Lan ‘Florence’ Yee’s Ode to Copycats

At Zalucky Contemporary, Toronto, the artist builds on legacies of copies and proxies

BY Georgia Phillips-Amos in Exhibition Reviews | 25 JUN 24

‘Bloom into the sky I’ll climb up a ladder after you,’ writes Chinese poet Xi Chuan in his emphatic poem ‘Bloom’ (2014). At Zalucky Contemporary in Toronto, Lan ‘Florence’ Yee’s latest solo show, ‘Which Came First, the Home or the Stranger?’, likewise takes another’s path as an invitation to follow. In Orchidelirium (all works 2024), an orange textile orchid, copied from a 13th-century Song Dynasty painting by Ma Lin, rises from a stack of folded sheets of canvas. Yee’s creations are odes to add-ons, replicas, proxies, homonyms and copycats.

Lan ‘Florence’ Yee, ‘Which Came First, the Home or the Stranger?’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Zalucky Contemporary; photography: Em Moor

When we meet at the gallery to discuss the show, Yee tells me that, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, they spent time browsing the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, and began to notice a pattern in the digital archive. Of the 3,850 objects in the collection classified as being by an ‘unidentified artist’, 1,043 are from China. Many of these bear false signatures attributing the works to 12th-century masters – a practice the museum explains obliquely, in one case, as an attempt to ‘satisfy market demand for old paintings’. Yee, who is primarily known for making fabric sculptures embroidered with short texts, decided to replicate these copies with significant alterations. For instance, the branch of a peach tree and a crane’s claws remain intact along the edges of After After Shen Quan, following the digitized hanging scroll they mimic, but the centre of the painting is pure glitch: peaches melt, crane legs elongate and the scene loses solidity in translation.

Lan ‘Florence’ Yee, ‘Which Came First, the Home or the Stranger?’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Zalucky Contemporary; photography: Em Moor

Another copied canvas, entitled After Xia Gui, features a pair of pines, cropped, doubled and floating over a black background. The 13th-century artist Xia Gui often painted two trees suspended in a void. In Yee’s iteration, colourful moths, which in Cantonese culture represent visiting ancestors, hover above in trompe-l’oeil style. Twelve paper moths, all borrowed from a Qing dynasty painting by another unidentified artist, also haunt the gallery space.

Facing one another, two original paintings by Yee, A Legacy of Botany I and II, depict tangerine peels in shades of blue. Their colour, the spectral opposite of tangerine orange, echoes the blue hue which became a sought-after feature of Chinese landscape painting during the Tang dynasty and has often been replicated in forgeries. The exposed tangerine pith rhymes with the open peonies in After Yun Bing – the former’s colour bringing out the blue underpainting beneath the stretched peony petals. Where Qing dynasty painter Yun Bing’s red and white flowers are ‘boneless’, with no hard definition, Yee’s are blown out.

Lan ‘Florence’ Yee, Lucky/Empty Echo, 2024, chiffon, canvas, polyester fill. Courtesy: the artist and Zalucky Contemporary; photography: Em Moor

At Zalucky, a canvas slouched against the floor is repeatedly embroidered with the raised, orange Cantonese character . This character, Yee explains to me, means ‘lucky’, but often acts as a stand-in for ‘empty’ or ‘vacant’; motel signs advertise ‘lucky’ rather than ‘vacant’ rooms because the character for ‘empty’, , is considered a homonym of ‘evil’. The artist’s grandfather would insert a business card marked , for luck, into spaces left empty in family photo albums. It is his handwriting that Yee copies here, and the artist has one of his auspicious cards tucked into their phone case. Can a sense of absence be carried as an inheritance? Can it be imbued with luck?

‘Which Came First, the Home or the Stranger?’ offers open-ended entry points into museum collections, the works of unidentified artists and family traditions. Yee lingers in meanings formed by creative imitation and association – constantly reaching for the works of others, whether lost to history or intimately known. The artist invited along a new acquaintance – in fact, a stranger – to our meeting at the gallery, and they occasionally turned to this person for answers.

Lan ‘Florence’ Yee’s ‘Which Came First: The Home or The Stranger?’ is on view at Zalucky Contemporary, Toronto, until 20 July

Main image: Lan ‘Florence’ Yee, After Yun Bing (detail), 2024, oil on canvas. Courtesy: the artist and Zalucky Contemporary; photography: Em Moor

Georgia Phillips–Amos is a writer from New York, USA, and Málaga, Spain. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, BOMB, Border Crossings, C Magazine and The Village Voice, among others.