Archives for posts with tag: black and white

I know you’re tired of it. Race. Race in America. It’s a topic ripe enough to burst, and it dominates the headlines: racial terrorism, police brutality, Obama using the “N” word. I’m sick of it too, but it’s what people of color, like me, live and breathe every day. We talk, cry, and yell it; it’s the key in which we sing.

Lately, I have been developing a body of work that deals with the fraught and beleaguered issue of race in America. These paintings are a continuation of my recent show at Seattle’s Zeitgeist Coffee, Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race. After Ferguson, I began this series as a way of processing the rage and grief that I felt.

Using a large housepaint brush, I flung acrylic paint on more than 30 feet of raw canvas. Working in such a visceral, often violent way–and on such a large scale–was cathartic for me. Although the Action Painters of the ’50s used the same methods, they produced work that was largely apolitical (and most were Caucasian men). My work is firmly rooted in the discourse of racial disparity.

The first piece in the series is Denatured, a tribute to Michael Brown.

Denatured
Denatured, nailed to the wall at Zeitgeist Coffee, March 2015

Most of the other pieces use the same splatter method to represent the squandered lives that racism takes by force. The random patterns of the paint form tumultuous narratives of struggle, evoking bodies rent apart through physical or psychological violence, the disemboweling of entire communities, and the quest for liberation.

Race 2_FergusonRace 1

Race 3

The following pieces talk about structural racism, the bias written into institutions and systems in America. From the Confederate flag flown over Southern government buildings to racial stratification in housing, vestiges of white supremacist ideology are still present in our culture.

Race 5
If this reminds you of a penitentiary, then you’re on the right track.

Race 4

What does experiencing racism feel like? I can say from firsthand experience that you feel eviscerated, stripped of agency, and blinded to everything except the incident itself. Your perspective distorted and self-worth negated, you feel like sawdust or, worse yet, nothing at all.

But as an Asian-American, I have it easy compared to the struggles of the black community. According to writer Julia Craven, “To be black, specifically in America, is to be in a constant state of fear. There is no refuge. There is no escape. There is no sanctuary.”

Even so, you still get some wildly posturing, colonialist asshat like Rachel Dolezal, who commodifies Otherness (in the words of bell hooks) in the ultimate appropriative act of white privilege. As if race can be simply performed and adopted. As if we all had the luxury of that choice.

That’s why we have to frankly and openly address race in America–and run it ragged: understand its ins and outs, all its vagaries and gray areas. And then do something about it. From rewriting the policies and laws to subverting the dominant media narrative and its outdated tropes (see the Wall Street Journal coverage of Charleston for an example) to supporting communities of color.

This all takes thinking critically, listening carefully, and acting compassionately. Not turning the other way or pretending it’s someone else’s job. It’s our job because, goddamn it, it’s our world.

Advertisements

WP_20150307_010
Denatured (2015) and Code Switching (2012) 

My show, Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race, which opened at Zeitgeist Coffee two weeks ago, features abstract paintings from the past decade. Most of them took months, if not years, to complete. The one exception is Denatured (above, left), which was done in one intense sitting.

Zeitgeist 1
Pieces ranging from 2005 through 2010

The space
The two walls of the show space, seen together

Back in the mid-2000s, I began a series of monochrome paintings, called Epistemes, that flirted with epistemology, or the study of knowledge and its acquisition. The paintings’ stark black structures symbolized the mental constructs and girders that we hang our perceptions on. Here are some pieces, now being shown at Zeitgeist, from that body of work.

9-elegy
Interdiction, acrylic on 30″x40″canvas, 2005

The first of the Epistemes series, this painting arose out of the sound of constant construction outside our apartment for several years. (It’s no surprise that the structures resemble cranes and scaffolding.) I knew the painting was finished when it became a quiet, still sanctuary that I wanted to ensconce myself in. The piece has a bleak, elegiac quality that I find somehow comforting.

8-manchester
Superstructure, acrylic on 3’x4′ canvas, 2009

This piece was more of a struggle than the others and took about three years to finish. Here it is in an earlier stage:

manchester
(Gack! Not working.)

At that point, I realized that it needed more “oomph,” so I decreased the number of structures and fortified the ones that were left. I wanted an architectural majesty that would evoke the heroism of Franz Kline—who is an obvious influence on my work.

5-convergence
Convergence, acrylic on 3’x4′ canvas, 2010

This was another painting that took at least two years to finish. Like the others in the series, it features the conflicted interplay of black and white paint. If there’s one painting in the show that talks about the fractured language around race in America, it’s this one, with its ruptures and tenuous connections.

52-thin-years
The Thin Years, acrylic on 3’x4′ canvas, 2008

This painting is the only one whose name is less conceptual and more autobiographical. “The Thin Years” refers to the fact that, in beginning this piece, I realized the economy was tanking and my job was in jeopardy; therefore, I needed to save money by thinning my paint. The result yielded an open, airy painting with luminous spaces. The only problem: I was using a brand of cheap paint, and it felt like painting with seagull shit. The medium was oily and not even truly black. But still, it’s one of my favorite paintings.

Code Changing with patron
Code Switching (with visitor), acrylic on 30″x40″ canvas, 2012
Photo by Maria Martinez

This piece took at least two years to finish and was the first in the series to incorporate mixed media—more specifically, foil, paper towels, and a random swatch of cloth from my husband’s jeans. Code-switching is a linguistic term that refers to alternating between languages, or language styles, in a single conversation. As such, it’s a means of negotiating racial and cultural identities. Working in mixed media is its own form of switching between visual languages.

Denatured
Denatured, acrylic on 3’x5′ loose canvas, 2015

And then there is Denatured, which was a breakthrough that happened in January. Like in the Epistemes series, disconnects occur in the dialogue between black and white, except that the architectural structures of the earlier work become subsumed in emotion. This violent, uncontainable spillage echoes the volatility of racial discourse in America.

There were many ways to hang this piece, but I decided to simply nail it to the wall, which has an immediate, visceral effect. You could go further and read into Michael Brown (whose denatured body lay in the street for four hours) attaining a Messianic quality—I wouldn’t argue with that.

yoona-painting-02
A black-and-white closeup by Tim Prioste

In response to the cultural zeitgeist and my own identity as an Asian-American female, I feel compelled to continue in this direction. I need to use the language of abstraction to somehow express the messiness of race relations in the United States. So my goal for this year is to gain access to a large enough space to produce in and thereby work toward my next show.

Show information:

Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race | abstract paintings by Yoona Lee

Zeitgeist Coffee
171 S. Jackson St., Seattle, WA 98104
Mon – Fri: 6am – 7pm | Sat: 7am – 7pm | Sun: 8am – 6pm

Now through April 1.

Over the holidays, I laid a large piece of raw canvas on the floor of a friend’s art studio and slashed and hacked away at it with a housepainter’s brush. Sure, it was action painting—nothing nobody wasn’t doing in 1951 (wait, does that triple-negative still make a positive?). However, old methods can convey new messages, including one that represents the sweaty, immediate present.

This was the result:

Denature

Every single inch of the 5-foot-long canvas is affected; even the seemingly blank areas are activated by small splatters. In this way, this painting acts as a metaphor for race; that is, there is nobody in America that is not affected at this cultural moment by the discourse of race and difference. Ferguson was the watershed, the explosive catalyst. Eric Garner, like a wide receiver, carried the message farther.

I titled the piece Denature because it talks about how Michael Brown, and many others before and after, was stripped of his dignity–and all his essential qualities–that fatal day. It talks about the denaturing and pervasive effect of systemic racism.

Denature closeup
Hiccups and droolings of paint: Denature, 2014 (closeup)

Working spontaneously on a large scale was extremely cathartic for me; a lot of grief and rage bubbled out. However, as an artist, I was careful to follow up with methodical refinement. Right now this piece and another larger painting, titled 12:01 to Eternity (referencing the time Michael Brown was shot), are in an incubation period. I’ll leave them alone for a month or so before revisiting them for additional revisions. Because, as with emotion itself, time provides some perspective. But in the end, this perspective may only open up more questions than answers, not unlike race in America.

12PM to Eternity closeup
12:01 to Eternity, 2015 (closeup)

Convergence
For contrast, a painting from 2008, Convergence