The Immigrant Artist Biennial (TIAB) is a volunteer, female-led, artist-run project. TIAB 2020 launched in March in New York City at Brooklyn Museum, and continues in September through December at EFA Project Space, Greenwood Cemetery, and virtually, presenting 60+ artists. This interview series features 10 participating artists.
Yikui (Coy) Gu was born in 1983 in Nantong, China and emigrated to the United States at the age of seven, growing up in Albany, NY. Yikui (Coy) Gu has a BFA from Long Island University and an MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He has exhibited his work nationally in New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, and St. Louis; and internationally in London, Berlin, and Siena, Italy. His work has been reviewed in the Washington Post, KunstForum International, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Yale Daily News. His work has appeared on the cover of the Lower East Side Review, and in Fresh Paint and Art Maze. He resides in Philadelphia and teaches as Associate Professor of Art at the College of Southern Maryland. He is currently plotting in his South Philly studio, while remaining mostly harmless.
Do artists have political responsibilities at this moment, if so, what are they?
Artists always have political responsibility. There is no such thing as non-political; apolitical work is still a political choice, albeit one that reflects privilege. The moment a hunk of stone was chiseled into the likeness of a pharaoh, art became political. Our responsibilities today are to cast a critical lens on the world in order to explore the human condition in the here and now. To question, and potentially subvert, any would be “truths” or conventional norms.
Reflect on an encounter of displacement, becoming, belonging, trauma, healing, or simply comic relief from your journey of immigration.
I immigrated to America at age seven. A few years later I received my Green Card, and a few years after that I became a naturalized citizen. As an adult I met my future wife, who is from Germany, and we eventually married. When the time came to go to Immigration Services to get her approved for a Green Card, everyone there, from the security guards to the administrators, all assumed she was the American citizen and that I was the one getting the Green Card. From the looks, to the body language, to the statements made to us by officials, it was plainly obvious that someone with my face would always be a perpetual foreigner in my own country. This experience was both horrifying and hilarious and has informed much of the work in my series Classic Yellow.
How has the turn toward the digital and virtual affected your artistic practice?
In general the digitization of art, which began before Covid, has helped broaden our reach as artists, as viewers anywhere around the world can easily see our work. However, this has also flattened the image, and put pressures on artists to make work that is Instagram ready. Subtle nuances and experiencing the tactile qualities of art has been diminished or lost altogether. I have enjoyed being exposed to artists I was not aware of, but have also felt the need to unplug from time to time. As with most things, it is a double-edged sword. I miss going to see art in person, and meeting and networking with people. This is especially true of The Immigrant Artist Biennial.
Tell us about the work you are exhibiting in The Immigrant Artist Biennial.
The works in this show are from my series Classic Yellow, which I began a few years ago. It uses myself and my wife, both immigrants, as a starting point to explore the spaces between order and chaos, sincerity and irony, or design and chance. The mixed media works combine painting, drawing, and collage, alongside materials ranging from chopsticks to bodily fluids. This juxtaposition echoes our relationship and serves as a metaphor for it. Through this combination of political, cultural, and domestic imagery, I hope to affirm and subvert the contemporary human condition through a Yellow lens.
Please share a piece of advice or a resource that may be useful to an immigrant artist.
Focus on your studio practice, have a studio-first approach. Make the best work that you can, and then follow through administratively. Be organized and professional. Respond to communications promptly and be reliable- do not be a flake. Be part of a community, your artist friends are a great resource, much more so than that gallerist you’re trying to schmooze. If you’re in New York, NYFA has a great resource for immigrant artists. Allow yourself to play in the studio and make mistakes, those tend to be the most interesting.