BERNICE LEE BING
By Flo Oy Wong
When Bernice Lee Bing entered the San Francisco Bay Area art scene in the 1960s she was a pioneer from a predominantly conservative ethnic culture. She searched for visual articulation as a “minority in a majority art world.”1 Her paintings engaged viewers in an esoteric world, affirming the transformation of formalist considerations to statements of poetical abstraction. Before Bing, a few Asian American West Coast artists focused on Zen (Saburo Hasegawa, Paul Horiuchi) and worked toward abstraction in their painting (Leo Walledor, Carlos Villa). Among them was Bing’s mentor, Hasegawa.Bing emerged during an era when Asian American artists were considered successful; 2 studying with Richard Diebenkorn and Hasegawa at the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in Oakland, California. She responded strongly to Hasegawa’s “dreamy abstract” 3 calligraphy, which was Zen-inspired. That inspiration seeded her interest in Asian poetry, which later culminated in abstract paintings. Bing received critical attention for these paintings at her first one-person exhibition in San Francisco in 1961.
At the age of seven, Bing received recognition from her grandmother for her drawings. That acknowledgment initiated Bing’s search for the creative process that would define her life. While Bing harbored other childhood dreams, she ultimately chose the path of the painter. Upon graduation from the San Francisco Art Institute with a BFA and an MFA, Bing continued to experiment with abstract painting and the incorporation of Zen and calligraphy within her oeuvre, immediately attracting critical attention from Artforum in 1963. She forged ahead to study Eastern and Western psychological and philosophical thought in order to grow through contemplative study. At Mayacamas Vineyards, drawn to the magnificence of nature, Bing voraciously studied the work of C. G. Jung, embracing his concept of the spiritual aspects of visual work. She subsequently painted a Mayacamas series for which she received another Artforum review in 1964. As an artist in t he first residential program at Esalen (1967-68), a center for parapsychology and religious philosophy, Bing absorbed herself in exploration levels of the unconscious mind. She reached for the essence of self through the deconstruction of superficialities. 4 Psychological dialogues entered into her artistic consciousness, motivating Bing to paint a work entitled Big Sur , which symbolized breaking through to the core of her inner self.
These experiences at Esalen took Bing further away from her traditional Chinese environment, where family and cultural dynamics discouraged explorations of self, toward Western culture’s emphasis on the individual. Bing transformed this cultural intersection in her paintings to create synergistic threads of fluidity/rigidity and dark/light.
In the 1970s, Bing returned to San Francisco to organize within the community. She established the first Asian American art festival and created a workshop to give children in Chinatown (her birthplace) art-making skills during a particularly violent time in the community. Later, in the 1980s, Bing became the director of the South of market Cultural Center (SOMAR) and executive director of Friends of Support Services for the Arts. This five-year period of community activism left bing with little time to paint Weary, in 1984 Bing took a sojourn to her ancestral homeland of China, studying calligraphy and painting at the Zhejiang Academy in Haugzhou. The studies refueled her creativity.
At home in rural Philo, California (Mendocino County) in 1985, Bing practiced calligraphy to create intensity of light in landscape. This led to the 1991-92 Quantum series, a renaissance in her painting career. An exhibition renaissance occurred as well. Bing was invited in the late 1980s by the Asia Heritage Council, 5in collaboration with the Triton Museum of Art, to exhibit once again in t he Northern California region. In 1995, Bing’s work was included in With New Eyes: Towards An Asian American Art History in the West, a significant historical survey of Asian Pacific American artists from 1860 to 1965.
Throughout her life, Bernice Lee Bing has always expanded her creative dialogue. Following a path of unknowing, she explored creatively through painting. She philosophically integrated the Chinese and American segments of her character, advocating spirituality and a sense of giving. Through her compelling ability to paint, her strength of character, her ability to visualize a dual heritage, and her influence on younger Asian American women artists, Berice Lee Bing has claimed her place in contemporary American art history.
1.Mayumi Tsutakawa, “The Asian American West Coast, 1945 to 1965; A Renaissance in Painting, Sculpture, Ceramics, Textiles and Photography,” in With New Eyes, Exh.cat., September 1995.
3. Moira Roth, “A Narrative Chronology,” in Bernice Bing, exh. cat., Visibility Press, September 1991.
5. The Asian Heritage Council, a northern-California-based arts agency, organized Completing the Circle: Six Artists in collaboration with the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, California. The exhibition originally was scheduled to show in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China, but was canceled because of the 1989 Tian’anmen Massacre. It was subsequently shown in Northern California in 1990 and 1992.
Women’s Caucus for Art
1996 Honor Award to Bernice Bing
Bernice Bing: an essay
by Flo Oy Wong