“No matter what you shoot (in a photograph), it is always a self-portrait in a way.” Ni Rong
Although most of the artists in this exhibition do not produce self-portraits, self-reflection is an overarching theme among all the artists’ work. While moving between different cultural contexts, these artists have been faced with negotiating different identities. Some artists, like Ni Rong and Nanfei Wang, portray their cultural background and events of their life in their work; others, like Ling-Wen Tsai and Lihua Lei, use introspection in their work. In this exhibition, the artworks are all, in one way or another, a reflection of the artist, his or her upbringing, personality, and dreams.
Some artists use art as a tool to achieve an alternate vision and to escape life’s constraints. Lihua Lei contracted polio when she was only four months old, which permanently paralyzed her right leg. Recently, Lei started practicing yoga, however she cannot do certain poses and movements because of her paralysis. This physical restriction does not stop her from doing the poses in her mind, which she brings to life through her sculpture, “Intention.” The multiple arms of this sculpture represent the people in her life—her mother, family members, friends, and teachers—who have helped her get through difficult times. At the same time, she finds a “new mobility of spirit and flexibility of mind” in the process of binding and casting her sculpture, which allows her to do yoga poses and make her dreams come true.
In the works of some artists, the media and visual style convey ideas of identity. Ling-Wen Tsai is proudly Taiwanese, from a family that had lived in Taiwan for generations before the influx of Chinese fleeing Communist China in 1949. At the same time, she grew up in a society that strongly valued traditional Chinese cultural heritage, so she was trained in Chinese calligraphy as a child. In Ling-Wen Tsai’s “Residuals” series, she uses traditional Chinese ink on paper that refers to her Chinese background, but she transforms the media into abstract and introspective meditations in black and white.
For all these artists, their work in one way or another is a method of reflecting on their self-identification, and the process of making art becomes a process of self-discovery and self-reflection.
SomewHERE: Visions from Chinese and Taiwanese artists in Maine explores the process of migration and movement; what it means to move from a place you know, of which you are a part, to a place that is unfamiliar, and the development of a relationship with new place. The term ‘place’ includes, in this context, not only the individual’s physical location, but also the surrounding people, nature, objects, and culture. Much of the work selected for the exhibition examines and accentuates how each artist uses art to examine, appreciate, and accentuate their perception of their surroundings, or rather their place. This collection of works displays vastly varying styles, content, and narration, but each artist implements their work as a means of developing both a relationship with and a knowledge and perspective of their place. Existing on both a physical and a theoretical spectrum, with varying levels of permanence and emotional attachment, each one reveals a different relationship with China or Taiwan, and America.
Some artists shown in the exhibit inhabit an intermediate space on the spectrum; for instance Brian Chu and Shao-Ping Wang have made a home in the U.S. but feel most comfortable living on the move. In an interview with the curators, Chu explained his love of wandering as a kind of acquired taste; to him “it is fun to be an immigrant.” While some of his works, such as his series of garlic still lifes, celebrate an important ingredient in Chinese culture, others including “Post Office, Cranberry Isl.” are completely western in technique and subject matter.
In contrast to Rong, Chu, and Wang, Nanfei Wang, who moved to Rockland in 2011, is only beginning to develop a semi-permanent sense of place in the U.S. While her work ranges in medium, content, and scale, in all of it Wang views her various places through a perceptive, intuitive, and articulate lens. The works created within pre-fabricated frames she discovered in the attic of her new home, such as “The 1900s,” give an impression on the artist’s views not only her physical surroundings, but also her cultural and historical identities. In fact, the artist’s relationship with Rockland extends back to her education, during which she studied art under a professor trained in the realistic style of Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth developed this technique in none other than Rockland, and so it seems that Wang has begun to develop a more intimate relationship with Rockland through her art, and yet this place is, in a sense, the source of her artistic technique.
This spectrum of person-place relationships also applies to the artists’ connections with their country of origin. Some maintain stronger physical ties to China or Taiwan, visiting these places several times a year. Others, while still cherishing their cultural heritage, experience these connections in a subtler way. For some of these artists, their Chinese roots create tension in the experience and perception of their new place. In Shiao-Ping Wang’s map works, the artist joins and overlays maps of her current neighborhood and Taipei, where she lived as a child. A network of beads represents her childhood routes around the city. To her, the unnatural linking of her old and new places is an acknowledgment of the tension between her American and Chinese identities. Other artists featured here also emphasize the dynamic and complex relationship they have their places of origin.
This body of works represent various perceptions of Maine: from Brian Chu’s impressionistic depictions of landscapes to Nanfei Wang’s surrealistic and comical representations of her experiences of living in Rockland; from Ni Rong’s self-portraits in Maine natural settings to Shao-Ping Wang’s layered maps. These artists explore the realities of being a Chinese immigrant in the United States, but they also inspire us to contemplate the significance and role of place in our lives.
SomewHERE features seven artists who were born in either Mainland China or Taiwan, immigrated to the United States as adults, and produce art in Maine; thus their work may be categorized as “Chinese American art.” But what is Chinese American art and what does it mean to be a Chinese American artist? In meeting with the artists and looking at their artwork, the answer to those questions became less and less apparent to the curators of this exhibition. Despite the artists’ similar migration experiences, one thing that shines through in this group is the diversity in their artwork. The category of “Chinese American artist” is not necessarily apparent in the artist’s style, personal experiences, or identity.
Upon learning that the exhibit features “Visions from Chinese and Taiwanese Artists in Maine,” viewers may expect to see a certain type of artwork; perhaps ink landscapes or Chinese symbols come to mind. However, the artworks visitors encounter are of various mediums, subjects, and inspirations. Even within a single artist’s body of work, we find many differences, especially the works of Nanfei Wang, who paints in various styles, and Ling-Wen Tsai, who works in many mediums. Some viewers may find a little bit of Chinese “influence” in each artwork, but that may be the vision of the looker and not the intention of the artist. An example of this is The 1900s, one of Wang’s works, which depicts, in a small three panel wooden frame she discovered in the attic of her recently purchased house, a couple she imagines lived in the house long ago. To some, this imaginary couple looks racially ambiguous; some have said the couple looks “Chinese,” which was not Wang’s intention. In other works, the only clue of Chinese presence comes from the artist’s name, such as Brian Chu’s Post Office, Cranberry Isl., an impressionist oil painting depicting an American flag flying high over a lakeside post office on a sunny day in Maine. Neither the style nor subject matter of this painting shouts “Chinese.”
Even artworks that explicitly feature Chinese symbols break from stereotypes. Shiao-Ping Wang’s layered work Reverie in Garden, for example, is inspired by Chinese lattice windows traditionally in Chinese architecture, but she depicts the windows in an abstract manner. She employs the repeat patterns of Chinese lattice work, but overlaps several lattices, and blends them into each other. This integration of Chinese and Western practices and ideas can be seen in other artworks in the exhibition, though done in a variety of mixtures of Chinese and Western subject matters, mediums, and styles. Chinese American art is clearly only a convenient category for an eclectic group.
This group features immigrants from Mainland China and Taiwan, and even though the Taiwanese artists can trace their ancestry back to Mainland China, the geographical and political divide in place since 1949 between the two places has produced different experiences and identities, Chinese and Taiwanese. Within the Taiwanese community, some are more willing to identify as Chinese and some are less so. In the United States, these two groups are often compressed into a greater umbrella of ethnically Chinese that hides important distinctions. Yuan Zuo, from the People’s Republic of China, paints on pornographic magazine covers, allowing just a few details of the original cover to show through the paint. This series comments on censorship in the PRC; however, these paintings would have a different meaning in a Taiwanese context where pornographic magazines are not banned.
What, then, makes this a cohesive group of artists? They all share the experience of being an immigrant, of setting down new roots in Maine, and of trying to make sense of the distance they have traveled. Many of the artists do not have a traditional view of home as one specific and static location where one lives. Ni Rong is the only artist who considers Maine her “home” while Yuan Zuo’s home is in both Beijing and Boston. Some of these artists view home not as a place, but as something they take with them wherever they go. However, none of the artists consider the concept of home an easy or straightforward issue. They all experience a distance between themselves and multiple possible homes, putting them somewhere in-between. This ambivalence is not intrinsically a negative aspect of the immigrant experience, as we see from the many eloquent visual contemplations of Chinese American experience in this exhibition.