Bernice Bing Is A Vital Figure of the Bay Area Counter Culture Canon

By Skylar Wildfeuer

skylar.wildfeuer@gmail.com

 

To Bernice Bing, the highest form of art is as a spiritual practice or vehicle, a mantra, but in a 1989 interview, she said, “I haven’t learned to let go of art,” her attachment to her painting continued all the way to the end of her life.

Bernice Bing is a cultural figure composed of counterbalances. She was born in Chinatown in San Francisco but orphaned and at five years old. But over the course of her life, Bingo, as she was known by her friends, became a profoundly connected person. She built relationships that spanned her past, present, and future. Her body of work alone would be an incredible legacy, as would her investment in Bay Area culture and community. 

Bernice Bing in her North Beach studio in around 1961. Photo courtesy of Charles Snyder/Bernice Bing Estate

According to curator Abby Chen, Bernice Bing’s “unapologetic grassroots approach” barred her from recognition in the fine art world. 

Footage on display at the exhibit shows her friends, and fellow Bay Area Asian American artists, Lenore Chinn and Carlos Villa discussing her values, demonstrated by the decision to show her work at both mainstream galleries and non profit locations. By showing her work in community spaces, she rejected a hierarchy that placed galleries at the top. She taught painting to at-risk youth in Chinatown. She helped found multiple significant Bay Area cultural institutions including  Scroungers’ Center for Re-useable Art Parts (SCRAP), which makes art materials more accessible. “Through this radical care,” says Abby Chen, “[Bing] uplifted underserved neighborhoods and fostered an ecosystem of culture for Asian Americans that endures to this day.”

An interview from 1989 with Bernice Bing projected on the exhibit wall. Photo by Max Hollinger/The Guardsman

The intent of this show, says Chen, is to celebrate Bing in “Her rightful place in the Bay Area counterculture canon.”

Part of a series of never-before-seen Untitled ink drawings from between 1959 – 1963. Photo by Maxwell Hollinger

The room is immediately engaging. The colors are vivacious and the lines dynamic. There are around twenty pieces on the walls, a long red table and installations bearing Bing’s diary pages, sketches, tutoring posters, and photo booth portraits.

Chronologically, the exhibited work begins with one playful, early figurative piece, followed by a series of late 1950s ink drawings in which Bing is shown to be engaging with figurative line drawing and fully abstract space, informed by her time at California College of the Arts. Next is a gorgeous, lush oil painting very much in dialogue with the Bay Area Figurative Movement in which she was brought up by mentors Diebenkorn and Hasegawa, the latter of whom was also first to share Buddhist thought and practice with Bing.

A collection of ink drawings that show the artists expertise in ink brush techniques like calligraphy. Photo by Max Hollinger/The Guardsman

Proceed to a series of ink drawings from the sixties, again monochrome, again engaging with space and abstraction, but this time in the natural world, reflecting her move north to Napa. 

The mapping of the next decade of her life is primarily through written work and runoff from her various projects, instead of painted works.  In the seventies, she was painting, thinking deeply about her work, and also founding local institutions and serving her community. This is evidenced by the trove of material on display, through installations of her notes, collaborations and interviews. In one diary entry retrieved from the Bernice Bing archive of Stanford Library, she jotted down these notes about the visual concepts in which she was working: “curve space, dark matter, light depth.” She also invested, through institutions, through mentorship and through her unique insights and choices, in the future of the Bay Area as an epicenter of the arts and of Asian American culture. 

In 1984 she studied the millennia long history of calligraphy and Buddhism during her Fulbright Fellowship in China. In a later interview, she recounted her time in China as an experience of both connection and disconnect. Bing, who described herself as ethnically but not culturally Chinese, said that while it was remarkable to be in a place where she was in the ethnic majority, she “still felt like a foreigner.”

Upon her return, she honed her work with the Lotus Sutra and, in her oil paintings from that decade, developed a much more calligraphic sensibility. 

A long red table on which is printed excerpts from Bernice Bing’s personal notes and flyers from important events in her life as an artist. Photo by Max Hollinger/The Guardsman

Among those pieces acquired by the Asian Art Museum is Epilogue, the artist’s final piece before being robbed of her life by cancer in 1998, the last of a life of diagnoses including hemochromatosis and lupus. Culminating her explorations in abstraction, space, light, calligraphic line, and color, the 24-foot-long triptych reflects the intricately woven life and deep connections of the artist. Her vibrancy and depth seem to run across the canvases with the lines, some of which are dancing, some folding, some hiding away. 

The artist’s final piece, Epilogue, was painted over five years, 1990 – 1995 and spans three large canvases. Bing’s trademark influences, the Lotus Sutra, calligraphy, and the Bay Area Figurative Movement, coalesce masterfully across all three. Photo by Max Hollinger/The Guardsman

The impact of the piece could no more be adequately described than it could be captured in a photograph, it must be witnessed first hand. The exhibit, entitled Outsider in Her Lifetime, Bay Area Chinese American Queer Woman Comes Into View, can be found on the ground floor of the museum, and will be shown through May 1, 2023.

When the varied components of her interior and communal life are taken together, this artist, this woman, this lesbian, this Chinese American, this San Franciscan, this activist, is too complex to distill. Abby Chen’s show at the Asian Art Museum is the correct medium for experiencing the work and life of Bernice Bing. 

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