Gwaylon Leaf spends a lot of time plumbing the depths. It’s clear in his work—large, dynamic, gestural paintings reminiscent of classical Chinese calligraphy and something else. He works at a crossroad that’s all too familiar for many artists, the intersection of self and race in America. For Leaf, his mixed Chinese and European heritage produces more questions than answers. In many ways his work tries to respond to those questions.

So, Gwaylon, please tell me about your exhibition.

The exhibition that I have in Carson City, Chinoiseries, is a combination of work that I did fresh out of grad school, during the pandemic, and things that I’ve been working on and trying to develop for the past couple of years. The title refers to a tradition of taking, you know, Oriental artifacts from Japan, China, Thailand. And it’s recontextualizing those into …  Western European department store findings, like furniture, little tchotchkes and stuff like that. But it’s me trying to recontextualize that heritage, and what it means to be Chinese American and kind of developing an aesthetic philosophy that I can continue working from.

That’s a very real experience of culturally being treated as a vestigial appendage, right? It’s like, oh, look, these people, these cultures, they poured centuries of comprehension and understanding into this practice, but, you know, I think it’ll look cute on the nightstand.

Right, but at the same time, it’s also kind of its own thing. Like, if you take the idea of these kinds of aesthetics that are appropriated away from the origin and reinterpreted into different things, and you apply that same idea to different kinds of forms of American culture. Take Panda Express, the Chinese restaurant that makes things like egg foo young, and things like that—Hollywood cinema, like Big Trouble in Little China, the 7 Faces of Dr. Lau, the curse of Blue Manchu, I feel like there’s something in there that goes beyond just taking an aesthetic or culture and reducing it down to the basic points. It’s also like, there’s some level of that in there that is part of Asian American identity, and there’s an authenticness to that. … How do you distill out the problematic aspects in there and keep what are the actual building blocks of what has become Asian American culture today?

Yeah, no, that’s a really difficult identity quandary, right? I can’t imagine being a kid and seeing Big Trouble in Little China and not loving it—but in the same right not being like, that’s not really my culture, but maybe sort of my culture, but maybe not. That’s a very confusing state to be dancing with, right?

It’s almost my background as well. My mom was American. My dad’s from China. And so being mixed heritage growing up, it’s kind of like, I don’t really belong with this group; I don’t really belong with that group. I’m always kind of somewhere in between. I feel like that’s why a lot of those in between sort of movies resonate. There’s actual actors, and they’re actually speaking Cantonese and Mandarin and stuff in those movies. But also, it’s a weird in between space where you’re not sure if it’s offensive, but then there’s also, like, incredibly authentic things that are happening in their lives.

That’s a very American thing to have happen to you when you’re not white. But white people do it to themselves too, right? Take St. Patrick’s Day—green beer and leprechauns or whatever. And you’re like, “That’s not what that’s about, guy.”

I want to describe it as a lack of cultural identity, but there’s this sort of sense of loss and maybe finding that a lot of people who are raised in America go through. It’s like, they’re not sure where they belong, where their heritage is. And sometimes they end up giving away all their money to these corporations like 23andMe: “Oh, yeah, I’m 15% Irish, so I’m just gonna make that my whole identity even though I was raised Catholic-Italian” or something like that, right?

Yeah, it’s identity in America. And what you pointed out there, that rediscovery aspect, I think is really, really important to understand how we develop consciousness in this country, and how we develop a sense of self. 

So with this current exhibition, they are large scale renderings, and this is your first full exhibition since graduating UNR.

Absolutely. Yeah, I have had trouble getting my work out there. Because typically, what would have happened is, I would have done a thesis show for my graduate work and I would’ve taken that work and started planning. But with Coronavirus, I had to cancel that, and then everything closed down. It’s like this great big, almost two years of arrested development for my career, building myself as an artist.

So it’s been a little tough, but I feel like I’m finally starting to get to the point where it’s getting out there. But in terms of the size of the works, it’s a combination of different sizes. There are some works that are pretty large scale, about six feet tall by four feet wide. And those works are designed to feel a little bit more classically Chinese in terms of the orientation, like a scroll format.

So, I understand your sociological motivations—can you explain your visual motivations and the visual modalities that you’re working through?

A lot of that comes from things that I’ve inherited through my father. He was an artist as well, and he used to teach at UNLV for years. Growing up with that, as well as the sort of, I don’t know, the, the sort of curiosity I’ve had about like the mystique of classical Chinese painting and then mixing that with the sort of coded language and esoteric ambiguity of ancient Taoist scholarly research and philosophy and visual talisman things like that. There’s a lot of play between shape and line and as someone who doesn’t read Chinese it has been a conscious choice to not learn how. It’s kind of combining along that sense of what’s the term? Asemic writing. So, it’s a visual form that doesn’t have direct semantic translation. Playing around with that sense of creating, you know, language that represents unformed thoughts or ideas, emotions, things like that, that I don’t want to translate because I feel like to translate it would be to water down or weaken the, the sort of purity of the form I just couldn’t even begin to express.

 I’m combining that with a lot of influence from … modern, Western artistic traditions. I’m looking at Addax, I’m looking at the Bauhaus movement as well, with the foundational principles of color and psychology, Jung has written is kind of a big influence for me looking at his writing and art and how he talks about this psychology of color and form. I’m also looking at a little bit at the works of Malevich and Kandinsky as well, just because of the the sort of expressionists, that attention or composition, there’s things that are just really interesting to me as an artist and working in the abstract the way they have is really fascinating to me, and then I combine that with the sort of cultural traditions that I’ve drawn influence from over the years.

Yeah, hell yeah. Wait, what kind of writing did you say again?

It’s called Asemic writing. Aesthetic words. Yeah. It draws from the tradition of writing without semantic meaning. Psychologically it is drawing through the points and vertices that make up what your brain interprets as language. So it’s a form of writing and it’s an expression that resembles writing without really touching on seeing the sort of semantic meanings behind a word. And in a way, it’s a form of looking at handwriting and calligraphy, as image without, you know, interpreting them as words. So you move the semantic notions of, of what you might interpret with, if there are like writing Chinese or English or anything like that, it’s just pure, that idea of that pure expression or the the recording of the presence of thought without actually recording the thought.

I love this, concept and ideal. It’s really beautiful. And it definitely folds into the kind of forms and shapes and methods you’re playing with. And I especially find that fascinating, in comparison to your earlier comments about cultural identity, right? Because there are in both of those, places where to write to put it down into words would negate its meaning and its power. So I think that’s really, really cool, smart thinking, man. 

That’s it. At and also along those lines. So there’s that sense of looking at art without really understanding the meaning. But still seeing the beauty of it, seeing the placement of the words in a composition without knowing what the words translate into, it creates a sense of, at least for me, it’s what I’m trying to translate into my work is it creates a sense of wonder and curiosity. And there’s a certain sense of beauty that I see in that, that I attempt to pass on to the viewer to varying effects. Sometimes people get mad when they look at it and say, Oh, that doesn’t translate into anything. Oh, I feel disappointed now.  but That’s  for people that want the world to be solid. And I think the world is absolutely not that way.

Solid or not, the world is lucky to have your work in it. Thanks Gwaylon. I can’t wait to check out the show.

This article has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Gwaylon Leaf is one of several artist whose work is featured in Alkali Syllabi: UNR Art Department Faculty Exhibition at UNR’s Sheppard Gallery through Dec. 16. His solo exhibition Chinoiseries is on view at the Courthouse Gallery, 885 E Musser St., Carson City through Jan. 26. 

Chinoiseries is produced by Capital City Arts Initiative, an organization that promotes the visual arts in Carson City and organizes exhibitions in several spaces around town. Current exhibitions:

Trash talk

This article was funded by a grant from the Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Posted by Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a wizened veteran of the Las Vegas arts and journalism scene, a lonesome cowboy riding the high desert who occasionally wanders in to communicate dispatches on the innumerable goings on in this thing called civilization. Beware his haggard stare and keen eye.