Cheryll Leo-Gwin, All American (2023.) Giclee and archival paper on board • Photo by Fred Wong

As I walk through Northwest artist Cheryll Leo-Gwin’s exhibit Larger Than Life at the Jack Straw Cultural Center, I am first attracted by the colorful images and beautiful compositions. I sense that each work tells a story. I also sense that collectively, they may tell a larger story. The beauty draws me in, perhaps into seeing darker or disturbing themes.

This is how the exhibit is described at the Jack Straw Atrium Gallery:

“[It] presents a series of oversized prints based on oral histories the artist recorded from Chinese women who survived turbulent times in the U.S. and China. They used their art to fight for freedom. Leo-Gwin uses these oral histories as a point of departure for her oversized prints, sculpture, animation, and recordings.

Accompanying the exhibition is the release of Buried Alive, a pilot podcast that follows the journey of the Misty Poets of China, who at great peril held underground salons for artists and writers during China’s Cultural Revolution…”

The exhibit consists of four sculptures, two large rectangular prints, three large prints in the shape of a Chinese imperial robe, ten small prints, and one audio podcast. Make sure to wander into the hallway to see many of the pieces.

Leo-Gwin considers herself as a maker of things. She uses images like a chef uses ingredients. They show up in various forms and combine in different ways to become myriad dishes. The images are taken from her past works, and photographs she’s found in her family archive or in historical archives. An image may appear in multiple pieces.

Some of the oft-used images include flowers, wasps, members of her family, and Marilyn Monroe. They combine to tell complex, personal, and universal stories. She explores themes in Chinese history and Chinese American history, women’s stories, and both Leo-Gwin’s and her family’s personal experiences.

Her art tells stories in ways more like poetry than prose. The stories are not sequential or narrative. “It’s like taking my dreams or my hallucinations and putting them on paper,” she said. So, it may not be easy for the viewer to suss out Leo-Gwin’s stories, or know what the individual images are, or understand where they come from. But that doesn’t concern her.

“I want people to bring their own narratives to it. And if people do that, then I’m successful as an artist, because I’m taking them on another journey on their own path, not necessarily my path, but I want them to bring themselves into it and their own history into it,” she said.

Leo-Gwin has a talent for creating beauty and the flair to bring together vibrant colors.

“I think of myself as kind of like the flower that’s attracting the bee… it starts to draw people in,” she said. “Some people stop at the beauty, but people who stand there for a little while, start to see things. It’s like, wait. There’s barbed wire going through that veil… And then, when you follow the barbed wire it crosses over into the border.”

The title of piece ‘Twins Acts’ refers to the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act (1882 – 1943) and Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act (1923 – 1947) when Chinese were forbidden immigration to both countries. When Leo-Gwin was born in Canada as a fourth generation Chinese American, she could not return to the U.S. because of the Exclusion Act. Ironically, she lived through the turmoil created by these laws, and yet did not know about them for over 60 years.

“The titles are very, very important to the work because it’s kind of like a portal into the narrative that is behind the art,” explained Leo-Gwin. “When people see the piece “‘Iron Workers’, [they ask], where are the railroad builders? But they’re not there because if you look above, it looks like clouds, but they’re actually flying steam irons.”

The iron workers are the women ironing or in other domestic work, treated often like slaves. “5,000 years ago began the Chinese civilization,” said Leo-Gwin. “The patriarchal society never recorded their women’s births, deaths, or marriages. They remained anonymous. In many societies, women continue to be abused, neglected, forgotten, murdered, and even unnamed.” Her work brings our attention to the stories of these women, unnamed or not, for us to form our own narratives.

The darker narratives are “kind of intentional… I don’t want people to look at the art and come away happy, because I want them to think. And it’s not a blame game. …I just wanna create an awareness,” she said. “These are not just Chinese [problems]; these are universal problems that everybody faces.”

In the work ‘All American,’ the viewer might think of athletes, or what an all American looks like. But Leo-Gwin points out that the people in the picture are all American, no matter how they look or what clothes they’re wearing.

“There’s my sister and me in the background in the 1960s. But in front of them are the pictures of these two women, who in the 1920s went back [from the U.S.] to China with their dad and four brothers,” she said. “When they wanted to come back, the dad could only return to the states with his four sons, but not the girls, [because of the Chinese Exclusion Act]. So, the girls were left there [and never came back].”

I love the sculptures that mimic dress forms. To Leo-Gwin, they relate to her mother who was a fashion designer. To a viewer, they may refer to women or the way society objectifies women. Their shapes morph depending on the story. The stories and iconographies twist and turn and continue on all sides of the dress forms. I wish the 4 sculptures were placed in such a way that I could easily walk and see all around them.

If you have time, listen to the podcast Buried Alive, which is Leo-Gwin’s latest project, and included in the exhibition. It tells the experiences of several artists during China’s Cultural Revolution. It is an essential piece of history to learn about, bringing to light the pain and destruction that can happen swiftly in a society, any society.

Cheryll Leo-Gwin’s exhibit ‘Larger than Life; is on view through Dec. 29, 2023 at Jack Straw Cultural Center, 4261 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle. Visits by appointment, M-F, 10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. Call 206-634-0919 or email [email protected] to schedule a visit. 

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