Suchitra Mattai, “Recognition: Pratyabhijna, Homer and Susheela.” Photo by Fred Wong

Wing Luke Museum’s current art exhibition is titled “Reorient: Journeys Through Art and Healing”, and is curated by Lele Barnett.

“[Showing] the innovative work of four Asian and Pacific Islander artists, the exhibition…focuses on themes of history, immigration, cultural pain, and the process of finding sanctuary and healing in artistic practice. The featured artists, Victor Kai Wang, Suchitra Mattai, Jean Isamu Nagai, and Tuan Nguyen work in non-traditional media to share personal stories of history and heritage.

When artist Victor Kai Wang arrived in the United States in 1980 from China, he felt alone and adrift, struggling to comprehend his new surroundings. Suchitra Mattai’s ancestors navigated a bewildering and dangerous journey across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. Balancing between two cultures unsettled Tuan Nguyen and Jean Nagai. In childhood, they felt a need to adapt to survive. Each of these artists turned to creative innovation to change their focus and direction.

At its heart, Reorient is not just a story of resilience and perseverance in the face of trauma, but also an illumination of art as a path forward to life beyond past pain. The artists’ use of reclaimed materials embodies the spirit of rejuvenation – taking what had existed before and transforming it into something entirely new to assign new meaning.

We have all felt a sense of disorientation since the COVID-19 pandemic began. We have had to adjust and find our way in a new reality. What does it take to reorient yourself to joy? Creating art, of any kind, is an active meditation. Creative innovation leads to joy, and joy brings healing.”

Artists often face a difficult path. It is even difficult just to survive as an artist, especially in the US. An artist’s life is full of challenges: economic uncertainty, lack of recognition, appreciation or understanding. Going through this exhibit, the feeling I get is that these artists are resilient and irrepressible. They cannot be stopped because of hardship. They must create art. Art is their life, their way of coping and healing. 

Victor Wong has 11 paintings, and a monitor showing pictures of 120 pieces, some of which seem to be very early works. His landscapes are a mixture of fantasy, Chinese painting, and accidental gestures of the medium. Sometimes human figures give scale. Sometimes they are hidden or they layer abstraction on otherwise recognizable landscapes.

Victor is prolific and his art seems infinitely creative. He seems to have absorbed not only some of the local scenery, but also the styles of other artists like Morris Graves or Henry Moore. What emerges is always his own; nothing seems derivative or copy cat. He even creates his own medium called “markingcolor” using marking ink on photo paper. The rotating pictures on the monitor help me to see that Victor works in many many styles, representation and abstract, and subject matters from still lifes to figures, chinese calligraphy, and of course, landscapes. 

I learn that Victor Wong passed away recently. It seems that he worked as an artist for art’s sake, often in obscurity. And the Wing Luke exhibit aptly serves as a mini retrospective.

Tuan Nguyen has 17 pieces: 2 washed drawings/sculpture, 8 tiger skins and 7 pain bodies. All of Nguyen’s work seems to relate to the living body whether human or animal. Or perhaps more to the psychic or spirit body. The pain bodies are at once like torsos that are part of a person, or backpacks that one can take on and off. They speak to the fact that trauma can sometimes seem un-separable and sometimes can be un-worn. These pain bodies affected me more than I thought they would. Somehow, the use of found worn objects brings the pain into a visceral realm. 

At one point in history, real tiger skins were hunting trophies that were hung as a symbol of power and prowess. In contrast, Nguyen’s tiger skins seem almost comical, like they are miniatures, cartoon-like representations of real tiger skins. They convey a sadness and impotence through their tattered appearance, and they seem to say that we can wear them and take them off, but they don’t really project the image that we want, and we’re still the same underneath. The 2 washed drawings/sculpture are at once like bundles of recycling or mummies, existing between transformation or preservation. They remind me of the immigrant experience of transforming into a new person in a new culture, as well as preserving the old person in one’s old culture.

Suchitra Mattai has 3 works, 1 large sculpture (“Axis Mundi”), a painting (“Mai”), and a small sculpture (“Recognition: Pratyabhijna, Homer and Susheela”). Mattai’s work is potent with meaning or allusions. The female voice speaks out, in a back and forth dialogue with the viewer, to invite the viewer to notice the details and decipher the messages or simply to let them sink into the subconscious. 

Both “Mai’’ and “Axis Mundi” reference blue palm trees. In “Mai”, the palms are painted in pale blue like ghosts in the landscape. In “Axis Munda”, the feathers make the sculpture resemble a palm tree. They seem to point to the raping of tropical nations to build the wealth of the western colonizers. They also point to the roles of women. Mattai leaves room for the viewer to do their own work to learn about Western exploitation that is ongoing. 

In “Recognition”, Mattai literally ties together an ancient mythic Greek poet and the wife of a Hindu god. They each represent a kind of cultural “truth”. The rope at once conveys connection and also the bondage of patriarchy, showing us that patriarchy imprisons both men and women.

Jean Nagai has 3 large paintings. There is something very beautiful about Nagai’s work. The earthy colors are almost like natural plant and mineral pigments. The pumice gives the paintings a texture like sand paintings, reminiscent of Navajo sand paintings and Tibetan mandalas. 

There is a lot to discover, human and animal forms. Waves, winged humans, magical creatures are arranged in a loose left to right symmetry. The text panel says that “These three canvases draw imagery from the Bikkuriman stickers Nagai collected as a child.” Although I’m not familiar with the Bikkuriman stickers, I can relate to the experience of being sustained by seemingly insignificant things. And inspiration can come from anywhere, like from lingering childhood memories. “Thinking about the toxic masculine culture he grew up in, he began painting with colors that are warm and delicate to help soften the shell of aggression he had built up over the years. Nagai paints with a Pointillist style, augmented with unconventional materials such as correction fluid, pumice, smog, sand, and spores.” The correction fluid or “white out” brings to mind white washing and white privilege.

“Re-orient” shows a very small slice of Asian American artists. The interesting exhibit of these four artists left me wanting more of their art. All four immigrant artists explore their “Asian” memories and current surroundings. I was frequently surprised by how their work, in so many styles and mediums, touches me. They bring up my own immigrant memories of being different, of trying to fit in, learning history that is not taught in school, and finding peace in a new world. 

Go visit before the show ends on May 14, 2023. And Wing Luke Museum always has other exhibits and events that delight and add to our understanding of the Asian Pacific American experience.  

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