sentimental, often paired with orchestral piano and strings. Like Akon's Freedom, Chang’s albums speak to the woes of being in love.
In the spring of 2020, Travis Scott's ASTROWORLD from 2018 was the album I played on repeat. I was drawn to the album’s world-building energy. It is named after a defunct theme park in Houston. Eventially I decided to make a series of pastel drawings about it. I picked up a cheap tray of pastels a few months prior, hoping something would happen with them, and nothing did. I wanted to use this series to mimic the style of the painter Odilon Redon, who worked often in chalk and created dreamy variations of familiar motifs. I included figures from a Paul Gauguin painting, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Gauguin's figures fit well into my series. I was seeing Gauguin's painting often, so it was on the forefront of my mind. The title of the painting also mirrors Scott's song WHO? WHAT? on ASTROWORLD."
Carousel, 2020 / Pastel on paper 24x18in
Making art feels like world-building, something like a game. Set some boundaries (medium, size, color scheme), add context, make up some rules, and bump up the difficulty and keep it interesting. For me, having an art practice has many ties to spiritual and mystical instincts. Art is game elevated to the level of belief by the intricate rituals and cultivated intentions genuine enough to appease the creative spirits. It seems plausible to me that if you take a collection of crystals, arrange them in a certain way, during a certain point of the moon cycle, suffuse them with smoke by burning a particular plant, and recite your intentions, it would result in an untangling of the pain body. My openness to mystical ideas is partly temperamental. I am admittedly naive and quite malleable. In 4th grade, my first year in America, our teacher played the movie Matilda for the class. I didn't understand the words, but I identified with Matilda so strongly that I convinced myself I could move things with my mind too. I intuited from the movie that being a sad child gave you super powers. So for a couple of weeks after seeing the movie, I was persistent in awakening this power. I experimented with different objects, moods/times, on my own, and around people. It never worked, but I really really believed it could have. In some ways, that's what making art feels like now; it's a little bit silly, alienating, and sometimes cringe, but I really believe in it sometimes.
The manners between Jeff Chang and Travis Scott are vastly different. Chang is sentimental; he frequently uses love/heart in his titles. He's obsessed; he would wait many lifetimes for his love to be reciprocated and is at peace knowing it might never happen. He's desperate, in 愛就一個字[love is a single word], he refrains [I will scale mountains and cross waters for you, and I will not take the time to admire the scenery]. He nurses his jealousy in 爱如潮水[love like a tide] by pleading with her to [not wander in the night, giving others a chance to admire your beauty, because doing so would break my heart]. Scott will not risk coming across like Chang. The vibe of ASTROWORLD is closer to the Art of War by Sun Tzu. The base sounds like drums on a battlefield. He rests in order to attack. "infiltrate the enemy moving on them randomly," he raps in ASTROTHUNDER. He reflects on his vulnerability while asserting his greatness in STOP TRYING TO BE GOD. He is often under attack. Paranoid even, "they're outside they really tryin' to end me, who's that creeping through my window" -5% TINT. He lures us in with his spacey psychedelic tunes, like a peacock opening up its tail to mesmerize mates and prey alike.
I internalized Chang's view towards love growing up, well before romantic relationships were of interest. And Scott is creating a very different world for the lovesick; together, they both feel exaggerated and absurd, which often happens with art.
The imaginary world can be just as dysfunctional as the ones we're escaping. Like Scott sings in CAROUSEL, "new world, new sky, it's so blue it's black too." The new world often perpetuates limiting narratives, which can escalate male sadness and anger resulting in repressive responses to the hurt caused by getting close to someone and even limit the definitions of love. Scott was four when the Astroworld theme park closed. The potency of ASTROWORLD leads me to think the memories associated with the early years of his life must hold a lot of weight for it to be featured so prominently in the creation of this new world. Seeing these albums through this lens affirms my growing awareness of trauma's pervasiveness and how our present-day situations are often colored by what happened in our childhoods.
Brother and Sister Soweto, 2017. Inkjet print. Deana Lawson
This is a photograph by the artist Deana Lawson, who had a solo show at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art in 2021. The show was low on wall text, encouraging me to imagine the stories behind each scene, inviting introspection about preconceived notions and gaze. I found Brother and Sister Soweto to be the most relatable photo in the show.
I was drawn to the face of the adult, interpreting his state as one of desperation stemming from contradicting markers in his identity. There is something about a wrinkled buttoned-up blazer that suggests this is a new item the person is using to identify with the traits associated with it. To my eyes, there appears to be dissonance between the dress shirt, the busy interior, and the table filled with sneakers. It made me think of the suggestiveness of things I wear and do and how I attempt to identify with the traits they're advertised to hold. One such item is a pair of Dr. Martens Chelsea boots. I think they try to communicate that I'm cosmopolitan, comfortable with androgyny, almost punk, artsy, and have the means to invest in a pair of boots that some would consider impractical. It's interesting how quickly I got used to them. There was a time when I thought they were a little pretentious. Standing in front of this photograph made me think about my previous attempts at forming my identity around a look or activity and what drove me to them.
In high school, I became obsessed with tennis. The first time I played was when I joined the tennis team in the spring of my first year. I remember a few days before the season started, seeing Max, a senior, walking through the freshmen hallway with his racket in hand and red Wilson bag on one shoulder, I think he was on the way to do some hitting. The image of his far-leaning walk down that hallway made an impression on me, and I admired him. He played varsity tennis, but he might as well have been a knight armed with a sword on the way to slay a dragon. He played with a combination of topspin and power and had a fluid serving motion. I wanted to be that person who can so effortlessly be this thing that looks so foreign and legit. It looked like he had been holding that racket forever, the grip was worn, and there were scrapes on the edges (he often did that thing where players would poke the racket against the court to regain balance before changing directions after running down a shot). I never knew a tennis bag existed and that they could be so big, filled with things that pointed to one conclusion, that this was a person who plays tennis. Soon I was wearing all the right things, like those Babolat shoes that Andy Roddick wore. They looked more padded and strapped than other brands, like he needed something extra to keep from jumping too high or shattering his ankles when he landed on those explosive serves.
I improved so much in the first year that my coach told me I could play varsity in my sophomore year. However, I was ineligible to play because my GPA had dipped below 2.0 during that fall semester. I had mostly A's the year before; the drop aligned with my rapid decline in mental health, and sophomore year was when my dyslexia and grade school reading comprehension took a real toll. I was devastated and embarrassed about not being able to play that year. It felt like I had finally found something in which I could excel, which wasn't dampened by my emotional and learning handicaps.
I got good by being obsessed, waking up early to practice serving before school, hitting against the wall, playing with people whenever I got a chance, and soaking up videos of grand slam matches and player highlights—psyching myself up before practice like it's 2008 and I'm on my way to play Federer in the Wimbledon final. In class, I browsed the tennis warehouse website fantasizing about potential gear upgrades, visited the ATP website memorizing ranks and facts about tennis players, and even made a new email, email@example.com. Somehow I got into college and earned a place on the tennis team. I ended my first and only season with a 0-13 record. The difference in my level of play during practice and matches was vast due to my awful mental game. It was painful and invariably disappointing.
Off the court, I cultivated the preppy look. I got into nautical-looking clothes, argyle vests, and all things navy colored. This interest in fashion was mainly inspired by a girl I had a crush on, which turned obsessive. And the inability to move on for six years became one of the most painful experiences of my life. For those years she represented the thing that would replace all the things that had gone missing within me. A major impression came when we saw the Great Gatsby movie at the theater. It sold me on this vision of life that if you persisted in pursuing love and wore the right things, it would be a beautiful and romantic life even if you never had that love and died in a pool. I wore a Brooksbrother's bow tie to our second prom together. It was one of Nick Carraway's ties from the film. That movie and that girl's fascination with the east coast was why I almost exclusively applied to colleges on the east coast.
In the throes of unrequited affection, I turned to social media. My obsession with Instagram was taking shape when I got to Boston. The east coast city was aesthetic fodder for appealing to this girl and communicating our shared passion and my elevated status, like those birds that build intricate nests to impress potential mates. I cultivated the look of a preppy Bostonian, basically a low-budget Kiel James Patrick, a designer this girl was into. I met the designer and his crew in a tent at the Harvard Regatta, a rowing event that first October in Boston. I went to the event alone in sky blue pants with little lime green bicycles sewn all over and a vineyard vines dress shirt. It was like walking into a J.Crew shoot; the KJP crew were in or around the tastefully rugged tent, talking, laughing, or just standing there, leaning against a wooden chest with nautical signal flags draped over it. The song Big Jet Plane by Angus & Julia Stone was playing. It was beautiful. I took a picture with Kiel and Sarah, his partner. I also ran into a blogger that my crush liked. The blogger tweeted about the problems of preppy kids and lived a life full of seemingly exclusive events up and down the east coast. The blogger and I took a picture together, and he followed me back on Instagram. Over the next year, I kept finding ways to be around this crowd, a social event at a Vineyard Vines store, a holiday pop-up at a tourist hotspot. The dissonance was intense. I was blending in, like running into them at these events was just an outgrowth of my naturally preppy life, but I really just wanted to make posts that would appeal to this girl back in the midwest while I worked at a burger joint and maxed out credit cards.
Photos I took during a shoot on long island for a clothing start-up in 2015
I started to get more regular retweets and likes from the "influencers" in this realm. I got more likes and followers in general, it was intoxicating, and then I needed it more and more to sustain the high. So I started buying followers and then buying likes and comments to keep up the proper ratio with my growing body of fake followers. I also used the app facetune to widen my forehead, clear away acne, broaden my shoulders, and enlarge my eyes. I had 27.6k followers when I deleted my Instagram account. Most of them were bots, but there was a substantial following by real people due to my carefully curated brand and the visibility of being the only Chinese boy in the east coast prep Instagram niche, at least to my knowledge.
One of the last trips I took during this period was to D.C, where I had brunch with that blogger whom my crush liked. He invited me to write for him as part of a new section of his blog that posts about life in other East Coast cities. I agreed, but I never followed up. During our meal, I thought about how the first time I became aware of him was less than two years earlier back in Wisconsin, during physics class, when my crush reached back and showed me one of his tweets, and now I was in D.C with him while mingling with others folks that looked straight out of her Pinterest feed. I walked around the city for a bit before boarding my overnight bus back to Boston, my stepmom called, and I told her about all these things I was doing, trying to impress the serendipity of it all in my rusty Mandarin. I wanted to believe I was living the life of Gatsby that night in D.C, but it was more Holden Caulfield than Jay.
Before long, the music stopped, and I began preparing for what seemed imminent, the ending of my life. I felt cornered by my lies and failures. I had dropped out of school, then deleted my Instagram and other social media, pushed people out of my life to protect them, and changed my number. I started smoking weed daily and spent a lot of time just decorating my room. Then I began drinking, smoking cigarettes, and experimenting with psychedelics. The suicidal thoughts were chronic, but I never succeeded in killing myself, so I just lived as if I was about to die for the next year, maintaining distance from people and being in constant despair. By the spring of 2016, I began to think about trying something, putting my heart into something that wasn't to impress a girl I hadn't contacted in years. I landed on art.
There was a sense that I had nothing to lose, and I could always end my life later. I knew almost nothing about art. I knew I'd gravitated towards it a few times without any adult asking me to. I began by watching documentaries, the first one that moved me was about Henri Matisse from the BBC series Modern Masters. I was twenty then, the same age Matisse began painting, sparked by a box of paints his mom gave him when he was recovering from a bedridden illness. I learned of his ties to Picasso. Picasso and Matisse, like Nadal and Federer. It was a method I could follow, identify a role model, extract inspiration from their life, and use that to fuel mine.
copy of Matisse. 2018 / oil on canvas 16x12in
I began visiting the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they had Van Goghs! (This was the only art museum I'd been to since middle school when I received a Scholastic silver key award at the Milwaukee Art Museum for a puffer fish pin I made in jewelry class, the museum seemed more like an event space then.) I was on acid one of the first times I visited the MFA. In a self-destructive episode, I shaved my head to the skin the night before and was wearing a hat to cover it. I felt the prickly skin through the hole at the back of the cap as I walked up the front steps. I had been crying a lot, and it showed. My anxiety spiked when I walked into the grand entrance. The pillars made it look like a courthouse, there were people everywhere, and the stanchions leading to the ticketing desk looked like an airport checkpoint. I started to cry and went home.
I was willfully blind about the improbability that my drawing lessons would lead to what I set out for, to transform and save my life. Like it did for Matisse. I used my naivety to cope with the fact that before I was good, there would be more major depressive episodes, and art might fall to the wayside, like tennis, the crush, and fashion. It's been about six and a half years since I began making art, which has outlasted all those previous pursuits.
Like the other obsessions, I've always felt like an outsider, even when I gained access to the perceived nuclei of that particular niche. Perhaps I frame these pursuits as obsessions because I see myself through the lens of the dominant majority, that there must be something pathological about a Chinese guy being so into tennis, a white girl, New England prep fashion, or painting and art history. During a visit to China in high school, the aunt who raised me remarked that I had the demeanors of an American, more than my brother, who was born and raised in the states. I never consciously wanted to be white. The abrupt move to the states activated my capacity to blend in so quickly that it seemed unnatural. From not knowing the alphabet when I immigrated to being so American that I appeared foreign to my family in just a few years, the survival mechanism had become a cause for alienation.
*on suicidal ideations
The last time I made a serious attempt at my life, in 2017, 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. These episodes are compartmentalized immediately because they integrate poorly with daily life. One of the first series of paintings I made was 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 of three sketches were 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 and 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 for 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 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 six more times. And the final scene depicts me watching porn with the workers for my father's restaurant that stayed 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 my early twenties.
oil on paper 18x24in. 2016
They were mostly undocumented workers. I had little understanding of the precarity of their lives then, but I think we shared a 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. I cried every day and night for a few months and almost every night for the rest of the year. I had recurrent nightmares and often woke up disoriented by the idea that I was so far from my family that when it was daytime for me, it was nighttime for them. That was the most traumatizing time because I did not have the tools to cope with the indefinite absence and eventual estrangement from everyone I loved.
I spent most of my time outside of school working at my father's 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 the town of Waukesha 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 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. An emotional whiplash perpetuating a belief in the futility of secure connections.
So I sat in the tub and started to fade out. I wanted to write "so it goes" in blood on the side of the tub but thought better of it. 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 I couldn't end my life correctly. I've long identified with the boy who cried wolf in my experience with suicidal behaviors because my aliveness contradicts my cries. I also identify with the fable because I often dread that my life will 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 and a letter of eviction. (The eviction was mainly because I was already living "under the radar", my previous roommates were two international students who left for the summer and refused to pay rent, leading to my first eviction.) 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. The same disregard for the precarious but slower and equipped with a robust public relations apparatus.
The suicidal 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 tasks, mostly stuff involving paperwork like applying for healthcare, loan payments, the mounting documents required of someone living in 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. The dissonance goes wild; why did I purchase new contact lenses? Why am I still eating turmeric? Every little thing becomes a reluctant commitment to a future.
The inability to cope with 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 very 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. But once the resentment fades, it's not so clear who's doing the rejecting.
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 again, to wait. It’s worked for me because the urge always subsides enough to be managed or pass entirely in a few hours or days. It's simple, but it can be the most challenging thing in the moment, a moment preceded by years of waiting, drenched in the emotional turmoil via the warping effect of trauma, where the buffer of time, distance from danger, and perspective dissolves. And that is when the wait begins.
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 show, 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 in America, 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, 2018
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 less than 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, had two kids, 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.