Two steps into the gallery I find myself in front of Caroline Wong’s large canvas A World in Us (2023). The colors are warm and bright, and there are no clear boundaries between people, objects, and the space. Three women emerge from the painting’s centre, reclining next to each other on a sofa. Their floral dresses merge with blankets and cushions to form a patterned sea, as if someone had put an old Matisse and a Turner in a blender.
The scene is calm and close. Are the women friends, lovers, or sisters? The fact that it is difficult to discern what kind of intimacy is depicted warms my heart. There relationship is obvious to those involved; it doesn’t need to be explained or clarified to anyone else.
The exhibition is curated by the brothers Ashik and Koshik Zaman, who run the online art journal C-Print and have launched several compelling art initiatives in Stockholm in recent years. In their curatorial statement, they highlight how the last decade’s strong resurgence of figurative painting has paved the way for many “non-white” artists in the diaspora, for whom figuration has served as a means to counteract the historical dominance of white bodies in art. All the artists in the show have their roots in Asia, and several of them were raised or educated in the United States or Europe.
At the same time, most of the works remind us that figuration is neither simple nor easily-defined, and that it is ultimately quite secondary to the other strategies that fuel the works. I’m thinking, for example, of Justin Yoon’s straightforwardly naïve paintings, where three characters – a hyper-masculine person, an extravagantly feminine character, and a small dog – hang out in different places, mostly bars. A bit like an everyday, pastel-tinted, and more queer version of Tom of Finland, in which the hyper-masculine figure allows himself to gaze longingly at the moon.
At first, I’m not sure whether Yoon’s paintings are actually ‘good’, but I think I am confusing style with quality. The sense of natural intimacy between the characters is similar to that in Wong’s painting, but in a more synthetic, Hollywood-melancholic style.
Similar artificiality can be found in Ming Wang’s suite Journey to the West, with scenes from the American West, but featuring a Barbie dressed as a cowboy and a My Little Pony grazing on the prairie. Ken also appears in the background, tipped over and lying on the ground just as unnaturally stiff as we would expect a doll to be. In another painting, divided into five smaller parts, we see Barbie driving alone through the same mythological American landscape. The road is endless, and she has a sparkly handbag and a pair of Barbie shoes next to her.
The reason this works so well is that Wang depicts the scenes as if from within the worlds of cinema or children’s play, where aspects of longing and desire are formed with a sense of alienation. Merging one of the main symbols of multinational capitalism with the Western genre should be too facile, but on the contrary, it creates a complex space where the different layers of reality become difficult to separate. There is also a direct link to China, where the Barbie doll was produced in the second half of the 20th century, but was only released onto the domestic market in 2009.
I think the whole exhibition is superb in the way it presents how the artists navigate a social and cultural field. It’s also nicely displayed, with several of the paintings placed in relation to different color fields on the walls, forging unexpected connections between the works.
Most complex, and also the most difficult to write about, are Sahana Ramakrishnan’s two works, which bring together a range of techniques, myths, symbols, and stories from different times and geographies. Layer upon layer of materials with different properties, delicate and powerful, form a kind of dense hybrid both in execution and narrative. Like several of the other works, they are political in recalling the power of hybridity and the permissive state of queerness. Precisely what the violent patriarchs of the world are most afraid of.