A chalk-smudged blackboard, a simple recreation of a Best Western sign, a faceless headmaster bending the cane he uses to discipline his students. These images, among the many others at David Diao: America Beckoning, create the effect of looking through a dusty old box of mementos or souvenirs. The paintings confront the viewer with shreds of memories that, when taken together, form a singular narrative about the artist’s experiences.
On view at the Gund Gallery until Oct. 8, the exhibition is an exploration of a five-year period of David Diao’s ’64 life, starting with his family’s emigration from communist China to live in Hong Kong (then a British colony) and ending before their immigration to America. This stretch of years is referenced many times throughout the exhibition in works such as “Arrive/Depart,” a painting of a timeline with a simple orange-and-gray background that lists important world events that happened while Diao lived in Hong Kong.
In many of his works, Diao combines these direct images from his life with large, solidly-colored backgrounds. With neat, childlike handwriting, he drew a map of the neighborhood where he grew up in Hong Kong. The piece “A Child’s World” suggests that there was no reality to his younger self outside of his small urban community. In “This Way Out 1” and “This Way Out 2,” he reproduces this drawing of his neighborhood on larger canvases, adding just an arrow pointing away from it in the solidly-colored open space next to it: a simple, clever representation of his move to the United States.
Maps appear constantly throughout the exhibition. It’s a decision that the Gallery’s director Natalie Marsh sees as a trend in contemporary art. “We also see in the work of many artists today who are using map imagery to talk about themselves in relationship to the world but also to talk more broadly about big global issues,” she said. “So I think that it’s a visual form that has been pretty prevalent, certainly in the last 20 to 30 years of contemporary artmaking, and I suspect that we’ll continue to see that going forward.”
By repeating images and stylistic choices such as the map and his use of bright, bold backgrounds, Diao is able to visually tie together the abstract, personal pieces.