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Kunlin He (MFA 2016) is an artist and writer based in San Francisco.

Kunlin, who was recently selected to participate in the Skowhegan Residency program, examines Asian identity through visual and conceptual art. He plans to pursue a PhD in Visual Cultures next year. 

Recently, we sat down with Kunlin to hear a little more about his work and process: 

SFAI: Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Kunlin He: My main focus is to redefine Asian identities, territory, borders, nationalism, and Chinese masculinity in traditional contexts by using the language of visual arts and conceptual art. My interests lie in utilizing Eastern Asian traditional cultures and culture studies to reveal the hybridity and heterogeneity of Chinese identities in the context of globalization. I try to embed Sinophone studies, Chinese visual culture studies, and multiple forms of media into my visual artworks, such as videos, installations, and paintings.

My drawing is rooted in China’s history of the modern ink movement. However, I try to criticize the modern ink movement and its history, which has been under the control of the official and mainstream culture in modern and contemporary China, through the use of abstract ink painting and the masculinity of calligraphy performance. Unlike traditional literati painters who focus on their internality and pure aesthetics, I want to broaden the field of modern ink painting to express contemporary issues such as identity, immigration, and nationalism, using the tradition of social realism and the strategy of non-linear narrative to delineate the history and everyday life of different cultural communities. 

On the other hand, I also conduct my personal research in diaspora studies in the USA. I examine the relationship between some diaspora Chinese artists who use traditional art to represent their transnational identity, such as Yun-fei Ji, Frog King Kwok, Martin Wong, and Epoxy Art Group, who lived in early 90s New York City, focusing on how they incorporated pop culture, street art, underground press and queer cultures into the motifs of some traditional Chinese art such as hand scrolls, seals, and ink paintings. I will try to answer the question of how urban culture and mass culture affect Chinese diaspora artists.


SFAI: What is your process for creating your work?

KH: In terms of material, I focus on how to intervene in the production of traditional ink painting through the artistic creation, so as to change the state of ink which has been a conventional material and technology. Also, through researching material of city and suburban daily life, I will create a new cultural space of the visual. I have two ways to research in terms of the choice of materials. I will study and use some ordinary industrial materials including acrylic, mylar, glass, metal in my Shan Shui painting. I wonder how these materials can deconstruct and transform the content of Shan Shui painting. For example, I’ll use a transparent and translucent material covered layer by layer to build the pattern of space of Shan Shui paintings, at the same time, it actually mimics the matt medium and vanishes concept in western paintings, which implies the entire cultural space.


SFAI: What are you working on now? 

KH: I’m recently preparing my first solo exhibition in NanHai Art Gallery. This work combines with the element of live performance and two-channel essay films which present my recent study about Chinese masculinity. This reference comes from scholar Kam Louie’s book “Theorising Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China.” In simple terms, he thinks “Wen” (cultural attainment) is the important part of Chinese Masculinity without West. I’ve inspired his ideas because my other Chinese male friend and I want to become an educated elite to show our Masculinity. However, this masculinity isn’t suitable for the West. After 2000, many Chinese people who have this Confucianist character combine with Chinese corporate culture and mass cultures. Sinology scholars perform at CCTV to educate people how to earn money and manage their companies. I want to think and critique this phenomenon deeply and, also find another way to think about Chinese gender studies.  

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