SAN FRANCISCO — In this moment of heightened awareness around identity and representation, the pairing of Zadie Xa and Hernan Bas in a two-person show at Jessica Silverman gallery could feel like an uncomfortable effort to universalize across the uneven balance of power represented by the artist’s identities and media. And yet — the cleverness and joy of the presentation revolve around the absence of (or even reversal) of this dynamic within the show itself.
Xa is of Korean descent and grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia before moving to London where she now lives. Working across painting, performance, video, and textiles, her work recuperates pre-Buddhist Korean spirituality in relation to ancient ways of telling time and exerting power. The show opens with two of her textile paintings, “Reciprocal Relations” (2021) and “Vancouver Sunset” (2022) that fill the window gallery just inside the front doors. Their vivid colors, layered fabrics, and representation of humans, animals, and nature in conversation are emblematic of the playful qualities of her practice. With no sign of Bas’s work at the entrance, the assumption of obvious parities in a shared exhibition is sidelined.
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In the main gallery, Bas’s paintings line the walls of the central exhibition space. His large-scale history paintings take on events of the 19th and 20th centuries, queerness, and the occult through the bodies of White, often adolescent, men who populate his richly detailed and unsettled tableaus. In “Disco Demolition Night; December 31st, 1999 (11:58 pm)” and “Ambush Television” (all 2022), Bas’s figures grapple with the emotional turmoil engendered by the outmoded media (vinyl records, CD players, and daytime television) that surround them and seem to be the cause of their crises.
Xa’s works hang away from the walls and respond to this discomfort of impending obsolescence with the strength of ritual and matrilineal knowledge that has survived for millennia despite oppression, colonialism, and dislocation. Shiny knives and cabbages adorn the quilted robe “Kimchi Rites, Kitchen Rituals” celebrating the Korean side dish, while a pair of friendly tiger puppets, from her series House gods, animal guides (2022), populate the center of the room. The quilted textiles’ clarity of color and line rhyme with the impasto planes of Bas’s surfaces. Caught in the visual interference from Xa’s work, Bas’s figures halted gestures and forlorn stares struggle to reach each other, deepening one’s sense of the newfound impotence of their White masculinity.
Unlike the antagonistic responses to changing hierarchies we are so familiar with, the shared characteristics in Bas’s and Xa’s bodies of work hold them in a generative relationship. In “The Self-Proclaimed Winner of the Pageant of the Pacific (or, A Cry for Kelp)” and “A Gathering of the Secret Poets” (both 2022), Bas’s boys are still uneasy but take refuge on a beach and a lush grove of trees. Xa’s “Vancouver Sunset” (2022) refers to her own attachment to the natural settings of her coastal hometown, and the passing of time marked by the movement of the earth, a sense of time that offers a nourishing alternative to the media-driven crises presented by Bas. A vivid representation of the dueling sensations in our current moment, Hernan Bas and Zadie Xa: House Spirits holds the pain and potential of our past, present, and future in careful equilibrium.
Hernan Bas and Zadie Xa: House Spirits continues at Jessica Silverman (621 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California) through July 16. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.