In the the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West, the monk Xuanzang and his three human-animal-angel-monster disciples are tasked with traveling the perilous path westward in search of enlightenment. 300 years later, during the California Gold Rush, scores of Chinese immigrants took a tiger’s leap eastward, over the Pacific Ocean, and found themselves, somehow, further West than Xuanzang could have ever dreamed, and there they sought freedom and riches. In the 21st century, Make Room Los Angeles presents a series of new paintings by Yesiyu Zhao, In Search of Gold Mountain (Gum San), a reflection on myth, history, identity and becoming in the mass migration from East to West.
Continuing his meditations on Beijing opera, queer sexuality, and the mythos of the Wild West, Zhao’s new paintings find a secret resonance between classical Chinese arts and modern surrealism as a means of alienating reality from itself in order to be experienced again anew. Like his recurring subject of the lion dance, each facet of the paintings’ intertwining landscapes, figures, and forms are a component which contributes to a whole that undulates with the intertwining movements of the sum of its parts. This torpor of identities and desires, exacerbated by Zhao’s vibrant day-glo color schemes, imbues his scenes with an inner turbulence, even as nude figures lay in repose on soft beds of somber eyes, or take a quiet moment to reflect on their gentle beauty and beastliness in a hand mirror.
Once seduced into Zhao’s world, there is little chance of escape. As the viewer’s gaze sinks deeper into the works, she finds herself situated among skylines that search outward, androgynous cowboys that journey inward, braids that tangle like a hangman’s rope, and hairy legs akimbo that click on fleshy high heels in contradictory paths. You are not invited, but beckoned, into the chthonic gold mines — dark veins of earth promising radiant precious metals — though whether by spider-demons, by the demands for wealth and labor, or by the painter’s hypnotic charm is left uncertain.
Despite the mythic, spiritual, and remote historical sources these paintings draw from, Zhao’s work remains loyal to contemporary questions of identity, nationality, sexuality and freedom. This allows his figures to reflect the viewer, and for the viewer to reflect back, despite the former existing in a cosmic drama of gold and spirits and the latter existing in a world of work and wages. We apply makeup, we look in the mirror, we find others and love them, we put on a cowboy hat, we try to live a better life. With In Search of Gold Mountain (Gum San), one must journey deep into the earth, and once ensnared within must "find a way out, and the power to get there, and the way to get there, and pass out, and see the beauties of the skies, and see the stars again."
- Samuel Beckett, "Texts for Nothing" 1958.
— Suzy Vogenthaler, January 2023