The Present Group Issue #21 is here!

Christine Wong Yap. Ten Banners for Home and Office, 2012, three-color screen print on cut holographic vinyl, edition of 50, 13.5x19 inches.

Christine Wong Yap. Ten Banners for Home and Office, 2012, three-color screen print on cut holographic vinyl, edition of 50, 13.5×19 inches.

The Present Group Issue #21 is now available! It’s a new poster / sticker sheet. Each of the ten banners can be removed and adhered to various surfaces, such as walls, mugs, or dashboards. You can also write on the banners, creating memos of things to celebrate.

I created the design especially for The Present Group, an Oakland, CA subscription art service. I styled and photographed an array of ribbons, and shot numerous exposures for the cyan shadings. It was printed by Forthrite Printing in Oakland, CA in a limited edition of 50.

In addition, The Present Group produced an audio interview, commissioned an essay by artist and writer Sarah Hotchkiss, and posted a page of annotated links. I’m so grateful for all the long hours and hard work they put into this project—huge thanks to E and O. I was also moved by Sarah’s reaction:

“Instead of preserving the sticker sheet as a whole, I want to test the sticker’s ability to dazzle me for days on end. My six-year-old self wouldn’t understand, but Christine’s stickers lead me to understand something of myself and her practice simultaneously: distributing good and cheerful things into the world begets real and lasting pleasure.”

—Sarah Hotchkiss, “The Sparkle Effect,” essay accompanying The Present Group Issue #21

Since the poster is holographic, it reflects in rainbow colors. You can see some of this effect via an animated GIF at The Present Group site. You can also see the poster in person in Kearny Street Workshop’s exhibition, Nomad, which opens this Friday, September 28. I’ll also show another screenprint project as well.

September 28–December 14, 2012
Kearny Street Workshop presents
Nomad: Art from Four Decades of KSW’s Wanderings
Reception: Friday, September 28, 2012, 6–9pm
I-Hotel Manilatown Center, 868 Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
Gallery Hours: Tuesdays – Saturdays, 1–6pm

The Present Group is a subscription art service, but individual orders are available. For how much? You might be pleasantly surprised.

Art & Development

points of reference, starting with the rückenfigur

Yesterday with ABC, I re-visited Glenn Ligon: America, the beautiful mid-career survey at the Whitney. It’s a stellar show, and I experienced anew this installation:

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source:

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source:

The word rückenfigur refers to portraits with figures looking at a landscape with one’s back to the viewer, as in the famous Caspar David Friedrich painting below. Rückenfigur is one of Ligon’s  masterful America neons, and it’s an elegant use of text, in title and in form. Ligon’s neon features individually-reversed letters; the word is clearly “America” at first glance, but it is not backwards, yet individual letters, like the “R” and “C,” clearly are. This causes an experience of uncertainty, of not comprehending what is plain before you, similar to trying to grasp the vast culture of the US.

Additionally, the sign is painted black on the back side; viewers see no soft glow on the wall, just hard linear neon, an effect that is extremely rare among this nearly ubiquitous type of sign. Listen to the audio guide that accompanies this work.

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source:

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source:

The rückenfigur also appears in Ligon’s self-portraits, installed as a series of five photographs rendered in screenprint on canvas. Of the five images, four are of the back of the artist’s head.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist  ©Glenn Ligon. Source:

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist ©Glenn Ligon. Source:

ABC—always an inquisitive and passionate interlocutor—and I discussed these images. She guessed that they were gestures of turning towards a landscape of sorts. I surmised that the artist was giving us his back, refusing to be identified, pinned down, or boxed in, or perhaps, embracing or representing the anonymity or blankness of social perceptions. They seemed to be about ambivalence, or making the viewer project his or her own assumptions onto the image to me.

Ligon is an artist of remarkable subtlety; the exhibition tells a compelling story about an artist who expresses pointed political stances through others’ language. The show is gorgeously paced and installed; I even became fond of the Marcel Breuer-designed galleries, to which I was indifferent to (though I’ve always loved the lobby, with its grid of chandeliers with half-silvered bulbs). America continues through June 5 at the Whitney, then travels to LACMA in the fall of 2011 and to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012. Mark your calendars.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

In thinking about the rückenfigur, and the negation of turning one’s back, I recalled the Claude glass, or black mirror, which I’ve blogged about before. The Claude glass is a pocket mirror of black glass that Romantic painters would use to restrict the tonal range of the landscape. To use the mirror, painters would turn their backs to the landscape and reflect the landscape in the glass. They’d paint the reflection, not the actual landscape.

Thanks to Google Images, I came across a series of beautiful photographs of a Claude glass in action by Carter Seddon. The site is under construction, but if these photos are any indication, I’d advise: Get it together; the pictures are good.

 Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror” single comes to mind. View the arcane and lovely filmic video on YouTube.

Detail, untitled, 2008, site-specific window intervention: window film, gels, acetate

Late one night in 2008, I was installing Activist Imagination at Kearny Street Workshop. One of my projects required tinting a window with black film. After nightfall it was much easier to see my reflection than it was to see what I was doing. The Arcade Fire single came on, and my mood surged; I was overjoyed by the coincidence.

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable).

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable).

Memory and time…. Earlier today, I participated in the artist’s talk for The Black Portrait at Rush Arts Gallery in NYC. It’s an exhibition to which I contributed mirrorsblackportrait, a kinetic sculpture of two mirrors, one painted black on top, one painted black on bottom. During the talk, I mentioned the Claude glass, and the idea that suppressing perceptions might have the paradoxical effect of opening up a space for viewer’s experiences. Then, I had the good fortune of receiving kind and thoughtful feedback from other artists in the show. KO told me that as the sculpture turned, his mind stitched the memory of the lower reflection with the memory of the upper reflection. SS added that in revisiting a memory, it becomes strengthened. In this sense the work is also about time and recognition.

KO also mentioned a fascinating project of his involving flea markets, and how the lives of objects often outlast the lives of their owners. This reminded my of my favorite Daniel Spöerri quote, which is just as fresh and relevant to my practice now, as it was when I first read it five years ago:

We are all fetishists snared by the object…. The object is the vehicle of the affections… until they reach the flea markets of the world, where these objects continually pile up stripped of their magic and cut off from the memory of their history… All that remains of these preserves is the container the artists made for the time, the “can” the preserves came in…. The container will never interest me as much as the contained, but where would I pour my wine without a glass?—and it is in between these two poles of the inseparability of the two that my anxiety of finding a definite solution will oscillate, which could be interpreted positively as the desire for instability and change.

—Daniel Spoerri, The Mythological Travels, 1970.

To this, SS added her memories of going to the racetrack as a child. She recalls it as a site populated by outsiders, rife with belief in luck, superstitions and talismans. The idea of imbuing an object with magic or meaning carries over in to so much of what artists aspire to do.

Another attempt to refine a sensibility: CV recently pointed out that my work is not about optimism and pessimism per se, but that it’s about the moment of discovery. I think she meant that my work offers experiences that elicit responses, which highlight optimistic or pessimistic tendencies.

As my work has shifted towards happiness and sentiment, I’ve encountered skepticism—disbelief of my earnestness. And as a viewer, I am not always sympathetic to earnest works of art. Social practice gardening, for example, can seem a bit cutesy, and not very thought-provoking to me. So how could I expect or encourage viewers to take my earnestness at face value, and to not assume that sincerity is antipathetic towards criticality?

I recently posed two questions, and received two very good responses from friends. As I interpret it, AV answered in terms of what an artist or his/her work of art should exhibit to a viewer.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AV: Genuine commitment.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AV: Naive idealism.

AR answered with what a viewer should bring to the work of art.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AR: Courage.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AR: Fear.

Demonstrating genuine commitment in my inquiry seems like a more tangible goal than cultivating courage in viewers.

Whimsy, earnestness, sentiment and insignificance… On a somewhat related note, I recently came across Charlotte Taylor’s 2005 article in Frieze about whimsy. The article counterposes The Believer‘s intellectual whimsy against n+1. In the process, Taylor identified these observations:

…whimsy triumphs when the import of the apparently insignificant and the relevance of the random are discovered.

Like camp, intellectual whimsy is not best understood as ironic: it places a premium on unabashed sincerity while at the same time treading a fine line of self-parody. It often signals this self-parody by appropriating typographical and design conventions from the past… The provocative or unexpected becomes the precious….

For the editors of n+1 whimsy signals a dismaying lack of conviction and encourages the conspicuous squandering of energy on trivialities rather than issues of substance….

Wes Anderson’s films are whimsical because their unexpected juxtapositions are imbued with sentimental significance.

…whimsy values the ability to appreciate the aesthetic harmony possible among myriad incongruent objects. It draws attention to the act of perception and the sensibility of the perceiver. This is why intellectual whimsy can readily become grating—it invites you to be pleased by the innovations of another person’s taste.

Ironically, the style of these Points of Reference posts is to draw connections between seemingly incongruous ideas. Though I’m still sorting them out, I believe these points relate and that finding their similarities can be a productive exercise to advance my studio practice. I’ll leave you with a paraphrased quote, from today’s NYT video of friends pitching in to save one Alabama man’s house from flooding. As they built levees against a rising river, a friend expressed, without contradiction, his simultaneous feelings of futility and determination:

It may seem like a wasted effort. But it would not be for lack of effort.

Art & Development

Musings on artifice, optimism, and synthetic happiness

Cute ___ Calendar, 2010, collage of found calendars, 12 x 12 x 0.5 inches / 30 x 30 x 1.2 cm

Cute ___ Calendar, 2010, collage of found calendars, 12 x 12 x 0.5 inches / 30 x 30 x 1.2 cm

In my most recent work about happiness, such as Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), I thought about being unafraid of artifice. Since optimism, in my view, is a choice, deliberately choosing to find and take the optimistic perspective in any given situation is a bit artificial. Rather than making optimism seem less genuine, it made me think that optimism is more accessible. I may not have been born an optimist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t become one.

In a similar vein, the objects I constructed were blatantly about pleasure. People seem to have a hard time with that; their skepticism colored the work with futility. But I do really see these objects, for all their cheap materials and modest ambitions—maybe something as innocuous as to brighten one’s day—to also express my sincere interest in optimism and the benefit of small pleasures, no matter how naked their (modest) ambitions.

We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is something to be found.

We believe that synthetic happiness is not the same as what we might call “natural” happiness. What are these terms? Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted. Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. Why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning, if we believed that not getting what we want would make us just as happy as getting it?…

I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness is just as real and enduring as the kind of happiness that you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for… (Dan Gilbert, “Why are we happy?” delivered at a TED conference, 2004)

I recently just finished a new series of works on paper using more discount store goods. This time, I made 18 works using only stick-on flags arranged on “neon” paper. (As dollar-store goods are wont to do, the packaging’s promise fulfilled expectations from its own alternate universe—in other conditions, the blue and green papers would be considered pastel. I’m not complaining: “Neon” paper isn’t really neon anyway; inert gasses wouldn’t make good collage substrates.)

Working with the materials, I discovered their small potentials: while the number of available colors was very limited, the flags’ translucence and adhesive—which enhances saturation—creates the illusion of a wider color spectrum. The flags’ matte surfaces also draw attention to the paper’s reflectivity. It’s amazing how even cheap, everyday materials can convey exuberance and pleasure.

Flag Snowflake No. 2, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake #2, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake No. 12, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake #2, #12, & #17, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake No. 17, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake #2, #12, & #17, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

To support Kearny Street Workshop, I’m donating the above three selections from the Flag Snowflake series to One Size Fits All, an online sale. Bid on works by 48 artists who created 8.5×11 works on paper—all for the stunningly affordable price of $100 each. Artists include Jenifer K Wofford, Mike Arcega, Stephanie Syjuco, Weston Teruya, and many, many more.

Kearny Street Workshop is the nation’s oldest Asian Pacific American multidisciplinary arts organization. They have supported me in the past by exhibiting my work in their emerging arts festival, inviting me to present my work, and in 2008, supporting the development of all new work for a three-person exhibition. They have been continuing their work with the dynamic leadership of Ellen Oh—recent projects include partnerships with the de Young Museum. I’m very honored to support KSW, and hope you do too if you can.

Especially for artists: Some thoughts about setting goals and heeding cautions—

Yes, some things are better than others. We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast, because we have overrated the differences between these two futures, we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value. When our fears are bounded, we’re prudent, we’re cautious, we’re thoughtful. When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we’re reckless, and we’re cowardly. The lesson I want to leave you with, with these data, is that our longings and our fears are both overblown to some degree, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience. (Dan Gilbert, “Why are we happy?” delivered at a TED conference, 2004)


I-Hotel, Angel Island

Jerome Reyes
Until Today: Spectres for the International Hotel
International Hotel, 868 Kearny, San Francisco, CA
Through Dec 4, 2010
Exhibition Curator: Julio César Morales

Bay Area artist Jerome Reyes’ long-awaited exhibition examining the I-Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown and Chinatown is on at 868 Kearny at the International Hotel through December 4th, 2010.

The I-Hotel is a rich, powerful part of San Francisco history; if your knowledge of it is cursory, a visit to the exhibition will be elucidating.

While I haven’t seen the show, I’m proud to play a small part in it, sharing photographs of screenprints produced at Kearny Street Workshop*, a free, drop-in community art center that occupied the I-Hotel’s storefront. I photographed the screenprints, which were in the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives at UC Santa Barbara, for Activist Imagination, an exhibition at Kearny Street Workshop supported by the Creative Work Fund, the San Francisco Foundation and generous individual donors. It’s affirming to know that the documentation afforded by these past opportunities enables these historic posters to be made public again.

[*KSW is a fantastic non-profit, and I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had to work with them. I am currently developing new works on paper to support KSW in an art sale this winter. Details forthcoming.]

Mary Walling Blackburn
Radical Citizenship: The Tutorials
Mary Walling Blackburn
Presented by Southern Exposure and Anhoek School at Angel Island (San Francisco Bay Area) and Governor’s Island (NYC)
Curated by Valerie Imus

In another quirk of timing, Angel Island (and NY’s Governor’s Island) will be activated with contemporary art events starting tomorrow. The historical significance of Angel Island includes its history as an immigration and detention center, especially for Chinese immigrants seeking economic opportunities in California. It’s one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most under-represented stories, if you ask me. “Radical Citizenship: The Tutorials, a series of one-on-one tutorials for participants with artists, activists, ecologists, and academics from various disciplines.” For more info visit


Tomorrow: Headlands Mystery Ball, KSW’s Shifted Focus

two sides installation
New site-specific installation at the Headlands Center for the Arts

I’m really looking forward to my first time at the Mystery Ball, an annual costume party at the Headlands Center for the Arts.

I’m exhibiting a new site-specific project. There will also be installations by five great local artists — Whitney Lynn, Joshua Churchill, Michael Hall, Lisa Ricci and Lacey Jane Roberts — as well as a veritable smorgasbord of tastes, sights, and sounds. Punk polka, creameries, tarot readings, and much more.

Mystery Ball 2008
Saturday, October 25, 7:30 pm–midnight
Headlands Center for the Arts
944 Simmonds Road, Sausalito, CA

I can’t be in two places at once, but if I could, I’d also be at the opening of Shifted Focus, the 10-year anniversary APAture retrospective exhibition. One artist from each year of APAture is represented. It’ll be a good show with some heavy hitters!

shifted focus

I’ll be showing new work from the Lorem Ipsum series (works on paper and panel), alongside nine other past APAture artists: Kevin B. Chen, Binh Danh, Rajkamal Kahlon, Michael Arcega, Kana Tanaka, Rebecca Szeto, Jenifer Wofford, Mark Baugh-Sasaki and Weston Teruya.

Shifted Focus: An APAture Retrospective
Opening Reception: October 25, 7–9 pm
Exhibition: October 25, 2008–January 23, 2009
Gallery Hours: Wed.–Sat., 3–6 pm
Kearny Street Workshop, 180 Capp St., San Francisco

And if you happen to be by the de Young Museum, you can pick up the Activist Imagination catalog at the de Young store. Of course they’re always available at too.


review: APAture

This year’s APAture exhibition at Kearny Street Workshop is different, and you can tell right away.

APAture is Kearny Street Workshop’s juried annual multidisciplinary arts festival. I’ve been involved in past APAtures and KSW, so this will be part review, part proud stock-taking of how far KSW has come.

It’s tighter and more focused, with fewer artists, more work of a higher caliber, and more professional exhibition strategies. The result is less misses and more hits. Cheers to everyone for making it all happen: for putting in the work, but also being brave enough to break from tradition and raise the stakes.

Past shows have leaned heavily towards emerging art, and, for lack of a better term, “Asian America 101” art. In this show, some work dealt with identity issues, but the overall show was much more contemporary in tone. Short artists’ statements on the wall labels helped to convey the artists’ intentions and broad range of investigations.

Here’s what caught my attention:


Prints by Dinesh Perrera

Dinesh Perrera’s screenprinted revisions of Art Nouveau-style Ceylon Tea posters are beautiful and demonstrate stylized drawing skills, but I’m not convinced that they fulfill their stated mission “to recontextualize Sri Lanka’s tea industry from being a British luxury import to a product that is integral to Sri Lanka’s cultural identity.” The artist swapped out Mucha’s fair-skinned feminine beauty for a Sri Lankan feminine beauty. In place of romanticized botanical motifs, tame elephants and critters serve The Lady tea in dainty teacups and saucers. The idealized Western images and their corresponding values — leisure, afforded by wealth — have too much of a presence, and the posters still function like ads, inspiring class aspirations, but with modified cultural symbols.

Projected interface for Takashi Kawashima's Ten Thousand Pennies project

Projected interface for Takashi Kawashima's Ten Thousand Pennies project

I was really amused by Takashi Kawashima‘s Ten Thousand Cents, a participatory project in which he contracted, at the cost of one penny each, drawings of tiny fragments of a $100 bill. He reassembled the drawings to form a counterfeit image, and developed a really cool, simple interface that allows viewers to click on a pixel and see the original fragment side-by-side with a video of the drawings-in-progress. Kawashima’s project is complicated and yet cleverly circular (the labor costs were $100, and the participatory process is mirrored by interactive viewing), with a straightforward display.

Viewer in Amy M. Ho's Beyond II

Viewer in Amy M. Ho's Beyond II

Amy Ho presents a ceiling-mounted mirrored box full of cut paper that resembles leaves of grass. Viewers ascend a ladder to insert their head and see an infinite room. It’s difficult not to associate this experience with Misako Inaoka’s room-sized installation currently on view in Bay Area Now at YBCA. Inaoka’s dropped moss ceiling was interrupted with small dome-like portals to take in animated sculptures, sounds and even a view of grass. It’s an unfortunate but inevitable comparison. I was also puzzled about the placement of the box, a few feet away from an actual skylight in KSW’s ceiling. This was made up for, though, in oodles of surprise and delight when the artist appeared in a handmade durian costume.

Is that a durian costume? You bet!

Is that a durian costume? You bet!

Detail of a work on paper by Weston Teruya

Detail of a work on paper by Weston Teruya

Weston Teruya is the Featured Artist in the show, and he contributed two collages/works on paper. Teruya’s work is always fantastically well-made. His imagery are piles of junk — chairs, rubbish, coolers, ladders — in what seems to be the middle of a hurricane. Flying objects may seem fanciful, but given the tumult in the world these days, the images strike a chord with the nervous sensation of impending collapse.

Custom lighting appliances for Mark Baugh-Sasaki's sculpture

Light-boxes for Mark Baugh-Sasaki's sculpture

Mark Baugh-Sasaki makes sculptures that literalize the awkward tension between nature and industry. His hanging sculpture of two naked tree boughs mechanically splinted together is more subtle and poetic than previous works, but I’m an admitted light bulb nerd, so sue me if I was fascinated by his custom designed lighting fixtures: clamp lights embedded in low pedestals. The geometry of it all (square-circle-circle) and unexpected surfaces were just nicely weird and matter-of-fact; no illusions or pretenses. The bulbs were slightly menacing when you realized how much current passes just under the glass at foot level…

Another artist contributed a narrative photographic triptych, but she sort of approached-me-but-not before I could snap my note-taking photo of the wall label. I have seen women-in-costumes-in-the-forest photos before, but there was something ironic about these staged images that I wanted to hear more about. So I asked her. In a very brief, cagey conversation, I learned that the photos were “about race and gender.” She recasts herself as the shining prince in the fairy tale, but I was less than charmed by her reticence in person and in the exhibition materials to contextualize her work or motivations.

Barbara R. Horiuchi’s aluminum panel is basically an abstract painting, but even I found its visual drama breathtaking, and found it even more curious after learning about the strange materials behind it.