Archives for the month of: November, 2014

Eyes 3 Eyes 4 Eyes 2

Nothing makes you feel quite as vulnerable as standing opposite a stranger, looking deep into her eyes and breathing, mouth open. Especially for a protracted period of time. You smile, she smiles. Your eyes skid around her forehead, nose, and mouth, while her eyes appear to be fixed on one point on your face. After a moment, awkwardness creeps in and your blinks start to feel artificial, like punctuation marks on your gaze.

This is one of many exercises to “free up the voice” that I experienced in my friend’s vocal training class, which I’d signed up for to prepare for an upcoming presentation. The activity required everyone in the class to criss-cross the room randomly and, at certain points, turn to the person closest to us and lock eyes. Then we were to breathe and make a guttural noise to express a certain emotion. In this way, we could discern how intention shapes the voice, either augmenting or stifling its robustness.

I looked at the young woman in front of me, her pupils gaping black holes in pale aqua disks. It was all my eyes could do to stay fixed on hers and not gallop around her face like a wild horse in a paddock. Our teacher instructed us, “Think about something you want this person to know about you—and now make a sound.” I wanted her to know I was a visual artist and a writer, and let forth a semi-confident “huh.” Her turn to say something about herself. “Huhhh,” she breathed. This interaction was not very informative, but I could discern her spirit and intention in her response.

Eyes 1

Then we switched. The dark young man opposite me had incisive, concentrated eyes. As I looked into them, I felt more at ease and thought, “You and I have had similar experiences as minorities.” He was also a writer; I read him, he silently read me. When it was time to change, we nodded at each other, an unspoken empathy between us.

Eyes 2

The next woman was young with inquisitive, tawny eyes, and her smile echoed mine. We looked, blinked, and breathed with implicit understanding and respect. It’s amazing how two individuals can instinctively mirror each other, even in the most basic gestures.

Eyes 3

The next exercise was harder. We were instructed to look at the person, think of something you don’t want them to know about you, and then release your voice. I stopped opposite a professional radio announcer, and instead of considering my deepest, darkest secrets, I thought of my scarred, unshaven legs under my stockings. A strangled-sounding “hrgh” emerged from my throat. The man gave a barely perceptible nod and made a furtive noise. It sounded like a dying candle in an empty room and made me sad. We each tried again. Not much better.

Scan 7

So it went on. An older woman with gray-green eyes that reminded me of a hushed garden on an early spring morning. A jubilant Hispanic woman with opera training whose eyes became happy semicircles as her cheeks pushed upwards. The exercise challenged you to be 100% present, to observe and intuit and listen.

Eyes 4

The most insightful exercise was to recite a line of text you liked, and then repeat the word that was easiest to identify with and the word that was hardest to own. For many people, the most difficult word to say and fully inhabit was “mine.” Their mouths pronounced the word, but their eyes told far darker, sadder stories. I struggled to vocalize “anger” because of my complicated, arduous relationship to it. The easiest word for me: “tell.”

The line I had chosen was from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart.” I had felt somewhat guilty reciting it to my partner, the imperturbable, garden-eyed woman, who demurely responded, “I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree.”

Scan 2

By the end, I was getting to like this exercise. We do it all the time: embracing strangers with our gaze, inviting them in and listening, and reading the worlds written in their eyes. In each person there is beauty, pain, and wonder along with a shocking, if fleeting, familiarity. To my surprise, even though this class was intended to empower the voice, it was the eyes that stayed with me long afterwards.

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POC Power crop

I batted around many ideas for my submission to Art Bash 2014, the annual charity auction held by the American Advertising Federation in Seattle. The theme this year was “Throwback Thursday.” The Mona Lisa taking a selfie? Too glib. A stark horse skull remembering itself as a handsome stallion? A little macabre. Plus I’d have to incorporate a cartoony thought bubble, which seemed wrong. (But at the same time kind of awesome.) It all seemed like too much work. “Why don’t you just paint a nice picture of an apple or an orange?” my mom rather unhelpfully suggested.

I had just gotten a piece of my art into the Korean-American show at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Ferguson was in the news, this time because of the unwelcome involvement of the KKK, which added its own vitriolic brand of fuel to the fire.

The goal of Art Bash 2014 itself was to level the racial playing field by raising money for the AAF’s Western Washington University minority students scholarship fund.

For these reasons, I felt like I needed to produce a piece defending and promoting minorities. And what better artist to exemplify the power of POC (people of color) but Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Though a controversial figure riddled with his own problems, Basquiat embraced a range of media to explore racial politics, class struggle, and street culture. His paintings emanate heat; his writings as a member of graffiti crew SAMO are epigrammatic and thought provoking. His photogenic presence graced indie film Downtown 81, cult TV program TV Party, and the New York City nightclubs as a member of art-rock band Gray. He was the real meal deal, and he didn’t last long. Whether by heroin OD or speedball, Basquiat died at 27, following a dizzying, meteoric rise to the top of the art charts.

BasquiatandWarhol

Basquiat: Polar opposite of Warhol, but a de facto heir (with the hair)

I found an image of Basquiat looking inscrutable and undeniably cool in his shades, and reproduced it within a couple of hours. Rather than try to imitate Basquiat’s graffiti-inflected style, I chose to create a portrait of him in the style of a street memorial mural. Those murals, found in any poverty-ridden neighborhood, may not be the most technically accurate depictions of the deceased, but they project heroism and an indelible soulfulness. I was also inspired by Sophia Dawson’s most recent mural, Every Mother’s Son–a tribute to minority mothers who’d lost their sons to police violence–on the Lower East Side.

To prevent my painting from being sold to some douchey, clueless art director who only knows Basquiat as some “badass black dude,” I added a few hashtags at the bottom (alluding to #TBT, the show’s theme): #radical and #pocpower. Obviously, the painting is welcome to anyone of any race, as long as they are familiar with the minority struggle. And yes, “POC” may be an in-group term used in racial discourse, but it precludes Basquiat from being hung like some mounted deer head in some dude-bro’s rec room.

Most important, the painting attests to the power of both sociopolitical firebrand Basquiat and people of color, especially the radicals. The still life with apples will have to wait until next time.

Basquiat_Exu_P3_1280

Basquiat’s Exu (1988) may as well be a portrait of present-day Ferguson

basq whitebrd

My earlier tribute to Basquiat, done in marker on a whiteboard at work

bojagi art show

I’m very proud to have a multimedia piece in an upcoming show at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle–an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute. The show is called Bojagi: Unwrapping Korean American Identities, and it opens November 14 and runs until June 2015.

As a Korean-American artist, I constantly deal with hybridized identity in my work, which can be found at www.rhymeswithrace.com. The piece that will be displayed at the museum is called Displacing Rage: The Education of a Cultural Hybrid, and can be found on my site at http://www.rhymeswithrace.com/performance.html.

Here is a still from the presentation, where I confront a racist classmate in grade school–one of a vast number of racial microaggressions (all part of the minority experience!).

1 displacing rage

If you’re in Seattle, swing by the Wing Luke; it’s a very worthwhile place.

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
719 S King St, Seattle, WA 98104
(between 7th and 8th Avenues)
Phone: (206) 623-5124
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday, 10am–5pm
Monday closed