Livien Yin

Livien Yin (b. 1990 in Cambridge, MA) is an artist currently living and working in Milwaukee, WI. Her art practice is primarily based in painting and sculpture. She received her MFA in Art Practice at Stanford University and her BA in Studio Art at Reed College. She is a recipient of the 2019-2020 Graduate Fellowship at Headlands Center, the 2019 American Austrian Foundation/Seebacher Prize, the 2019 Anita Squires Fowler Memorial Award, and the 2018 SOMArts Murphy and Cadogan Contemporary Art Award.
January 19, 2022
Tell us about your practice.
I work in painting and sculpture. For the last 2 years, I’ve been painting fictional portraits of immigrants during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943). My series was inspired by the Chinese-born “paper sons and daughters” who entered the U.S. by obtaining forged documents that stated they were children of American citizens. I use imagery from historical photos and paintings to portray “paper” identities as possibilities that could be embodied. I also paint from an absence of visual record–imagining moments between Chinese immigrants and the new communities they lived alongside.
The paintings in your solo show Ka-la-fo-ne-a, which opens at Friends Indeed Gallery, feature many different figures in a variety of settings. Who are the figures depicted in the work?
“Ka-la-fo-ne-a” mostly features Chinese women and other women of color in California. A few paintings retain the likeness of specific subjects from early 20th-century photos like the photographers in “The Promotion” and the sunbather in “Musubi.” I also painted my likeness as well as that of my friends for the first time. I wanted to obscure the sense of time between the early years of Chinese immigration and the present. I was thinking about how laws like the Page Act prevented Chinese women from migrating on the basis of suspected prostitution, and how these sentiments from 1875 still live in the hypersexualization of Asian women. Particularly in “After Washerwoman’s Lagoon,” I painted Bay Area artists and activist friends as my commemoration of the place where I meaningfully embraced both my cultural identity and commitment to making art.
What prompted you to explore the historical references or areas of research that have influenced your work?
I started exploring Chinese immigration during a break from painting in grad school. I was making abstract sculptures of Wardian cases and musical instruments. At the time, I was researching photos of Chinese trading ports, laborers, and merchants by John Thomson as well as other photos of railroad workers and guano miners… these images made me want to visualize Chinese subjects through figurative painting. I wanted to see the desires of early Chinese migrants–desires that may be lost to us now but shared with our present.
I was looking at before and after photos of how Arnold Genthe retouched Chinatown scenes, omitted English signage, and presented more exotic views. It was invigorating in a way because I thought if historical photos could shape perceptions of Chinese people to seem more foreign and less assimilable, then I could use painting to reimagine the scenes I’ve encountered and not yet seen in Asian American history.
What has been inspiring you lately?
My friend recently shared a 1982 comedy called “Chan is Missing.” In it, a cab driver and his nephew go on a meandering search for their friend Chan. The more they ask around, the more fractured their understanding of Chan becomes. Near the end, Jo the cab driver looks at an old photo of himself standing next to Chan but Chan is in shadow. Jo wonders if he ever really knew Chan. I’m always inspired by how photographers and filmmakers tell stories.
What’s next for you?
I’m excited to be making new work for a group show I’m participating in this spring, “Ghosts of Empire,” curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah for Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong and London.

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