Yesiyu Zhao: Split
David Castillo presents Split, the first solo exhibition of Yesiyu Zhao.
Split unfolds at the intimate boundary between the identities that Zhao inhabits. The exhibition brings together a selection of highly symbolic and quasi-autobiographical paintings that draw from American and Chinese histories, as well as the artist’s personal experiences, to lay bare, examine, and question the positioning of queer people and of those considered foreign or Other within the West. These works are pervaded by recurring imageries of Chinese soldiers who express queer love, individuals whose clothing defies gender norms, and disobedient bodies that fragment beyond understanding. Taken together, these works prod at the anxieties of living in a world that does not fully embrace certain identities nor acknowledge the multitudes that can be contained within one person.
The exhibition’s titular work, Split, depicts a figure with grappling limbs and faces that blend with one another, all fighting to coexist within the same body. The piece outlines a visual metaphor for the artist’s personal struggle of living at the intersection of various selves. As a Chinese-born resident of the United States, many of Zhao’s paintings openly contend with the artist’s immigrant status and sentiments of never feeling fully accepted within a chosen home. These alienating circumstances are challenged in the iconographies of these works: a cage in Split offers a criticism of the societal expectations which confine people and contribute towards their feelings of exclusion. In much the same way, and from a non-binary perspective, Zhao critiques culturally policed and reinforced gender norms. The central figure inSplit wears a variety of footwear—ranging from high heels to sneakers to boots—suitable to different social settings and obligations, mirroring the ways in which clothing conventions can also function as a cage and serve as yet another avenue for society to exert its power in restricting queer bodies.
In the inverse, however, the artist actively subverts gendered fashion conventions and foregrounds the liberating effects of clothing. Hairy legs that don high heels and fishnet stockings are one of the motifs that reappear throughout Zhao’s practice. Leg hair—culturally coded as masculine, irrespective of the body on which it grows—becomes, in this case, a signifier for bodies that disobey social pressures. In the piece Putting on Stockings, the artist paints a self-portrait that offers a diaristic view of a typical Saturday night. The piece renders a contrast between a masculinized body and its feminized adornments in rejection of gender expectations.
The shifting nature of identity, and its capacity for redefinition, are at the center of Zhao’s practice. Soldiers, often considered archetypes of virile and violent masculinity, are repositioned in the artist’s paintings as vectors for exploring queer intimacy and love. In A Funeral in a Wedding, a Chinese soldier embraces his beloved—a fellow soldier—and mourns his death. The artist’s depictions of these men and the prominence of their military uniforms recalls wartime propaganda; here, however, they are characterized in contexts beyond those in which foreign soldiers have been popularly depicted, humanized in scenes of love, loss, and longing that make them—and others who are looked to as Other—understood as more than stereotype.
Split pays tribute to an intersectional desire of being understood that prevails across Zhao’s work, revealing the personal complexities and turmoils of being pulled across different axes of selfhood.
Yesiyu Zhao (b. 1991, Suichang, Zhejian Province, China) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. The artist received a BFA from the School of Visual Arts (2018) and an MFA from SUNY Purchase College (2020).