Yikui (Coy) Gu’s tour of the United States
WILMINGTON, Delaware – I saw the exhibit for the first time Yikui (Coy) Gu: Say the silent parts out loud at Gallery 456 in New York, which is sponsored by the Chinese American Arts Council. It was Gu’s first solo show in New York. I went there a few days before the exhibition closed on May 21, 2021, but learned that it was going to reopen, with three works added, like Yikui (Coy) Gu: The Americans at Delaware Contemporary (June 4 to August 21, 2021), the artist’s first museum exhibition.
There are 18 works in the current exhibition, all measuring 18 by 24 inches and produced between 2018 and ’21. The subject is the domestic life of an interracial couple (Gu is Chinese and his wife is German) living in the United States before and during the spread of COVID-19 and the exponential increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans. and Pacific Islanders. Starting this series before the pandemic, Gu examines his domestic life through the prism of the color yellow and its appearance in different circumstances.
Working on bristol board, Gu uses acrylics, gouaches, colored pencils, ink and charcoal, with a wide range of materials found: photographs, fabrics, plastic bags, Asian and non-Asian food packaging. Asians, printed pages of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). It all touches on the turmoil that floods the couple’s daily lives, living in America before and during Donald Trump’s presidency, while surrounded by the deep and bottomless grievance of a significant part of white America.
In “No Synthetic Colors” (2019), we see the hands of two people baking a cake. Printed images of two white hands pouring “flour” into a bowl; the flour is made from a die-cut shape containing the first page of the United States Congressional Declaration of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). A yellow arm reaches from the upper edge. Two boxes of cake mix without “synthetic colors” – the classic yellow cake mix and the classic white cake mix – are on the table next to the bowl.
This heightened awareness of her skin color is common to people of color living in the United States, and it is apparent in all of the works in the exhibition. Painted on a big screen, digital television is an image of Martha Stewart speaking to her audience about the half-made diaper cake in front of her. The implication is that Stewart speaks to a white audience and is oblivious to racial divisions.
Racism is insidious because it creeps into the more mundane parts of life. Gu’s use of the Chinese Exclusion Act as flour, the main ingredient in bread, suggests that the long history of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiments in the United States may unintentionally occur to him in what is. supposed to be a happy domestic time, and that, more broadly speaking, it impacts every aspect of her life.
In “Oriental Flavor” (2019), actor Mickey Rooney, who apparently liked to play the racist stereotype of a buckskin-toothed Japanese character, Mr. Yunioshi, in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), appears on the screen of an analog television, glimpsed between two black rods. On the table we see a bowl of soup and noodles surrounded by a barbed wire fence. A recurring motif in Gu’s work, Hokusai’s “Great Wave” emerges from the soup, suggesting that an inevitable cataclysm is approaching. Condiment packages with the words “Oriental Flavor” are affixed on the stage.
While Gu could have found a reproduction of Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, I think it’s telling that he painted the portrait to fit inside the TV screen. The interplay between what is painted and drawn and the use of ready-made reproductions are devices he uses throughout his work. By painting this racist representation, Gu is able to take possession of it.
There is nothing subtle about Gu’s work: it is in your face because the racism he encounters is still there. I will never be able to look at a yellow smiley face or other yellow emoji the same way I used to.
The presence of cell phones, digital screens, newspapers, labels and packaging in Gu’s art underscores the pervasiveness of racist representation and language in everyday life. While agreement is an essential component of our use of language, and perhaps even of civility, Gu recognizes that we exist in a state of disagreement bordering on chaos, and knows that it is unclear in which direction. is heading the country.
We see the title of the presidential candidate of the Trump era mocking the New York Times journalist Serge Kovaleski for his disability in 2016. This and other despicable acts did not prevent him from winning the elections. Underneath the Gu painted image of the front page, depicting the mocking Trump, is the line: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” (Maya Angelou).
On a cell phone screen under the newspaper, we see comedian Dave Chappelle playing the character “Clayton Bigsby, the world’s only black and white supremacist”. On the right, a pasted title celebrates the adoption of the Chinese exclusion law. Gu also knows that in the world he exists in, Asians are either excluded or invisible.
Much has been written about the artists who carried on the legacy of political collage, as evidenced by Dada artists such as Hannah Höch and John Heartfield. Gu’s play with the painted image and printed material is inventive and unsettling, and his juxtapositions and recontextualization of language open up an area of racial consciousness that has not been widely recognized or explored in art. He recognizes the role that sharp and daring humor can play in his work.
Another striking thing about these works is Gu’s attention to every part of the composition, from the perspective looking at the scene to the glued materials. There is a disturbing dissonance in the glued elements that he disperses in his works. In “The Scenic Route” (2019), the view is the front windshield of a car and the road in front, seen from someone behind the two people sitting in the front of the car, and only partially visible for the viewer. Why do we see the eyes of a smiley in the rearview mirror? Is this a replacement for the emasculated Asian man, who all presumably look alike? What are the three Disney animals doing by the two-lane road? What should we think of a young woman’s face with cat ears, nose and whiskers on the cell phone held by the front passenger?
Walt Disney, who didn’t trust women or cats, didn’t want to hire minorities at Disneyland theme parks and used racial stereotypes in a number of his films, including Fancy (1940) and Southern Song (1946), which the Disney Corporation deemed too racist to be included in its streaming service, Disney +.
Is America’s Scenic Drive a view of the Disney movies and cartoons made during Walt Disney’s lifetime? What lies and stereotypes could we find at Disneyland?
Anger, disgust, worry, tenderness, determination, sharp satirical humor, a strong sense of the use of the language by society and an awareness of history and popular culture are evident in Gu’s work. It tackles the topics of Asian stereotypes and racism, which have rarely been addressed in contemporary American art. I can’t wait to see where he takes me no matter how upset I might get.
Yikui (Coy) Gu: The Americans continues at Delaware Contemporary (200 South Madison Street, Wilmington, Delaware) until August 21.