Bernice Bing’s Seek for a Unified Self

SAN FRANCISCO — For greater than 20 years, I’ve been gathering data on the artist Bernice Bing (1936–1998), who, I’ve realized, had many identities. She was a portray pupil of Elmer Bischoff, Richard Diebenkorn, and Frank Lobdell; a Bay Space Summary Expressionist; a Beat Era artist; a Chinatown arts activist and instructor, who taught a category with the Filipino American summary artist Leo Valledor; an lively member of the teams Lesbian Visible Artists and Asian American Ladies’s Artist Affiliation; a practising calligrapher who studied with Saburo Hasegawa in 1957 on the California School of Arts and Crafts and in 1984 with Wang Dongling on the Zhejiang Academy in Hangzhou, China; a religious Buddhist who lived alone in rural California; somebody nicknamed “Bingo,” who the Cellar Bar in San Francisco’s Geary Theatre memorialized with a drink referred to as the “Bingotini” — a martini made with 151-proof rum; an orphaned Chinese language American who was shuttled between 17 white foster properties and the abusive Ming Quong orphanage. 

After lacking the exhibition Bingo: The Life and Artwork of Bernice Bing on the Sonoma Valley Museum of Artwork (September 21, 2019–January 5, 2020), curated by Linda Keaton, I vowed to not miss her subsequent museum exhibition. This is the reason, once I obtained off the aircraft in San Francisco to take part within the convention/symposium IMU UR2: Artwork, Aesthetics, and Asian America (October 28-29) at Stanford College, I used to be wanting to see the exhibition Into View: Bernice Bing on the Asian Artwork Museum (September 30, 2022–Could 1, 2023), curated by Abby Chen. The present celebrates the museum’s latest acquisition of 24 of Bing’s works relationship from 1959 to 1995, making it the biggest public holding of labor by this long-overlooked artist. 

The exhibition’s speedy takeaway was that the various paths Bing took in her work replicate her lifelong want to discover a unified self. To her credit score, it appears that evidently she by no means developed a signature model. The variety of her artworks and topics — from summary landscapes to lotus sutras — shares one thing with one other San Francisco-based artist, Ruth Asawa, who drew day-after-day, labored in her neighborhood, and made figurative clay sculptures and summary wire sculptures. The deep bond they share is their persistence. Bing was, as I wrote of Asawa, “a pioneer out of necessity.” Her search was not about model, being trendy, or becoming in. It was about attempting to acknowledge the a number of worlds one inhabits.

Bernice Bing, “Blue Mountain, No. 2” (1966), oil on canvas, 60 3/4 x 50 1/2 x 1 1/2 inches

Though I had considered Bing’s points with identification earlier than, I used to be not ready for the impact the early portray “Self Portrait with a Masks” (1960) had on me. Now and again a piece speaks to you so deeply and personally that you’re left shaken; it’s as if what you’re looking at sees you. 

The higher torso of a lady with a black ponytail is seen in profile, turned barely towards the viewer. Bing depicts herself carrying what seems to be like a nondescript blue outfit; its coloration and reduce jogged my memory of the “Shanghai blue” coats historically worn by peasants and manufacturing facility staff. She wears a white masks with crimson lips. Its jaw juts ahead, suggesting that the shape doesn’t comfortably match her face. The largely featureless masks is harking back to these worn in Noh theater and their so-called “impartial” expression. In Noh, all of the roles are performed by males and the masks symbolize completely different characters.

As soon as all of the issues that Bing has introduced collectively on this portray begin to emerge, the depth and expanse of self-awareness that she possessed in her mid-20s turns into obvious, starting along with her depiction of a lady occupying what’s historically a person’s place whereas carrying a female-signifying masks. That is underscored by the suppression of gender distinction the blue uniform conveys. What does it imply {that a} Chinese language American girl is carrying a masks meant to symbolize a Japanese girl? Does the masks/portray reveal or disguise her true self? Can one ever arrive at a real self or are we at all times carrying one type of masks or one other?

Bernice Bing, “Epilogue” (1990-95), oil on canvas, 72 x 288 inches

After “Self Portrait with a Masks,” I started to see the remainder of the present by way of a special lens; every path Bing took along with her work was in quest of a unity that she knew was unimaginable to achieve. The poet Robert Kelly wrote, “Fashion is demise. Discovering the measure is discovering/a freedom from that demise, a approach out, a motion/ahead.” I consider Bing was at all times on the lookout for what Kelly calls “the measure,” and that one facet of the search was the a part of her follow linked with Buddhism and calligraphy. Within the 4 works on paper or board within the exhibition with “lotus” within the title, I had the sense that Bing, who had proven within the Bay Space within the Nineteen Sixties, was not centered on business displays, and that battle between non-public and public — which the self-portrait anticipates — haunted her all through her life.

Whereas within the Bay Space, I needed to see work from two of Bing’s sequence of summary landscapes, Mayacamas and Blue Mountains, as I used to be curious about how their inside syntax and coloration palette differentiated them from one another. I knew that “Mayacamas IV, 4/10/63, Bismark Saddle” (1963) and “Blue Mountain, No. 2 (1966)” have been included in Into View. I had hoped to see “Mayacamas No. 6, March 12, 1963” (1963), which is within the assortment of San Francisco’s de Younger Museum however realized that it was not on show. (Possibly museums may study to collaborate on a micro stage.) I additionally knew that I’d be capable of see “Blue Mountain No. 4” (1966) on the Cantor Arts Heart at Stanford. Seeing these work confirmed my suspicion that the previous sequence was impressed by the point she spent within the Napa Valley and her familiarity with Diebenkorn’s Berkeley sequence from the mid-Fifties, whereas the latter was seemingly her imaginative response to the Guilin Mountains in Southern China. Whereas “Blue Mountain 2” and “Blue Mountain 4” present the inspiration of Clyfford Nonetheless’s California abstractions, the sequence stands by itself in addition to anticipates Wayne Thiebaud’s late work of mountains. Ideally, I wish to see an exhibition of work from these two sequence together with late landscapes, reminiscent of “Anderson Valley” (1994) and others accomplished within the Nineties. 

Painted whereas she was affected by Lupus and different illnesses, “Epilogue” (1990-95), which measures 72 by 288 inches, is, because the title suggests, a commentary on her life. Made up of three abutting panels, every panel contains summary and figural parts and contrasting areas of sunshine and darkish; each additionally defines three clearly demarcated areas. Collectively, they archive completely different paths Bing explored, from the figural to the calligraphic. Past that, I can’t say with any certainty what the portray means and I’m not certain extended trying will make clear the portray’s enigmatic juxtaposition of lotus varieties and figurative define. Mounted on adjoining partitions, “Self Portrait with a Masks” and “Epilogue” recommend the trajectory of Bing’s profession, from the popularity that the self (or “I”) would possibly at all times stay each hidden and revealed to a retrospective seems to be on the routes one takes in pursuit of the self and authenticity. This exhibition makes an essential contribution to our data and reevaluation of Bing. Hopefully, that is only the start. 

Bernice Bing, “Lotus/Lotus Sutra” (1986), blended media on rag paper, 30 x 22 inches

Into View: Bernice Bing continues on the Asian Artwork Museum (Chong-Moon Lee Heart for Asian Artwork and Tradition, 200 Larkin Road, San Francisco, California) by way of June 26, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Abby Chen.

Leave a Comment