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Past, Present and P.C. : May Sun's art was politically correct before it was fashionable and a lot of it is out there for the world to see

December 20, 1992|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Col. Sanders, Mao Tse-tung, Sun Yat-Sen and early film star Anna May Wong may not seem to have much to do with one another, but artist May Sun makes their paths cross. They're just a few of the figures who float through her collages, assemblages, installations, sculptures, performance and public artworks. Yet, unusual as her cast of characters may be, it's no more varied than her career.

The Shanghai-born and Hong Kong-bred Sun has enjoyed a marked rise in prominence both locally and nationally in the past few years. Hailed for her work in a variety of media, she has more recently received a number of public art commissions.

Yet for all Sun's flitting back and forth between media and professional contexts, there's continuity to her work. The medium may change, but the message--exploring the hidden histories of Chinese-American immigrants and others--remains the same.

"She's able to create a magic environment that places viewers in a cultural sacred space, giving figures from the past power as ghost memories," says Anne Ayres, co-curator with Marilu Knode of the Newport Harbor Art Museum's 1991 Third Newport Biennial, which included an installation by Sun. "May has a visual and formal acumen that brings power to what might otherwise be just documentary work. That visual sense has to do with her intuitive connection of the visual and the mythic and how they key to cultural history."

And that is a message currently much in demand. Recently, Sun has completed or begun work on installations in Chinatown, the Culver City Hall and the Hollywood/Western Metro Rail Station. Last month, Sun was among the artists commissioned to create work at Los Angeles' Union Station Gateway Center. (She also has a show up at Robert Berman Gallery through Jan. 10.)

Sun did not, however, tailor her work to fit the trendy desires of those who hand out the commissions. On the contrary, Sun's field of interest and way of working was on track long before cultural specificity became hip and the art world climbed on the P.C. bandwagon.

"Before I started doing public art, I used a site-specific research process in my own works, such as (the 1988 installation) 'L.A./River/China/Town,' " she says, seated in the office-studio of the Hollywood home she shares with her husband and sometime-collaborator, theater director Guy Giarrizzo. "Now it seems that working with the community and finding out the histories of the site is also the bent that public art is going toward."

Yet, Sun is discovering that public art has its own sand traps, especially for an artist with a substantial body of solo work under her belt. "Dealing with people can drive you up the wall," she concedes. "You have to learn to be diplomatic because you have to work with all these committees and the community, and it's more like (an evolution). With public art, you don't have total artistic freedom."

Sun's grandfather fought for Sun Yat-Sen and her mother's two older sisters marched alongside Mao. One of these aunts, Gong Peng, whose life was dramatized in Sun's 1990 performance "The Chinese Chess Piece," became Chou En Lai's translator and China's assistant foreign minister.

These strategically placed relatives notwithstanding, Sun's parents took their vacation visas and fled to Hong Kong when the artist was only 2. They immigrated to the United States 14 years later, just a few years after the Cultural Revolution rocked China.

Sun received her bachelor's degree in fine art from UCLA in 1976, before going on to graduate studies at the Otis Art Institute. In 1985, her professional career well under way, Sun returned to China for the first time since her childhood.

Call it a turning point. That trip, with its images of Shanghai and Beijing and her family's past, provided the raw material for Sun's 1986 performance artwork "The Great Wall or How Red Is My China?," co-written with Jack Slater, with music by Tom Recchion. Giarrizzo staged it at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, the Powerhouse and the Cast Theater.

An inquiring glimpse back at Chinese history and rebellion from Sun's dual cultural vantage, it was her way of calling up spiritual ancestors to hear what they might have to say to today's Chinese-Americans.

Sun's visual works also interweave personal and civic experience, with an emphasis on Chinese and Chinese-American histories. As with her performances, the tone is frequently ironic and dissembling, yet ultimately serious. Sun presents images from immigrant life in order to suggest that we remember and reconsider how Los Angeles came to be. Bridges and water are recurring themes. The Culver City city hall project, for example, is a permanent installation focusing on the Gabrieleno Indians, who lived near La Ballona Creek until the 18th Century.

Sun's 1988 installation "L.A./River/China/Town" was one of the most memorable pieces of its type in recent local memory. It was also a career breakthrough.

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