The piece that immediately catches my eye upon entering Veda Sun’s solo exhibition, Lonely and Gorgeous Tears, is an angelic depiction of an anime girl. When speaking to Sun about this piece in her studio at Bunker Projects as she was preparing for her show, she and I started to go off on a tangent about anime’s role in our childhoods as young Chinese American girls growing up on the East Coast.
“It’s a painting of this illustration I saw, but then I also made Cardcaptor Sakura more Asian. You know, she has green eyes and brown hair, but I was like, ‘I want to see myself in this.’”
Sun mentioned how this imagery relates to the concept of her show. At its core it is a dichotomy of femininity, childishness, and comfort coexisting with alienation and oppression. Anime “culture” as a concept or genre sometimes combines these two sides - its aesthetics often lend themselves to young, girly imagery in a perverted context.
“It’s interesting because I don’t actually watch that much anime. I feel like I’m exploring it again because I felt so much shame for watching it growing up. I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be that person.’ But now as my adult self, I want to explore this again because in California, everyone just grows up with this visual vocabulary and they don’t question it, while on the East Coast, it’s so different.”
In thinking about Sun’s show, I don’t think I can extract our common experiences from how I view the collection as a whole. We both grew up in a Philadelphia suburb as first-generation Chinese Americans. We both have a sister (mine is older, Sun’s is younger). We ended up going to universities in Pittsburgh and moving to East Asia after graduation on Fulbright grants.
After speaking to Sun about her Fulbright experience at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (my father’s hometown), I feel that this time was formative not only for her current style of painting, but also in fleshing out her feelings of loneliness and isolation. Sun tells me her entire visual language “dropped” during her two years in China because of a lack of understanding between herself and her peers. Cultural signifiers in her work just didn’t translate, and so her pieces became reduced to the most formal, basic shapes. She then started experimenting with subverting the Chinese landscape painting--a genre that is very male-dominated--and including feminine and yonic imagery into her works (tubes, ribbon). Sun’s current work is a mix of these different styles, with digital and pixel art added in. From initial reception, what may seem like an experimental hodge-podge is really a stylistic journey that seeks to surface the simultaneous existence of loneliness and beauty; the sinister and kitsch; the romantic and ironic; the divinity and mortality of the objects around us.
Lonely and Gorgeous Tears includes two windchimes modeled after a childhood one Sun had growing up. In collaboration with Nico Zevallos, Sun created an installation that features these delicate windchimes in constant motion thanks to motorized fans held up by 3D-printed sculptures reminiscent of suburban lawn ornaments. As I walk through the exhibition, I am met with these ethereal, serene sounds interrupted by the mechanical whirring of fans. Looking closer at the sculptures, they reveal themselves to be not, in fact, made of stone but of a synthetic material. A faux aura of the spiritual masks the tacky nature of these pieces.
This relationship is flipped on its head in Sun’s only piece with text. In flocked, dark-green Comic Sans, the text seems straight out of a comment I would’ve found on 4chan or in my Tumblr inbox back in the day. There’s a very “emo” nature to it, in contrast with the bright pink, orange, and purple background. The Rilakkuma-esque teddy bear figure is defeated--splayed out on his colorful bubbles with a sigh. Although it has an ironic nature, the work undeniably brings up teenage angst for me. The edgelord starts to reveal his true fragility and turns it into apathy as a coping mechanism.
Another concept at play in Sun’s work is the artwork as object. During her time in China, Sun worked with the same eight canvases, painting them over and over and eventually cutting them up and adding sewn-on pieces. She describes this act as “violent” because she is changing what the painting inherently is. In several works in her show, she uses metallic paint that gives the canvas a type of satin sheen. Mixed with ruffles, some made of canvas and others of fabric, these paintings are turned into objects more akin to decorative pillows or overly-garish duvet covers--not unlike the girly bedroom decor that appeared in anime and manga I consumed during my pre-teen years. In one painting, she takes the backdrop of a traditional Chinese landscape painting and overlays a blown-up, pixelated image of a generic desktop background featuring a hand holding a dandelion. The entire piece is split with a cream-colored satin ruffle with a dainty flower pattern. It is as much about the materiality of the work as it is about the actual imagery. In this way, Sun breaks down the hierarchy of stylistic forms--she makes the Chinese landscape, one of the “highest” forms of Chinese art, barely comprehensible behind these other tangible and strangely evocative elements.
Viewing Sun’s work is like seeing complex motifs from my childhood blown up and covered in fairy dust. Some images that seem bright and fun melt away to reveal the gloom underneath. Lonely and Gorgeous Tears elicits these nuances of my identity in a way that makes me continually want to process how I relate to the world around me.
Essay by Karen Lue
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Artwork by Veda Sun
Photo Documentation by Tom Little
Copy editing by Anna Nelson
Publishing by Jessie Rommelt