Featured Project: with gallerist Alex Conner
For its final exhibition of the gallery year, Commonweal in Philadelphia is featuring mixed media works by Yikui (Coy) Gu & Eustace Mamba, whose imagery and use of material create layers of multi faceted cultural cues, prompting a nuanced glimpse at the complexity of American identity. The exhibition runs through July 30th, 2022.
What is your curatorial vision for this exhibition?
Like all exhibitions at Commonweal, I seek to feature artists whose works touch on topics important to Philadelphia and which also map on to regional, national, or even global conversations. “More than a quarter of all Philadelphians in recent years—estimated at around 390,000 residents—were either immigrants or U.S. natives with immigrant parents, together comprising a population with significant potential to shape the city” (Pew Charitable Trusts Report, “Philadelphia’s Immigrants: Who they are and how they are changing the city”, June 7, 2018).
As first-generation Americans born to Chinese and Antiguan parents, respectively, both Gu and Mamba are members of this impactful population of our city. Having grown up between two worlds – the one that situates itself in the private space of family and expatriate community and that which constitutes the public sphere – both developed a hyper-sensitivity to cultural nuance which they engage within their works to interrogate the politics surrounding the construction (or deconstruction) of identity.
With this exhibition I wanted to make space to allow each artist to exhibit pieces which not only exemplified this thematic adjacency in their practices, but also exuded the depth and breadth of their excavational approach to the important social topic of identity formation.
Gu’s embrace of the identical support and scale – 18” x 24” pieces of Bristol board – for each work creates a sense of episodic periodicity when viewed, allowing works to be disconnected from one another regarding their subject matter, while still operating within the same worldview. His use of himself and his partner as the primary characters in his images (interlopers only appear as limbs jutting in from some works’ peripheries), reinforces the inter-subjective struggle of claiming relational identity.
Mamba’s approach to the construction of his works – the literal stitching together of parts into a whole – reinforces the process of accumulation that often underlines how individuals construct a sense of self. His juxtaposition of tangible items such as clothing, physical structures and personal accessories with metaphorical markers of meaning like logos, marketing slogans and raw construction materials points to the gradation of identity being neither entirely physical or conceptual, but an amalgam of both.
While both artists are tackling this important topic from the vantage point of Philadelphia, it’s evident that the conversations with which they are engaging are reflective of a much larger and far-ranging series of adaptations and innovations going on in contemporary social life.
Can you walk us through the show?
Because both Mamba and Gu’s bodies of work don’t have a clear narrative structure, the decision was made to intersperse their works with one another in order to draw out formal and conceptual adjacencies. The works on the large western wall of the gallery focus on forms of commercial consumption, which both artists have critically engaged with in order to explore its use as a tangible marker of identity and status in contemporary America. Mamba often speaks about how his works engage with “slow violence” perpetrated by companies and political structures in America that disenfranchise communities of color by limiting or straining their access to higher quality consumable goods. Gu’s works focus on media and messaging to explore the near-constant pace by which we are marketed towards which shapes our understanding of reality.
On the eastern wall of the gallery there is a focus on relationships – their construction, maintenance and malleability. In several of Mamba’s works he examines the relationship between the body and the architecture of urban space, using his collage technique to bury pieces of each in one another, creating a sense of skewed depth that reinforces the inability to separate person from place and vice-versa. Gu’s works are focused deeply on the relationships reinforced by power structures at both a micro and macro level. He employs imagery that carries with it a nostalgic (for some) sense of American individuality and greatness, while questioning – and at times even subverting – that sensibility by revealing its fragility through his clever juxtaposition of visual content.
On the smaller western wall two works by Gu (Act Natural and The Immigrants) are placed closely together as they focus distinctly on the act of immigration and how its changing role in American society over the past 100 years reflects internalized beliefs and anxieties about Americans’ conceptions of their own form of democracy.
All photos courtesy of the artists and the gallery
Yikui Gu and Eustace Mamba July 1, 2022 to July 30, 2022 Commonweal.Gallery 1607 Latimer Street, 19103, Philadelphia, PA 19103
Alex Conner is a curator, educator, and entrepreneur who owns and operates Commonweal, a commercial gallery in the Rittenhouse neighborhood of Philadelphia. Commonweal exhibits artists from the Philadelphia community whose work actively engages with local, national, and global conversations. Alex works with artists to help develop the commercial aspects of their practice and with collectors to discover that living with contemporary art is an activity.