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A pithy piece of advice and affirmation from self-help author Peter McWilliams has become an internet cliché: “Keep your goals away from the trolls.” The phrase is also prominent in Jennifer Ling Datchuk’s exhibition at Ruiz-Healy Art, rendered in stark white porcelain and reverberant with layers of meaning.
Whether the nugget of advice is used ironically or sincerely – or both – the goals of Datchuk and Ruiz-Healy are very much on display in simultaneous shows in San Antonio and New York City.
Datchuk’s first solo exhibition at a commercial gallery, Don’t Worry Be Happy, opened in San Antonio on Nov. 6 with an array of porcelain sculptures, photography, and found objects. The companion show Don’t Tell Me to Smile opens Thursday in New York. Both feature the prolific artist’s Asian identity and womanhood as points of inner strength against stereotypes and common cultural assumptions.
Through social media, Datchuk solicited fortune cookie statements to use in her work, “to be part inspirational, part subversive,” she said. One local artist sent the “trolls” phrase, Datchuk said, “during a time I had lots of goals and some trolls.”
Several of her goals have recently been met, with a 2016 Berlin residency through Blue Star Contemporary, a 2019 Artpace residency, and a teaching position at Texas State University. Datchuk has also been included in group exhibitions at Ruiz-Healy, including the prestigious International Fine Art Print Fair in New York last October.
In April, Patricia Ruiz-Healy opened her New York gallery, under the same name as her San Antonio space. The first exhibition featured Cecilia Paredes, a Peruvian artist living in Philadelphia, along with the estate of legendary San Antonio artist Chuck Ramirez, who died in 2010. Datchuk’s show is the first time Ruiz-Healy has shown an artist in both spaces at the same time.
“Isn’t that always the artist’s dream, to show in New York?” Datchuk said at the Nov. 6 opening of Don’t Worry Be Happy, as viewers milled around her in the busy space. She dislikes perpetuating the idea that showing in New York is the ultimate goal for an artist, but admitted “part of it does feel good. I think it’s also access to a new audience,” she said.
Ruiz-Healy reflected on what it means both for Datchuk and herself to show in the art world capital. “I think it’s a combination of a lot of dreams,” she said. “I think every artist dreams of having a solo show in New York or having a solo show in a gallery, not just in a pop-up.” Her new space is located on 79th Street on the Upper East Side, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other notable art spaces.
Because of the popularity of New York as an international art hub, curators from institutions around the globe will see the work of artists she represents, Ruiz-Healy said. That can lead to institutional shows and museum shows for her artists, and even museum purchases, which are all essential building blocks for an artist’s career.
For Datchuk, the New York show also means reconnecting with extended family. The artist was born in Ohio but grew up in Brooklyn, among a large population of Asians. Her family members measure success differently, she said.
Recently, Datchuk was included in a group exhibition at New York University alongside artists prominent in the field but less well-known among mainstream audiences. Her family brought fancy balloons to the opening to congratulate her, she said, laughing. “They don’t understand what I do. They don’t get it. They’re super worried I’m a starving artist,” she said.
But when they heard she had recently landed a full-time teaching job at Texas State University, “then they shook my hand, because they were so happy. I had stable income.”
The fact of the large Asian population in New York might also make a difference in how her identity-focused artwork is received and understood. “My friends and cousins who are 100 percent Chinese, we’re all dealing with the same things and how we reconcile identity. So I’m really looking forward to the conversations that happen from [the show],” Datchuk said.
Culture in Multiple Dimensions
A further goal is to eliminate hyphenation in identifying the original ethnicities of Americans like herself, she said. Datchuk identifies as Chinese American “without the hyphen,” she said, which “always means you are … less than.” In Japan, she explained, “when you’re half or mixed, you say you’re double instead of half,” which is a multiplication of identity rather than a division.
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A critique of damaging ethnic stereotypes is clearly visible in her work, particularly a modified found ceramic piece from 2019 titled Model Minority. The work joins two kitsch ceramic wall planters featuring offensively-rendered smiling Asian women. Datchuk painted the title words in 14-karat gold luster on the rims of their upturned straw hats, and added white porcelain “lucky” bamboo growing out of the hats, as another stereotypical “Asian” object – much of which is produced in Africa for the Asian market, Datchuk said.
The planters were made in the 1950s by the Royal Copley company of New York, which produced such figurines for a middle-class collector market. Datchuk noted how casual such racist attitudes were at the time. “These are middle class people who also need super fetishized racist, misogynist, sexist objects” in their homes. “It’s so one dimensional. There’s so much more to our culture and history.”
Datchuk traces her family tree back 28 generations in the Guangzhou region of southern China, which is also the area where porcelain originates. Datchuk said she feels the material is in her blood.
“Porcelain is often perceived as delicate, dainty and fragile, but it’s really quite resilient. It has survived 2,000 years of wars and fighting and espionage,” she said.
The bamboo motif is also used in the Trolls piece and other works in the show, toward the idea that it is often perceived as being both invasive and accommodating, “a metaphor for how I see women, that we can keep getting put into boxes, we can keep getting kept out of the room, or out of power dynamics or decisions, but we still keep popping up.”
In general, Datchuk said, her work is a response to what she experiences day to day. “I look at a lot of things that I’m surrounded with, and to try to tell their stories. In the context of this current political dynamic, a lot of it’s just me working through my anger,” she said.
Don’t Worry Be Happy is open through Jan. 11 at Ruiz-Healy Art in San Antonio. Don’t Tell Me to Smile runs Nov. 14 – Jan. 11 in New York. Check the gallery website for more information.