Sai Clayton:  HĀFU

Published May 24th 2023
By Joe Nolan

HĀFU installation view. Photo by Sam Angel.

Linda Parrott founded Random Sample on Nashville’s west side in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021. The small white cinderblock building nestles just off Charlotte Avenue on 48th Avenue North near a row of popular vintage shops. The cozy, 555-square-foot venue hosts music and poetry performances, curates a small selection of radical books, and sells handcrafted items by local artists. With all of that in mind, Random Sample is primarily an art gallery that’s focused on supporting the work of emerging artists. And the end of the public health crisis, and exhibitions by increasingly higher profile artists finds Random Sample moving Nashville’s west side DIY creative scene into the center of the city’s contemporary art conversation.

Sai Clayton just received her BA in Visual Arts at MTSU in 2022, but she’s already a recognized mover in Nashville’s gallery scene: she’s the daughter of celebrated Nashville artist, Roger Clayton; she’s curated shows at COOP, hung in group exhibitions with Elephant Gallery and Adult Contemporary, and – full disclosure – she’s the executive director of Number, Inc. Clayton also lives in the Sylvan Park neighborhood on Nashville’s west side.

HĀFU is Clayton’s debut solo exhibition. It’s a big step for both the up-and-coming artist and the newer space at Random Sample, but the artist and the venue are more than up to the task. The display centers on Clayton’s ongoing exploration of self portraiture, but it includes a broad array of materials and techniques across textile works, painting, and printmaking as well as book projects. The show’s identity themes are familiar in this contemporary curatorial climate, but the work’s technical excellence and irreverent presentation make it a stand-out display.

Hāfu means “half” in Japanese, and it's applied to people like Clayton who are ethnically half-Japanese. Clayton’s large self portraits dominate the show. They're painted with oils on swaths of raw, unstretched canvas, and they hang like tapestries on the gallery walls. The portraits are monochrome works, primarily painted in either blue or red, and the show’s all-American color palette is both visually dramatic and slyly satirical. Self-portraiture can sometimes feel overly serious, but the informality of the installation and its playful use of red, white and blue buoys these paintings and their literally bone-deep themes.

Installation view of "HĀFU 2." Photo by Sam Angel.

Clayton's painted portraits are gorgeous and emotionally impactful, and exquisitely executed with the lightest hand. Clayton's painting is a highlight here, but HĀFU is much more complicated than a straightforward, 2D display. In her “Hāfu” series, Clayton includes three diptychs that pair canvas portraits with suspended, white silk banners that Clayton has embroidered with depictions of women wearing traditional Japanese garments with long hair. The silks hang in front of the paintings at perpendicular angles to the wall. This arrangement means that in order to look at the silks you can’t simultaneously also look at the paintings – it’s a smart bit of arranging that points to the difficulties of reconciling the expectations of tradition with the contemporaneous moment. When facing the paintings head-on, the silks bisect the images of Clayton’s face resulting in one of the exhibition’s many messages about two-sidedness. Looking at the silks from either side, viewers can observe the similarities and differences revealed by changing perspectives.

Installation view, "Face with Mask (large)." Photo by Sam Angel.

None of Clayton’s self portrait paintings include the artist’s own long black hair. Clayton considers hair to be personal, even egoic, and the bald-headed visages in HĀFU resemble more generally Asian-appearing faces. In addition to the canvas and silk diptychs, Clayton’s “Face with Mask” painted portraits are also block-printed with the design of a traditional female Noh theater mask. It’s another one of HĀFU’s playful binaries, and the interplay between Clayton’s luminous oil work with the rough, black lines of the print are a formal highlight of the exhibition. The rich black of the printed lines intensifies against the painted blues and reds, and the fact that the mask layers don’t line-up with the faces they’re covering is another irreverent touch Clayton deploys to talk about deep frustrations between our inner experience of ourselves and the constructed personas we project to the world, and that the world projects onto us.

Another highlight of the show is “Thesaurus of Self,” a book of mixed media portrait works that visitors can thumb through – it reads like a little bound exhibition unto itself. A smaller book work unfolds accordion style to reveal a hangable print. This version of “Thesaurus of Self” has been screen printed by Grand Palace and released in a limited run by Nashville indie book publisher, Renascence Books. Copies are available at Random Sample or at Renascence's Starland Emporium headquarters.

Don’t miss the HĀFU closing reception at Random Sample from 4 – 6 P.M. on Sunday, May 28