Art

Awkward Still Lifes Convey the Alienation of the Asian American Experience

Crys Yin’s exhibition arrives at a time when Orientalism is still rife and often left unchecked within the art world.

Crys Yin, If You Were Home, You’d Be Here By Now, installation view (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Walking through the doors of a button-making shop on Mott Street, precariously part of both Chinatown and Little Italy, will lead you to Crys Yin’s latest solo exhibition, If You Were Home, You’d Be Here By Now, at Amy Li Projects.

The title plays on the colloquial phrase “If you lived here, you’d be home by now” to convey the sensation of being culturally unsettled. Born to Taiwanese parents in Orange County, California, Yin portrays the internal struggles of persistently feeling like a foreigner in her home country. “If I truly felt at home in the U.S., I’d have that feeling that I was welcome and present,” she told me at the opening. Instead, Yin spoke plainly about the awareness of feeling othered, which began as a child in her majority-white community. Yin recalled having a different experience than even her Asian colleagues: “Everyone’s experience is different, and some of the Asian people I grew up with didn’t have the same confrontational things happen to them because of various factors, such as having lighter skin. Whereas I’ve been called a chink many times and even referred to as ‘dirty.’” Like Yin’s personal history, her paintings illuminate the Asian American experience outside of mainstream narratives. In lieu of yellowface in Hollywood or documented hate crimes, Yin brings to light the formidable uneasiness and shy dudgeon that accompanies being Asian American on an everyday basis. Harboring a collective interiority, her paintings synthesize how these themes lingered in Yin’s life without the proper terminology or encouragement to discuss them.

In the early years of Sesame Street, a recurring visual game for children was “One Of These Things Is Not Like the Others,” in which the audience was asked to choose which object in a group did not belong. The game was alluded to on MSNBC in 2013, when Pia Glenn mocked a photo of Mitt Romney’s majority-white family with one adopted black child. In her still lifes, Yin plays this seemingly innocent game with us, pointing to the sinister implications of applying it to America’s multicultural landscape and people — a reality that punishes those who do not fit into a country designed to place the white body at every advantage.

Crys Yin, “Goober Slipper Coaster Spoon, Everything Is Exactly the Same” (2017), 47 x 57 in (all images courtesy of Amy Li Projects, unless noted)
Crys Yin, “Soy Bowl Lighter Log, Everything Is Exactly the Same” (2017), 24 x 18 in

In Yin’s series of paintings Everything Is Exactly the Same, she positions an array of functional objects such as a lighter, a milk carton, and a porcelain bowl together on a nondescript table. Though similar in size, they carry differing amounts of visual weight, competing for the viewer’s focus. The still life ensnares the eye into singling out or lingering on objects, effectively reconstructing the visual process of othering.

Next to Western goods, the East Asian objects in Yin’s paintings are easily isolated. Even the milk carton, which she identifies as soy in the title but which passes as dairy without careful scrutiny, assimilates better into the group. The “rice grain”–pattern porcelain, while exotic to some, will be familiar to many who understand its ubiquity in Asian American households. The objects’ shadows are mismatched with their forms as if to hint at the deception of appearances.

Other paintings confront the complexities of maintaining a distinct cultural identity, with surreal characteristics. “Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go” (2015), featuring legs in motion as if from a child’s vantage point, captures a competitive rush without a clear idea of the destination. Placed near “…But I Scored a Zero on My Chinese Test” (2016), the works capture the contradictions and frustrations within the drive to achieve narrow American definitions of success while working to stay attached to Chinese roots. The effort required to maintain this expected standard feels inhibiting and doubly burdensome.

Crys Yin, “Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go” (2015), 18 x 24 in

The show is presented by Amy Li, notably one of the only Chinese gallerists in a populous Chinatown who has a personal history in the area. The front-most part of Li’s family-owned button factory, which opened in the 1980s, has been used as an art gallery for the past four years.

Yin’s exhibition arrives at a time when Orientalism is still rife and often left unchecked within the art world, including a major misstep recently at SPRING/BREAK ART SHOW, in which a majority-white gallerist and artist group appropriated aesthetics of Chinese restaurants without including any Chinese people. The violence of Orientalism occurs when the West defines an entire people through visual representations with little to no input from the people themselves, and Yin provides a welcome antithesis to this over-exoticized notion of Asian culture. Her paintings, ranging in tone from awkward to morose, leave an impression that it actually did not feel particularly cool or sexy navigating America as an Asian woman with little control over her own stereotypes.

If You Were Home, You’d Be Here By Now continues at Amy Li Projects (166 Mott St., Chinatown) through March 19, 2017.

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