Reconstructivist Art: American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese as an example of Reconstructivist Art.

American Born Chinese centers around what at first seem like three very different narratives.  The first is a superhero-themed retelling of a beloved classic tale from Chinese mythology, the story of the kung-fu practicing Monkey King.  The second is a realistic, contemporary story about a young Asian American boy, and his struggles to fit in at an almost wholly white school.  The third and final narrative is a sitcom about a white boy named Danny, and the mischief caused in his life by the yearly visits of his cousin “Chin-Kee”, a walking conglomeration of every possible offensive stereotype about Asians.  What makes the work a tour de force, however, is the way Yang swiftly, unexpectedly and yet credibly brings together the three narratives at the end, revealing them to be linked not merely thematically but also as facets of a single unifed storyline.

  1. Nod to Artifice:  Although the cartoon format is highly contrived to begin with, Yang further heightens the sense of artifice with the framing device for his third narrative, which is presented as an American sitcom, complete with an intrusive laugh track.
  2. Iconic and Transcontexual Elements:  The most notable examples of this are the Monkey King, an icon of traditional Chinese myth transposed to a number of alien settings throughout the book, and his counterpart Chin-Kee, a montrous being uniting a host of iconically offensive elements.  Other, less prominent icons include the herbalist’s wife, who represents the archetypal figure of the wise but sinister old woman, and a wide variety of pop culture references and icons, including Transformer toys, a high school named after a racially insensitive cartoonist, a reference to American Idol non-singer William Hung, and a cartoon representation of a popular You Tube video featuring two young Asian lip-synchers.
  3. Classic Structure:  Although Yang’s triple narrative structure is nothing if not innovative and unique, the three narratives considered separately all have familiar structures –the first story is patterned after the classic myth it borrows from, the second has elements of a teenage romantic comedy, and the last is a parody of a typical sitcom episode.  In addition, the larger story arc can be considered as having a traditional three act structure, with the caveat that all three acts are presented simultaneously.
  4. Moments of Genuine Emotion and Significance:  Stripped of its trappings, the heart of “ABC” is a starkly honest story that will be both familiar and relatable to anyone who has ever sacrificed some portion of his or her identity in order to fit in –which is to say, everyone.

Reconstructivist Art: Kehinde Wiley

Artist Kehinde Wiley as an example of Reconstructivist Art.

Adries Stilte II
From Wiley’s commissioned show at the Columbus Museum of Art, which featured Columbus area subjects in the style of portraits from the museum’s permanent collection

Wiley is an African American visual artist, known primarily for his lush, full-scale portraits of young urban African-American men in poses inspired by well-known paintings from the classical Western canon.  Here’s how his work matches against the four key elements of Reconstructivist Art.

  1. The Nod to Artifice: Although Wiley’s portraits include highly realistic figures, he is known for his highly stylized backgrounds which resemble ornamental wall coverings, and which sometimes interact with the figure in ways that emphasize the artificiality of the portrayal.
  2. A Classic Structure: As noted above, Wiley’s portraits are nearly always based directly on some established work of art from the Western canon.
  3. Transcontextual and/or Iconic Elements: Both the subjects of the portraits (young urban black men in contemporary dress), and the poses taken in the portraits (based on classic portraits from bygone centuries) are iconic elements transcontextualized to the timeless, placeless ornamental space in which Wiley works.
  4. Moments of Genuine Emotion or Significance: In making his juxtapositions, Wiley compels the viewer to look beyond ingrained conceptualizations of race and class.  In doing so, he shows us the common humanity linking his contemporary subjects with their medieval counterparts, and the universality of all human experience.