I Cannot Stop Talking About These Things:
Ashley Yang-Thompson on painting as problem solving and combatting stereotypes about Chinese-American girlhood
Olivia Aylmer: Hi, Ashley! Where are you right now?
Ashley Yang-Thompson: I am in the basement of Chinatown Soup, where my studio is, wondering when I'll see the sun again.
OA: I love what you write in the Artist’s Statement on your website, that “Painting is problem solving.” What do you mean by that?
AYT: Well, I tend to think of it as finding doors and passageways I didn't know existed. You start out thinking your subconscious is a one-bedroom apartment. And then you realize that it's a nice four-bedroom house in the suburbs. And then you gradually realize that it may be a cruise ship or [a] Beverley Hills mansion. Making art (for me) is about realizing there are more ways to live your life and to be a person than there are rooms in Paris Hilton's house.
OA: How would you say your practice—and the way you relate to your work—has evolved since you first started?
AYT: I used to be obsessed with being famous! I was consumed by the need to prove my worth and to slay the boys who stepped all over me by getting public recognition. Now I take pleasure in getting less than 10 Instagram likes (it happens all the time)! I don't need anybody's validation. What matters is my relationship with the work, which has no resolution and can only [continue to] evolve.
OA: How do you use your artistic practice to channel your frustrations and to combat some of the stereotypes (of which I’m sure there are many) that you face as a Chinese-American girl? How does painting help you speak your mind, albeit in a tangible form?
AYT: I was just making art about my life. I was making art about the time my mother ate my pet rabbit or [about] how people would ask me what I am like I'm some kind of Ninja Turtle human/mutant breed. I felt so much self-loathing, shame, and humiliation that the only thing to do was [to] make art. Art is the exorcism of shame! I wasn't able to place my experiences within the context of a larger political sphere until much, much later. Art is capable of revealing what my conscious mind can't recognize—yet.
OA: What are some of the most meaningful connections you have made to other girls through your art? Do you feel like the Internet has helped, in part, to facilitate some of these relationships?
AYT: I live for the moments when someone reaches out to say that my work has empowered them. It really keeps me going for months. Thank you @chineseschooldropout.
OA: What do you do when you just need to clear up some space in your mind and feel inspired again? Speaking from personal experience, I know that’s not always easy in New York City.
AYT: I moved to New York City on my own, with money that I made hauling textbooks out of the recycling [bin] and selling them to “Cash 4 Books” and also shamelessly pawning my paintings to parents on graduation weekend. I also have a penchant for getting fired. So I guess when I'm not painting or engaging in some bizarre money-making scheme (e.g. housesitting a peacock), I am doing Jane Fonda's Original Workout or debating whether or not to purchase a Groupon for Spa Castle. But a call to my Popo or Mom works wonders on my soul. Yesterday, Popo picked an especially large melon from her potted plant, which made her very happy.
OA: Your series “Bravery and Grace Go Hand in Hand” (which you’ve graciously allowed us to feature in Constellation) addresses the challenge of reconciling the bright, positive narrative portrayed by Maoist propaganda posters with the deeply painful history of the Cultural Revolution. It’s such a striking project. It made me question the very act of looking, in terms of what I see at first glance versus how I might feel upon a second, closer look (at a poster, at a person). That’s the power of propaganda, I suppose. How did that series take shape? Did you always know that you wanted to incorporate your family’s personal stories into the series, or that you wanted to play with the notion of self-portraiture by inserting yourself into the paintings?
AYT: The series stemmed from black-and-white photographs I found of my mother as a little red guard in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, something she is reluctant to talk about. My mother and my grandmother hate talking about themselves. They hate talking about their harrowing experiences during the Revolution, they hate talking about their experience as immigrants in America, and they hate talking about sexism, exoticization, and racism.
I cannot stop talking about these things. I want people to know that my mother is difficult for a reason. People make assumptions about my mother because of her accent, her grammatically incorrect English, her complete unwillingness to compromise, her Marshalls wardrobe, her low-wage job, and her complete inability to assimilate. But she is a precious gift to the world. She is a woman warrior.
So when my white privileged friends, who love talking about socialism, throw communist-themed parties and carry Mao book bags and like Mao-themed pop art by white men on Instagram, I get pissed. I wanted to address a period of Chinese history that nearly destroyed my mother's generation but is often reduced to iconic, kitschy imagery. I made this series because I want people to think about the larger story that isn't told in their world history textbook. ★
This interview has been condensed and edited. All images courtesy of Ashley Yang-Thompson.