At 150 Wetmore

Historical Essay

by Anthony W. Lee, excerpted from Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture, A City Lights Anthology, 1998


The artistic activity in the photograph--Gee's intimate rapport with the Asian bust and the rapt attention of his colleagues--contribute to the tension in the entire public image of the Chinese Revolutionary Artists' Club, between the explicitly Modernist ambitions in the paintings and the developing ethnic identification of its members. Two cultures have met, the photograph tells us, but it is entirely unclear if the meeting was productive.

One other photograph of Gee and other Club members tells us a bit more, but not much. He is found amidst his fellow painters, modelling an impeccably clean white bust of a man. While the Club was collective in nature, the photograph tells us that Gee was often its center. The rest of the painters are ostensibly at work on their canvases, but he in fact remains their focus of attention. But it is an awkward kind of attention, which betrays a now-familiar underlying problematic. The seated painters have taken to westernized dress, their starched collars and neck ties donned even in the splattered environs of the Club's cramped studio. The standing Gee keeps to his distinctly Chinese smock, allowing the paint to coat but not strip away an outwardly ethnic identification. If the Club was indeed "Chinese" and "revolutionary," Gee was going to try to insist on what the combination of those terms at one time meant, or at least how it ought to be photographed. A revolutionary Chinese artists' club had to hold the contact of two generalized cultures, east and west, in some kind of awkward, explicit tension.

Remove Gee and his friends, and 150 Wetmore Place takes on a decidedly different appearance. For the "Chinese" quality of the Club quickly fades and does not seem to remain or reside in the artworks themselves. The sketches and drawings attached to the walls are vaguely Cubistic in style and certainly Parisian in origin. Indeed, the still-lifes of tumblers and saucers seem more suited to a studio at the Bateau-Lavoir than one in Chinatown--this, remember, in 1926, when photographs of Parisian studios amply displayed a similar ambience. "Revolutionary," the art on the walls seems to tell us, belongs more properly to certain stylistic affinities with the Ecole de Paris. Only that white bust of a man, whose features on closer inspection can be construed as Asian, may give away the studio's regular inhabitants. But even the bust's presence is not without ambiguity, for it may well stand as a convenient model for a painter of Orientalist exotica ("orientalia," as Gee once said in disdain) (Brodsky 1979, 68). Given the strange conventionality of the interior, we cannot even tell if the unfinished paintings in the background belong to the Club's seated members, since each of their canvases is turned away from us and remains strategically hidden behind the monochrome of wood support panels. Gee himself is preoccupied by the one object decidedly non-Modern...

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