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Steeped in Spilled Milk pt.2 – The Brooklyn Rail – Brooklyn Rail

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“Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power—not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.”

These words by bell hooks greet all who enter Steeped in Spilled Milk pt. 2, an exhibition curated by Alexander Si for the EFA Studios Gallery in Midtown West, which emphasizes the diverse strengths of the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and the vulnerability of AAPI queer, femme, and trans-identifying bodies in the American social climate. Si’s tightly curated presentation is a touching homage to the resilience of the AAPI community that also expands upon the monolithic genre dubbed “Asian art.” Steeped is defiant and elegant in its selection of varied media, united by simultaneous delicacy and strength; a complex and individualized breed of alterity riddled with conflicting experiences of both pleasure and pain, love and hatred, danger and desire.

The notion of Asian identity informed the first iteration of the exhibition Steeped in Spilt Milk, which was exhibited at the publishing house and exhibition space 24EBroadway almost exactly one year ago. Both iterations of Steeped were conceived in response to physical violence waged on the Asian community: first the spike of hate crimes brought on by COVID-19, and now the murder of Christina Yuna Lee and the one-year anniversary of the Atlanta, Georgia spa shooting, among a deluge of increased incidents.

Si’s curatorial thesis is empathetic in its material allusions and visual references to Asian culture, in ways both overt and subdued, visible and not. Consider the dynamic of the blue-and-white porcelain plates of Returning Dialogue: Fragments of Blue and White Porcelain, South Asian Series (2019) by Bundith Phunsombatlert and the “Sông Sài Gòn” (2018) monoprints by sTo Len. Phunsombatlert quotes the iconic Chinese blue-and-white pottery ware style through a digitally printed transfer, reconfiguring shards of composite plates which reference the migrations of persons and plants, while sTo Len’s monoprints reimagine a Japanese marbling technique, developed and composed with oil pollution from the Saigon River. The motif of luscious marble is seen too in First in Her Field (2022) by Cecile Chong, an encaustic and mixed media work on panel. The tapestry-like space of waxy blue and yellow hues surround lovingly rendered storybook figures, traced from folklorish origins of both the East and West, merging traditions and meditating on the universality of visual language.

As the exhibition extends to a second gallery, two single-channel videos by Jennifer Ling Datchuk contemplate the vocabulary of ethnic identifiers through beauty standards and kitsch merchandise. In Tame (2021) the artist holds a container of clay China dolls, which rattle as Datchuk’s braided hair is jerked by a figure offscreen. The mysterious, presumably male hand yanks the flaxen braid in a manner both threatening and seductive; much like the duality in the fetishization of the femme Asian body in Western culture. All the while, the gentle cacophony of clanking clay figures—both tchotchke-like and precious in appearance—sharply echo in the atmosphere. In Pluck (2014), the artist tweezes her eyebrows meticulously, declaring “he loves me, he loves me not” with each single-haired extraction, eventually removing her eyebrows entirely. Datchuk’s cinematic aesthetic and frontal pose recall the mise-en-scène of the YouTube beauty vlogger, positioning the artist as looking into either a two-way vanity mirror, or the infinite eyes behind a webcam. Adjacent to Pluck is Manuscript of Nature VIII_II (2014), a panel pierced with vertically arranged thorns by Cui Fei. Fei’s spiked chorus recontextualizes the organic thorn as naturally occurring armor, while formally mimicking the individual hairs of an eyebrow.
The near tongue-twister title of Steeped in Spilled Milk drips with meaning, reflecting the intentionality seen in all of Si’s practice, both curatorial and artistic. As outlined in the press release for the first Steeped, spilled milk references the idiom “don’t cry over spilt milk”; a symbol for the unchangeable past one shouldn’t dwell over; while also a metaphor for whiteness. The puddle of spilled milk serves as the site of an impossibly shallow place to steep tea; a visualization of undue labor and expectations of assimilation. While Si’s conceptual works are a calculative survey of American culture, his curatorial ambitions hold space for warmth and care through community. Steeped yields optimism in the face of marginalization and contributes to necessary discourse surrounding the undoing of Eurocentric art history to combat virtue signaling tokenism.

Dana Notine is a Curator and Art Historian based in Brooklyn, NY. She is finishing her MA in Art History at CUNY Hunter College, where she is currently writing her thesis on the event Quiet: We Live in Public by Josh Harris. She has held positions at the Brooklyn Museum, Art21, and Smarthistory.org.
Critical Perspectives on Art, Politics and Culture
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