LOS ANGELES — Gut-wrenching is the only word that can aptly describe Chinatown, a solo exhibition of works by Ben Sakoguchi at Bel Ami. At the center of the exhibition is Sakoguchi’s eponymous painting, an epic illustration of the Asian American experience spread across 15 panels. Each panel is a history lesson in miniature, ranging from the anti-Asian political propaganda accompanying the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the brutal murder of Vincent Chin 100 years later, in 1982, to the commonplace stereotypes of Asians today perpetuated by Hollywood, exemplified by famous comedians and athletes alike pulling the corners of their eyes into slits.
These scenes circle around the centerpiece of the painting, a large panel commemorating the Chinese Massacre of 1871. Eighteen bodies in total, necks askew, hands tied behind their backs, feet dangling. Painted against a gradient sky, the figures seem so still it looks as if they were floating — until you notice the gruesome details of their lynching and you see that what seemed to be motionlessness is really the stillness of death. You can almost feel the weight of their bodies, beaten and limp, slowly spinning until the rope breaks. It’s ugly. It’s beyond ugly. As if to shield the viewer from fully witnessing the atrocity of these murders, Sakoguchi overlays a screen of decorative patterns that both displays and hides the bodies from sight.
“Chinatown” (2014) is a showstopper. As horrific as the images are, the painting is rendered with such intricate detail and technical virtuosity that it can’t help but pull the viewer in to marvel at its execution. The framing device of the red and gold patterns serves as an eloquent metaphor for the ways in which Asian Americans are caught in a lacquered cage — at once invisible and hyper-visible, praised and disparaged, flattened into a monolith and forced to find solidarity within it. It speaks to the perpetual conundrum of the Asian American condition, encapsulated by the very idea of “Chinatown.” Originally a method of subversion, and more importantly survival, Chinatowns across the US were constructed as simulacrums of Asia in order to be considered more palatable to Americans. However, the selfsame structure doubles as a trap of self-exotification that ultimately constrains the Asian American community.
The motif of the frame is repeated in the scenes of everyday racism that border the lynching, underlining the connection between the two. It’s as if these “innocuous” symbols of racism — the Fu Manchu caricatures, the pulled eyes, the bad driving — are circling around the central image in a veiled threat, reminding the viewer of the very real possibility of violence at the core underlying it all.
As an Asian American myself, it was nothing short of painful for me to look at “Chinatown” — the mockery, the things that mark me as Other, the anti-Asian brutality that has always existed throughout American history. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to paint it. And Sakoguchi does so with such care and such attention to detail that it becomes, in some ways, an object of beauty as well. What must it be like to spend so much time with these images and render them into art? “It’s hurtful,” Sakoguchi has said in an interview. “And you can’t explain that pain … So you do it … you do it the only way you have a comedian can do with a joke. I can do it with pictures.”
Ben Sakoguchi: Chinatown continues at Bel Ami (709 N Hill St, Chinatown, Los Angeles) through April 24.