Evri Kwong at the de Saisset Museum of Art at Santa Clara University
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Evri Kwong’s exhibition Just Pretend Everything is OK, at the de Saisset, is a disturbing reminder of the daily horrors that fill the news. If we have become somewhat inured to daily stories of domestic violence, hate crimes, rape, war and consumerism run amok, Kwong’s paintings serve as potent and effective wake-up call that it’s still out there and there is a whole lot of work to do in this country. Through the reenactment of stories we have heard ad infinitum and repressed, he tells us what we already know in images that cannot easily be erased from consciousness.

Kwong’s painting format plays relatively benign and comforting little images of homes and other structures representing domestic USA against cartooned narratives of stories we know from their notoriety in the media. A beautifully painted full color snapshot of the fa√ßade of a charming small-town church, a house behind a white picket fence, a freeway passing through a prosperous downtown or a well groomed, successful farm clash instantly with his puppet actors who, through a cartoon sequence of violent and offensive acts, haunt the calm respectability established by the architecture.

Welcome to Texas recounts incidents leading to the brutal death of James Byrd Jr, in Jasper, Texas.

These puppet figures are wooden, nearly one-dimensional and simple minded. They do not demonstrate the individuality of Howdy Doody, nor the conscience of Pinocchio. They have Pinocchio’s nose but it has yet to sprout in recognition of acts of deception or worse. In Kwong’s characterization of the perpetrators and even the victims, there is the tragedy of ignorance, fear, hatred, poverty, haste, laziness, addictive habits and greed. They are all — victim and perpetrator alike — the sad objects of absolutist religious zeal, negative mythology, Wall Street propaganda, unrestrained sexual appetite and the desire to dominate. Probably, none of us can escape sensing our own victimization and some culpability when we examine the range of his indictments.

Evri Kwong’s Do you Know the Way to Santa Fe

Kwong finds a lot of potent subject matter for his work in race relations. One of Kwong’s paintings, Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe, reminds us that Native American communities have never appreciated being the mascot for competitive athletic teams nor the chrome emblems on the hood of our car. Yet the sad and still unaddressed outcome of conquest, followed by a violent, exploitive, neglectful and dismissive treatment of the North American tribes has reduced too many to lives of alcoholism, the sales of cultural trinkets and gaming casinos.

In Welcome to Texas, Kwong’s narrative becomes even more uncomfortable as his comic strip narrative speaks to the brutal murder of a black man, James Byrd Jr., in Jasper Texas in 1998. We see all the grim steps, as three white supremacists string a noose around Byrd’s neck in order to drag him three miles down a country road behind a pick up truck until his body is dismembered. In 2008, ten years later, Byrd’s parents still live in Jasper, Texas. They report that, at least on the surface, things appear to have settled down in Jasper. And, yes, in 2008 we have elected an African American President. But, collective guilt and the uneasy feeling that under the surface there is still so much racism, simplistic thinking and unresolved emotions, make Kwong’s reminders as unsettling as they would have been in 1998.

Born Free, by Evri Kwong at the de Saisset Museum

Another theme that Kwong revisits in more than one work consumerism. In Born Free he notes that the protection of our consumer economy and equating it with the “freedoms of democracy” has been the Bush administration’s rationale for such abuses as suspension of habeas corpus at “Gitmo”. He likes to point at Wal-Mart as the poster child for mindless consumption.

Kwong is on the faculty of Cal State University in Sacramento. His work has received attention nationally and internationally for its outspoken critique of unresolved problems in the USA. His interplay of slick painting in color and cartoons executed in marking pens, makes a statement in itself about the dualities we try to reconcile. At the de Saisset, there is a range of work over several years that reveals a development in Kwong’s handling of the figures from the early work to the most recent. Gestures have become more deft. Overall compositions seem more symmetrical and straightforward.

At Smith Andersen Editions in Palo Alto, an exhibition of Kwong’s prints runs concurrently with the show at Santa Clara University, until November 19th. Viewers can see Kwong’s De Saisset exhibition until December 13.

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