Asian American Still Life Artist Statement
The Eurocentric art tradition of still life has a long history of appropriating elements from cultures that it considered “exotic”while maintaining authoritative artistic dominance on the practice. In response, Asian American Still Life is a work-in-progress project that claims space in this venerated tradition for Asian American cultural experiences, directly from an Asian American perspective. The project creates an overdue dialogue between the symbology of Eurocentric still life style with that of Asian traditions. At their core, European still lifes are preoccupied with themes examining the human condition: life, death, vice, artifice,belonging. These themes, being about the human condition, are by no means unique to Europe, and parallels emerge in my own Asian American cultural history: austerity in Confucianism, the cyclicity of life in Buddhism, the limits of assimilation in the US.
Each still life is carefully constructed in the studio using a rich tableau of food, found objects, and thematic flora and fauna, with nuanced yet colorful outbursts that upend the Protestant seriousness of the Dutch still lifes that the images mimic. On a personal level, the series features familiar home comfort foods from my own upbringing as a Taiwanese-Chinese American—foods that are derided as “strange” in the United States but hold quotidian significance in Chinese culture (see “Midautumn Memento Mori”, “Dad’s Favorite”, “Pantry Exotics, 1”). At the same time, the series questions the ideals of the nostalgic “All-American” experience as a daughter of immigrants,asking to what extent an immigrant experience can dovetail with notions of Americanness (see “Hansel&Gretel”, “Flower Brick”). On a community level, I partner with Asian American small business owners, chefs, and agriculturists throughout the series, foregrounding their food practices that make up the now multicultural culinary landscape that pervades California (see “Brueghel’s Breakfast”, “Still Life with Ube”, “Spring”, “Eat Bittersweet”). These partnerships have allowed me to present perspectives and lived experiences from the numerous cultures and countries that feed the otherwise monolithic label of“Asian American.”
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Stephanie Shih is a still life photographer, known for her painterly use of shadow applied to playful perspectives on food. Shih started making photographs with her dad’s half-frame camera on childhood road trips, but only took up photography seriously later in life while in graduate school. At the time, she worked as a caterer, and translating the experience of food to the visual image has been a driving through line of her work ever since.
As a first generation Taiwanese-Chinese American, Shih explores themes of cultural dynamics—belonging,alienation, appropriation, celebration—through her still life photographs. Shih’s photography has been featured in print outlets including Elle Girl Korea, 7x7, and Gastronomica, and online on Gourmet Live,Bon Appetit, Saveur, and Fine Cooking.
Shih currently lives in Los Angeles, and when not in the studio or kitchen creating, she is a professor at University of Southern California.