When are figures available to us as people, Tsai-Ling Tseng’s show at Venue, “Tu Di Gong Doesn’t Bless Me” seems to ask, and when are figures signs. A series of smaller paintings and drawings, the show, per the press release, tracks Tseng’s experiences dealing with harsh immigration policy, gender stereotypes, and anti-Asian racism. As curator Ronnie Hsu and Tseng put it:
New York has experienced a range of disturbances over the past year, and the pandemic disrupted the status quo and exacerbated existing racial conﬂicts. As an Asian living in the region, Tsai-Ling Tseng did not equivocate about the way that this special period magniﬁed her status as a disadvantaged minority but chose to express her experiences through painting. In “Not letting you ﬂy,” she turns herself into a small yellow bird spread out on a cutting board letting a white shape sever her wings: “They are the knife and cutting board, I am the ﬁsh and meat.” Such is her explanation of her ordeal negotiating with white immigration officials to obtain a visa. “Self-Portrait, 2021” depicts her predicament of being forced to move during a pandemic.
Looking around the show, the small, often disorienting, faintly phosphorescent paintings do indeed affectively channel something of the fraught experience Tseng describes—in all the paintings there is a sense of bafflement and distress, a queasy nighttime radiance, figures at once brutal and vulnerable, falsely cheerful, locked in fraught dynamics of desire, violence, or loneliness. The paintings arrive at an unlikely intersection between the work(s) of Lisa Yuskavage, Yoshitomo Nara, and Brooke Hsu, filtered through a hallucinogenic and menacing nighttime children’s book. While the press release and the titles clarify the political and personal hardships the paintings explore explicitly, I find I’m most intrigued by how these problems make it into the form of the work. Looking a bit more carefully at the form also offers new access to the affective and atmospheric effects distinctive to these paintings.
For starters, the viewpoint is often from above, often from a corner, as though the viewer sees like a surveillance camera might see, as in (left to right) “Self Love,” “Claw Machine,” and “Male Pig’s Night Terror.” The viewer is staged as a surveiller—and possibly therefore as complicit with the state and capitalist apparatuses that help sustain the faultlines of gender and race the paintings repeatedly engage. The paintings’ point of view is not a human one. Is this Tseng’s vision of how the state sees people? Specifically people of Asian descent? Is that why these images feel so…off? But it also doesn’t seem as simple as all that—for example, the title piece of the show, “Tu Di Gong Doesn’t Bless Me,” a larger painting more invested in a kind of realism than most in the show, is also seen from this kind of point of view, and yet it feels atmospherically different than the previous three paintings:
Why? Possibly because its light is less eerily green, possibly because there is no overt brutality or absurdity depicted, possibly because of that calming breath of blue and green in the wall mural to the upper left. But also possibly because the painting’s greater realism changes how we construe the figure—in the three preceding paintings, it seems easier to read the figures as “standing for” something that is not quite human—perhaps “self love” in “Self Love,” something like misogynist, commodifying lust in “Claw Machine”—the figures seem like signs for an idea. The paint stands for a figure that stands for an abstraction—it does not call forth the kinds of empathy we reserve for beings we recognize as being like us. But “Tu Di Gong Doesn’t Bless Me” does—this figure feels vulnerable, hopeful, quiet; less didactic and electrified than its peers. The point of view feels somehow more like that of a spirit than a surveillance camera. And that in itself is of interest—this figure and point of view are only slightly different than the others— the show points up how the spiritual and the state might not be so different in that respect; both suggest a kind of “seeing from overhead,” but one flattens and simplifies the figure into a sign, one stabilizes it as a landing place for care. One reduces the figure to something legible to the state (gender, race, a consumer profile, a desire set), one perhaps offers more space for particularity, a resistance to the frictionless convertibility of the symbol.
But this is also a bit too neat and too simple. My personal favorite pieces in the show, (left to right) “A Meeting,” and “Before the Flight,” find an irresolvable in-between place:
Are these figures people or allegories? In “Before the Flight,” a woman sits, inexplicably, entangled in the contents of her open suitcase. We see her from above, and cannot see her face, nor can we make out what she is doing, exactly. Is she, somehow, washing her clothes in her suitcase? Is she an allegory for the confusion and sadness one might feel before boarding the flight “Not Letting You Fly” foretells? It’s hard to say, which I consider a strength of the painting.
In “A Meeting” the obvious math-y surrealism of the piece certainly pushes the figures toward the symbolic—there’s a lot of 2-3-ness, and a sexualized parts-and-(w)holes associative connectivity happening. I hear echoes of Laura Mulvey’s famous work, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” which describes the way flattened and fragmented female bodies in traditional narrative cinema make women surfaces for scopophilic pleasure, rather than potential points of identification (projection, empathy), a relation reserved for male bodies, staged heroically whole in real space. Is the painting subverting this claim or reinforcing it? A faceless woman with large breasts holds a four hole drink tray with three empty holes in one hand, a drink
in a plastic cup with a circular lid with a straw in the other, appearing to serve the table. Three headless (male?) seated figures with ties appear to engage each other in a conversational dynamic, while one looks at a woman’s skirt and legs on his laptop. One draws two circles with dots in the center that look more like the lids of the drinks seen from above than they do breasts, but the (perspectivally) nearby legs on the laptop, combined with the exaggerated breasts of the waitress push the circle drawings toward reading as a crude body part sketch. It’s odd— obviously the female body is being cut into pieces for our viewing pleasure or amusement here, à la Mulvey, and yet the men are also headless. The men draw female body parts and a woman serves them… Possibly Tseng is using the figures here to say something like “under surveillance capitalism, all people, not just women, are reduced to parts and cannot actually relate to each other,” but the dynamic is complex enough that it at least gives pause. The painting also finds a stylistic place between the more cartoon-y allegorical paintings, and the greater realism of “Tu Di Gong Doesn’t Bless Me”—The odd specific tilt of the woman’s head, the strange pink outlining of the men’s arms, the pocket of blankness on the table edge, somehow these formal choices also contribute to a kind of uncertainty.
This painting, and “Before the Flight,” both remind me of something the Post-Impressionists do well—specifically, they often represent a narratively unspecified but intense kind of dynamic sustained between figures—something one sees also in more contemporary painters like Eric Fishl—and make the line between the foreground and background, figures and their environment visually murky, in a way that invites multiple kinds of seeing—following a line from Matisse and/or Cézanne. For example, in this late Pierre Bonnard painting (“Before Dinner” (1924)):
Who are we (the viewer)? What has happened here? Something is clearly off, but Bonnard, like Tseng in “A Meeting” and “Before the Flight,” doesn’t make the problem immediately clear. The figures hover between “abstract elements” (the seated girl’s marvelous stark coat and the placemat! The standing girl’s wallpaper-y dress near that stipply fuzz out the window!) and “people,” much like Tseng’s do between “signs” and “people.”
In Tseng’s most exciting paintings, like in “Before Dinner,” there’s an active thinking of these problems through form. There’s a complex enmeshment of multiple semiotic regimes according to which figures can “mean,” in a way that points up some of the frictions and conditions Tseng experiences, and that arguably obtain in contemporary life more generally. That’s to say, her paintings seem to ask, “how is it possible to relate to other people in this moment?” “Tu Di Gong Doesn’t Bless Me” isn’t a cheerful show, it doesn’t offer redemptive answers. But it does offer phosphorescent flickers of intimacy, quiet, and real thinking about the possibilities of figuration, and therefore relation, through form.
Kirsten Ihns grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and she earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first book is sundaey (Propeller Books, 2020), and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Hyperallergic, Black Warrior Review, the Iowa Review, Yalobusha Review, and elsewhere. She is currently a PhD student and Neubauer Presidential Fellow in English Literature at the University of Chicago, where she studies texts that seem to want to be images, co-curates the emerging poet/artist series Plexiglas at the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, and works for Chicago Review.