Talking identity, Taiwanese breakfast, and her first solo show.
Taiwan-born, Shanghai-raised artist Jocelyn Tsaih is known for her distinct illustration style of nondescript figures often in action, leaping through the air or in the stillness of deep introspection. Her work can be found on large-scale murals sprinkled across the world and on smaller, hand-held delights in the form of zines and more recently, a hazy IPA beer label for Almanac Brewery.
Jocelyn invited me over to her Oakland apartment on a weekday afternoon. The space was bathed in sunlight, and every corner and wall had an eclectic display of art, figurines, books, and plants. Music was playing softly in the background and instantly, I felt at home.
Between growing up in Shanghai, going to international school, and returning to Taiwan to visit family, Jocelyn became aware of the different cultures that were shaping her, often with conflicting values and behaviors. “Shanghai was growing so fast when I was living there. Taiwan has a slower pace of life--whenever I go back I feel like I can breathe, being surrounded by mountains and nature.” Her exposure to various world-views and ways of living at a young age led to her constant questioning of identity and belonging, which is a subject commonly explored in her work. “I’m always reflecting on my place and identity, how that fits into the different cultures that I’m a part of.”
Despite moving to Shanghai at the age of 2, Jocelyn still finds a sense of home and familiarity in Taiwan. On visits back, her family would stay at her grandma’s apartment tucked away in an alley in New Taipei City. “It was in your typical Taiwanese alleyway, through a metal door, in a tall and narrow building with 3 to 4 floors where you had to climb steep stairs.” As she was painting this picture of her grandma’s place I couldn’t help but see my own grandma’s apartment with a nearly identical description that I, too, had stayed at year after year when I was younger. “I want to photograph her space because it’s a time capsule and it has not changed.”
It’s so easy to reminisce about Taiwan. The nostalgia of the narrow alleyways, grandma’s perfectly preserved apartment, the sweet smell of the asphalt after a sudden rain, the delicious cheap eats. The spirit and cuisine of Taiwan is still so foreign to the general American public (aside from the ever-popular boba, which many may not even realize originates from Taiwan), and finding authentic Taiwanese food is more difficult than just taking a stroll through Chinatown.
“I go out of my way to seek out food that excites me,” says Jocelyn, who stays connected to her roots through the discovery of restaurants and pop-ups that offer dishes she grew up eating. “Every time I need a Taiwanese food fix I go to Taiwan Bento,” an Oakland eatery serving casual Taiwanese meals, where her go-to order is the fried pork chop over rice - 排骨飯 (pai gu fan). Another one of her favorites is Good to Eat Dumplings, a pop-up out of Original Pattern Brewery that serves Taiwanese style dumplings called 鍋貼 (guotie) that are longer in shape and pan-fried. “I love Taiwanese breakfast and because it’s so hard to find in America, I love it even more,” a sentiment that I also feel immensely. Something so simple as hot soy milk and a fried stick of dough is so elusive and highly coveted among Taiwanese Americans on a nostalgia trip.
We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon talking about Taiwanese food--we hadn’t even delved into the infinite realm of night market eats. But something more immediate was on the horizon: Jocelyn’s first solo exhibition. “I’ve never worked on a cohesive series of paintings like this. I’ve spent a lot of hours in the studio and forced myself not to take on any new projects in June and July.” She’s really good at saying yes to all the opportunities that are presented to her, which is why her body of work is so impressive.
So how does one tackle the daunting task of a solo show? “I could do anything, right? It’s so open-ended,” which for many, is the hardest part. “I do a lot of digital illustrations that are emotional and reflective of my current state of mind, and I wanted to start funneling that into my paintings, merging the two.” The story she plans to tell is not unfamiliar from many of our own in the past year and a half. The inner turmoil and dialogues that manifested during the pandemic are the driving forces behind her paintings for the show, “It starts from a slightly sad place, but the narrative has hope because that’s where I’m at now.” Aptly titled, “Nowhere Else To Go But Within,” the show will explore her own introspective journey during this trying yet transformative time, an experience that is deeply personal but also necessary to be shared, like a gesture of collective understanding: an outreached hand, a subtle nod on the street--a reassurance that we are not alone.
What’s next for Jocelyn Tsaih, a rising star in the art world, an advocate for good eats, mental health, and the AAPI community? “I would love to do a large-scale sculpture in a public setting. I made an Instagram filter to imagine it.” Where, I ask. “Somewhere in nature, it would be a dream to have a piece in the Storm King, but I’m not picky.”
See her first solo show “Nowhere Else to Go But Within” at Glass Rice, an Asian American-owned art gallery in San Francisco.
Opening day is August 7th, 2021, from 4-7pm.
Show runs through August 28th.
“Nowhere Else to Go But Within” by Jocelyn Tsaih
808 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA 94109
August 7th - 28th