by Ariane Fairlie
In the mid-17th century the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture founded by the [French] King’s painters and sculptors established a genre hierarchy, all dominated by painting. In 2015, after the investiture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly made “the digital” her hobbyhorse: the dissemination of Canadian content on digital platforms, the development of the digital arts industry. Compelled by evolution and progress, how can painting - one of the oldest mediums - be inserted into a contemporary art discourse in the digital era? Artists Gabriela Avila-Yiptong and Florence Yee pursue this question further.
Yee and Avila-Yiptong both completed their BFAs, where the importance of painting was continually reinforced through the art historical canon. They were attracted to landscape painting even before school, a typically Canadian tradition, but observed that the discussions around their work in exhibitions and critiques at school, were racialized although the work they were making did not specifically draw on their racial identity. They each chose to respond to this issue in a different way.
Having mostly discarded landscape painting, Yee’s work confronts and subverts expectations of East Asian narratives in North America through the lens of decolonial, feminist and critical race theories. Yee inserts her Cantonese-Canadian/Québécoise identity into the narrative with great conceptual skill and a sense of humour. She says she’s winking at people who share a similar experience through visual cues and common items she incorporates or employs in her work.
Avila-Yiptong, in contrast, creates work with the intention to shift the focus from culture/race. Her work is about her visual, emotional, and psychological experiences of nature. Shifting the conversation through the content of her work also serves to highlight the insistence of a racialized narrative when it happens, but allows her to have these conversations on a personal scale, which she prefers. She uses the ambiguity of her work as a way to experiment in her own autonomy to direct the discussions around her art to concepts of the sublime and human experiences of nature.
Both artists seek to insert their personal experiences into the medium of painting. Lack of nuanced representation of marginalized communities in painting, and recognition of the multi-faceted contributions of those communities to painting, is an urgent and contemporary issue. It’s no secret that white men have dominated painting and continue to do so today. Picasso, a known abuser and exoticizer of race who is championed for his genius, is showing here in Montreal at the Musée des Beaux Arts and internationally, pulling in nearly twice as much for a ticket to his special exhibition at the Tate Modern in London as a female artist’s retrospective showing concurrently. These biases exist all the way down to the local level.
Painting holds a long and problematic history. Still, painting is appealing to both of these artists. For Avila-Yiptong painting is privileged as a medium that even those completely un-versed in art history can relate to. For Yee, painting is a means to undermine its own history and insert images of her cultural identity into the narrative. Yee and Avila-Yiptong manipulate the medium as a tool to their own advantage, moving painting forward into the future.