Anabelle Johnston

Exploring Iconography and Queer Relation in Contemporary Asian American Art.

Painting; Portrait of a man with his arms crossed, dressed up as the character "Goku" (labelled) in front of a dojo screen with doves, spurs, and yin and yang symbols in the back. A black frame is mounted around the image with white cranes in various postures.

Coolieisms, aka: Sly Son Goku turns 23, 2021. Oil on canvas, 30 × 24 in. (76.2 × 61 cm). Courtesy of James Fuentes LLC. © Oscar yi Hou.

Meeting Oscar yi Hou’s unflinching gaze in the self-portrait Cooliesims, aka: Sly Son Goku turns 23 (2021), I am reminded of my younger brother who proudly announces he is “going super saiyan” before every tennis match. Although yi Hou makes no such pronouncement, the effect is largely the same. Both men draw upon stores of strength that are distinctly Asian, boyish, and steeped in popular culture. In the center of the oil-on-canvas painting, yi Hou stands costumed in Goku’s familiar blue and orange draping. With his arms crossed and eyes fixed forward, he challenges the onlooker and, more importantly, asserts himself. Faced with such intensity, I am reminded of the persistent exclusion of Asian men from American masculine structures. Even as Yi Hou rejects the stereotype that Asian men are softer forms of men, his use of musculature still reinforces this notion of masculinity as strength. I think again of my brother, who obsessively works out and struggles to imagine how to become a man that is not white.

Stepping back, I notice the image is framed by a black border freckled with dancing cranes. This immediate shift in symbolic register–from “GOKU” etched in green like a graffiti tag to this imagery so often associated with Asianness—is at first jarring. Conditioned to look for the same clichés—embroidery, absence, longing, sliced pears, porcelain, linguistic difference—I often read these icons without second thought. While these themes may be borne of lived experience, they coalesce into fetish objects beneath an orientalist gaze. But yi Hou rejects such simplicity. Returning to the center of the frame, I notice these gestures are complemented by doves and spurs—American images of an exoticized Westernness—that float around his hairline.

Across his oeuvre, yi Hou draws from history, pop culture, and queer imagery, blending tropes of East and West, masculine and feminine, and highbrow and lowbrow to evade an aesthetic hierarchy. Everything exists on the same plane. In his portraits, the contemporary diasporic imagery of DeviantArt, Pokémon, Tumblr, and online chat rooms work in tandem with cowboy adornment and references to homoerotic artists such as Tom of Finland and Bob Mizer. This conglomeration produces an aesthetic identity that borrows, blends, and refuses.

Yi Hou is not alone in his cross wired configuration of signs. I can imagine the conversation between his work and painter Martin Wong’s cowboyed Self-Portrait (1993). In the foreground, Wong dons a dragon-adorned button down shirt while a wash of indigo-colored demons rest behind him. Like yi Hou, Wong traces the connection between race, sexuality, and access to white masculinity by recontextualizing often overwrought iconography. The cowboy is at once an image of the West and of homoeroticism, and the crane is simultaneously an identity marker and synecdoche for Yi Hou himself. Such duplicity undermines the spectacle of Asianness, as there is no easy translation between symbol and meaning.

This disavowal of iconography is further exemplified by Wong’s 1993 solo-exhibition Chinatown Paintings, a series depicting the exoticized playground of Asian identity that Wong refused throughout his life. Turning instead to the people and places he knew best, his most famous works chronicle the deep-set and sky-bound brick buildings of the Lower East Side. Here, intentional opacity is an aesthetic choice and form of self-preservation. Working in the 1980s as an openly gay Chino-Latino man, Wong faced both intense scrutiny and forced invisibility. Repetitive tenement skylines, pervasive graffiti, and a signature dark color palette coalesce to produce a sense of precarity, perhaps a truer hallmark of the queer Asian experience than any dragon or calligraphic scroll.

As the visibility of violence towards people of Asian descent increases, I find it necessary to turn towards artists who, like Wong and yi Hou, situate the brutality in historical context. As his historical allusions suggest, such conditions are not novel, especially for Asian Americans who do not conform to imposed gendered roles and sexual schemas. Ocean Vuong writes of the violence endemic to American masculinity, “masculinity, or what we have allowed it to be in America, is often realized through violence. Here, we celebrate our boys, who in turn celebrate one another, through the lexicon of conquest:

You killed it, buddy. Knock ‘em dead, big guy. You went into that game guns blazing. You crushed it at the talent show. It was a blow out. No, it was a massacre. My son’s a beast. He totally blew them away. He’s a lady killer. Did you bag her? Yeah, I fucked her brains out. That girl’s a grenade. I’d still bang her. I’d smash it. Let’s spit roast her. She’s the bomb. She’s blowing up. I’m dead serious.”

Photograph; A suited man wearing sunglasses to the left of the Hollywood sign amid the hills in the background in a black and white image.

Hollywood Hills, California, created in 1979 and printed in 1996, Tseng Kwong Chi from the "East Meets West" self-portrait series 1979-1989 ©Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc.

It is no wonder Vuong recoils–that anyone does. Opposing the threat of violence that underwrites these relationships and defining a new mode connecting appears, then, as an urgent project of reimagining. Take, as another example of alternative masculinity, Tseng Kwong Chi’s powerful stance in Hollywood Hills, California (1979). This photograph, like the rest of the East Meets West a.k.a Expeditionary Self-Portrait Series, addresses the insignificance and fungibility of the Asian male body in the American psyche. Here, Kwong Chi looms in the foreground with an obscure gaze directed upward and away from the Hollywood sign that haunts the landscape. He dons his familiar reflective sunglasses and a Mao-inspired uniform for his Chinese Ambiguous Ambassador character. (As the fable goes, Kwong Chi purchased the suit from a thrift shop and wore it to a strict suit-and-tie dinner with his parents, where he was treated as a foreign dignitary by the waitstaff and regarded with horror by his father. This dissonance, and immediate acquiescence to the idea of Asianness embodied by the stiff coat, became the subject of over 100 photographs shot beside iconic landmarks.) Kwong Chi plays the invisible Asian everyman beside the Western world, but his insistence upon capturing this photograph, and turn away from the sign, undermines the supremacy of Hollywood as a cultural image-maker. The upward lilt of the camera fixes Kwong Chi as the monument to be photographed. The tight grip around the shutter-release cord indicates the artist’s control over the photographing process; he is both the subject and the photographer, the maker of his own image. With his wry performance, Kwong Chi defies orientalist expectations, knowing that how he is viewed in the suit is inextricable from–but not constitutive to–his being.

In the American art world, Kwong Chi is perhaps most well known for his documentation of Keith Haring’s life and work, and the friendship that resulted from Haring’s romantic pursuit of his later collaborator and friend. While much of his work is dedicated to viewing and preserving the ephemeral works of an American icon, his insistence upon the significance of his own self portrait feels like an urgent response to cultural dismissal. His masculine positioning in this image reads, to me, as distinctly related to yi Hou’s self-assertion in the American sexual schema from which Asian men are so often excluded. As Asian men are so often desexualized through projected femininity, Kwong Chi and others’ assertion of Asian masculinity without bowing to imagery of heterosexual domination affords new possibilities not only in art, but also in life.

This is also, in part, achieved by representing multivariate relation. While these artists utilize the familiar gestures of family, nostalgia, and filial piety, other forms of community and connection are painted with visual and cultural weight. Just as Kwong Chi turned his camera to Haring, yi Hou sits his partner down for All American Boyfriend, aka: Gwei Lou, Leng Zai (2022), and Wong frequently includes his lover Miguel Piñero in his cityscapes. Queer love is depicted as intrinsic to life, as a function of relation, as a part of everyday togetherness.

Multimedia artist Wu Tsang presents this web of kinship in her film Wildness (2012), a documentary portrait of the nightclub Silver Platter and its frequent queer and Latin attendees. In remaining true to her own experience of community and place, Tsang does not present a utopic “safe space,” but rather a coalitional one. Life is rendered as an intimate struggle between belonging and conflict, especially for those in marginalized communities. The documentary, which combines interviews with chiaroscuro shots of the club, encircles class, ethnic, and sexual boundaries to arrive at moments of connection narrated by participants themselves. What emerges is expansive instead of prescriptive, even as the bar eventually closes. With this film, Tsang encircles themes that she continues to examine throughout her career: collectivity, misrecognition, speculation, and unfixedness. She recognizes that to be queer and Asian is not distinct from the Asian diasporic experience, yet it requires new modes of self-conception and historical relation.

Playing with racialized and gendered symbols, these artists do not engage in the reductive arguments between surface and depth in which Asianness rests on the surface as ornamentation. This occurs in the works of both Western imaginaries and Asian diasporic artists. Divorced from utility, these signposts of Asian identity become mere decoration: a lazy adherence to the idea of Asia rather than the reality thereof. Instead, these artists I have highlighted return to materiality, to holding, to sharing, to the community created. They do so not by identity, but by the act of meeting each other.

My own experience of Asianness is defined much more strongly by actions than objects. Yes, I can locate a cultural fidelity in the faux french pastries passed around after church, Marlboro Golds purchased in bulk, Kings Hawaiian bread torn in the center of the table, or the playful choreography to Wonder Girls’ Nobody memorized in a basement after hours. But more significantly, I find belonging when I am with my sisters, born and chosen; when my Brazilian roommate, too, recognizes Yakult from their childhood; when my partner hands me a peeled clementine and her gesture reminds me of the rhythms I have loved in before; when blending herbs and shaking ass and sharing poetry and sharing playlists and playing soccer and steaming rice and laughing deep and stumbling over translations and staring before these works of art–experiencing something close to familiarity, but better described as mutual recognition.

Anabelle Johnston is a student, writer, sister, pianist, daughter, teacher, partner, amateur DJ, and friend from New York living in Providence, RI. She writes and thinks about art, community, and belonging across time, space, and mediums.

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