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Archive for the ‘Western contemporary art’ Category

I had not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a long time. I generally tend(ed) to just not think of it; I come into town, and I think, okay, what’s going on at the Met? What’s going on at Asia Society? What’s going on at the Rubin? What’s going on at Japan Society? But for whatever reason, I rarely ever even think about the Brooklyn Museum. But, boy was I wrong. Even with the entire China/Japan/Korea section closed for renovations until (projected) fall 2015, today’s visit was absolutely worth it.

Hearing that they were doing some kind of Ai Weiwei show, I figured I would go to check that out, and then just kind of poke around the rest of the museum. Turns out that Ai Weiwei show is a major retrospective, covering significant portions of two floors of the museum, and including many of his most famous works. But even so, that turned out to not be the stand-out highlight of the visit, since everything else was equally exciting and impressive.

Firstly, an installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, entitled “Submerged Motherlands.” I’m not even sure what to say about it, except that it took me very much by surprise, at how impressive, beautiful, and intricate it was. I don’t want to take up too much space talking about it, because this post is long enough, and I want you, dear reader, to get to at least some of the other stuff before getting bored and turning away from this tab, so, with sincere apologies for giving it short shrift, let me just link to my photos of the installation, and encourage you, if interested, to go read up about Swoon more, or keep your eyes out for other stuff she does.

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Getting into the meat of what I want to say, when I visit large encyclopedic museums, I generally put pretty low priority on the American and contemporary art sections. I know what I’m going to see there. More of the same. Very standard, canonical, mainstream stuff. But the Brooklyn Museum is different. Their modern/contemporary and American galleries highlight works relating to identity politics and different cultural perspectives in a way I don’t think I have ever seen at another museum. To see it here, I think, depicting America as a true, real, mix of cultures, and not through a singular mainstream narrative with everyone else on the peripheries, really throws into sharp relief just how little other museums do the same. Is our nation not, as Walt Whitman is quoted as saying on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s American galleries, a nation of nations? You shouldn’t have to be Brooklyn to do this; the Metropolitan represents New York, the United States, and the world, and yet it does not do this. The National Gallery and Museum of American Art, their occasional excellent special exhibits aside, do not, I don’t think, do this. And neither does LACMA, which likewise represents a very diverse, vibrant city, and yet which devotes its American/modern galleries chiefly to the likes of Rauschenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Calder – the usual suspects. And lord knows, the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Santa Barbara, while they have shown some very different things, including some work by Chicano artists, etc., lord knows they’ve never done anything that excites me.

“Avarice,” by Fernando Mastrangelo. An Aztec calendar stone, remade entirely out of corn, commenting both on the central place of corn in Mexican culture & identity, but also on the exploitation of Mexico by US agribusiness.

By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum shows Isamu Noguchi, Fred Wilson, Kehinde Wiley, Teri Greeves, as American artists, as central members of the body of artists they are showing in their American modern/contemporary galleries, not tokenizing them or showing them off to one side among “minority artists,” or “other stories,” but as central elements of the central, main, story. These are Americans. This is American art. This is American history & culture. This. is. America.

“Blossom,” by Sanford Biggers, a work about the history of lynching in this country. What do Rauschenberg, Warhol, Pollock, and all the rest say about American life, American history, American culture and identity? What political social commentary do they offer?

This attitude is evident more or less throughout the museum, with a Kehinde Wiley painting displayed prominently in the entrance lobby (where I remember seeing it also years ago), and with the main first floor exhibit being one of “A World within Brooklyn / Crossing Cultures,” in which objects from many different cultures/places and time periods are juxtaposed, in order to suggest something about the similarities, comparisons, and differences across all cultures. How do different cultures represent their world (landscapes, maps)? How do different cultures represent the human body, and ideals of beauty? On a more practical level, how do different cultures make chairs, pitchers, and other practical objects, and what similarities and differences are there in the styles, motifs, etc.?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say about Crossing Cultures. It’s a great introductory exhibit, as it includes objects from a wide range of cultures/places and time periods, representing the wide variety of the museum’s holdings without over-emphasizing any one period or culture. And it places them all on a more or less equal pedestal, inviting visitors to consider all these cultures merely as a diversity within a shared human experience, and not in a hierarchy of more or less primitive or advanced. The labels here invite the visitor to consider cross-cultural comparisons, but are rather unspecific as to more precisely what questions to ask, what comparisons to make, what conclusions to come to. I would be very curious what visitors get out of this exhibit. Because, on the one hand, it’s great to leave it open to the visitors; studies have shown that the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of museum visitors don’t “get” the message the curators intended anyway, and draw their own comparisons, conclusions, etc. But, then, on the other hand, by leaving it so open and vague, aren’t we just making it that much harder for the message to get through? Then again, maybe what I think is the message here isn’t really the message the curators intended, and maybe it’s not the only message to be gotten from this exhibit. I come to this from a certain perspective, with certain anti-Eurocentric, “rethinking the canon,” art historical and Museum Studies ideas in mind, and so it’s easy for me to see certain themes or messages and think that’s the theme or message the curators are trying to get across. But, then, maybe they’re not.

As I walked through the Crossing Cultures exhibit, I was also concerned about over-emphasizing the aesthetic. There’s a long tradition of museums in the West displaying and describing non-Western objects in a manner that encourages appreciation of them solely for their aesthetic qualities – that is, as attractive, appealing, or otherwise visually interesting to a Western eye specifically – and places value on their ability to inspire, as certain African objects inspired Picasso. The prioritizing of Western attitudes of what is and is not aesthetic, or of Western approaches to form, composition, etc., with the implication or assumption that Western ways of seeing are universal, is a classic element of Orientalist thinking, or so I’ve been taught, and is potentially quite dangerous. At the time, as I walked through the exhibit, I worried about the exhibit encouraging a more purely aesthetic comparison; but, now, as I rethink it and write this post, I think it really is also encouraging thought of comparison of usage and meaning across different cultures, which is a good thing. So, I guess the jury’s out…

In any case, by way of wrapping this up, I definitely need to visit the Brooklyn Museum more, and keep an eye on what they’re up to. I am working on a second post about my visit to the Brooklyn Museum, talking about their exhibit of African art, in comparison to that at the Metropolitan Museum. However, I’m also in Hawaii right now on a very brief stopover on my way to Japan, so, depending on what adventures come up, we shall see how quickly I get around to finishing that African art post. Thanks for reading, and have a great rest of the summer!

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Hyperallergic has a short but inciteful blog post today about the inclusion and absence of Asian-American artists in the Whitney Biennial. Since it is so short, I’ll just cite a few of the more biting quotes, and leave you to read the rest on Hyperallergic.

John Yau writes, “When the ubiquitous term “people of color” is used, does the speaker or writer also mean Asian Americans – … Or should Asian Americans simply check the box labeled “Other” and quietly and politely go – like all well-behaved Asian Americans – into the room marked INVISIBLE,” and further,

… if you are part of the art world, you live in a segregated society full of little ghettoes, with one of them being “people of color who make abstract art” and another being “Asian-American women who deal with identity.” … Is it true that if you are a person of color (black, brown, yellow or red), the only way to get into the Biennial is to make work that deals with racial identity in a way that is acceptable? Who determines that agenda? If you go by the Whitney’s curatorial choices, the answer is obvious. You have to do what white curators want or you are going to remain invisible.

I guess I’m guilty of it too, as I always have a particular fondness for Asian-American art that deals with identity, or otherwise with explicitly Asian themes… Not really sure, what’s the way out? All curators have their tastes, their preferences, the themes or styles they want to show – that’s what it means to curate. Maybe we just need to get more different curators in there, with more different interests, including more Asian-American curators.

“Come Play With Us + the War Scene” (2011), Wai Fu Lui (Kenny), BFA University of Hawaii; charcoal, pastel, plastic toy army men, hot glue on paper.

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A colophon by Dong Qichang (d. 1636), on a handscroll painting formerly attri. Dong Yuan (d. 962). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

*Stanford has placed online what appears at first glance to be a very nice guide to Classical Chinese. It starts off by going over the basics – that a given character can have many meanings, and play the role of multiple different forms of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) depending on where it is in the sentence, and the incredible importance of paying attention to character order (i.e. “word” order). The guide then goes into further detail, explaining individual particles as it leads the reader through selections from famous classical texts, including the Analects of Confucius and the writings of Mencius.

Now that I’m beginning to look through it, I’m not sure how effective self-studying from this guide, alone, might be. But, as a reference, it could be quite nice. And, especially since what little I know of Classical Chinese I learned by way of Japanese, seeing it explained, in English, without that Japanese intermediary, could also be helpful (though, weird as it might sound at first to say that I’ve studied how to read Chinese in Japanese, actually, since Japanese uses the same characters, I think it’s actually more understandable, at least for me, than going straight from Chinese to English).

*Meanwhile, on a completely different subject, as I mentioned briefly in my previous post, there was a massive spill, or leak, of hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses into Honolulu Harbor, on Sept 9.

Right: Not a picture of the spill, but just a photo I took, some years ago, of the city.

Though molasses is, essentially, just sugar, and though one might therefore assume that it shouldn’t be such a problem, an NPR report explains that the molasses somehow pulls the oxygen out of the water, suffocating the marine life. And, since it sinks to the bottom rather than floating on the surface as an oil spill would, it is far more difficult to clean up. Plus, this particular part of the harbor is relatively shielded from ocean currents, meaning that the natural flow and exchange of water between the harbor and the ocean will not, on its own, clean up the spill for years. One report I read, though I can’t quite remember where, said it could be decades before the ecosystem revives back to the levels it was at before this spill, a spill which some are calling the worst environmental disaster in the history of the State of Hawaii. A Hawaii Public Radio report by my friend Molly Solomon tells us that Matson – the company running the molasses pipeline – knew about the leak a year ago, but did not take proper action to see it fixed; the report discusses briefly the possibilities for liabilities, lawsuits, or fines that Matson may face.

*Much thanks to BoredPanda, for sharing with us a series of photos of Costumes of Still-Practiced Pagan Rituals of Europe. I quite enjoy traditional costume, especially festival performance costume, from many different cultures, but, while we may enjoy “privilege” in a great many other aspects of our lives, one place where those of us of European descent get shafted is in having a national costume, or traditional dress, to dress up in when occasion allows. It’s beautiful and wonderful to see these examples of a deeper, older, cultural tradition still practiced in Europe which goes beyond the multitude of things that, beautiful, interesting, traditional, cultural though they may be, are unavoidably seen as utterly typical, normal, today.

*Switching gears yet again, The Justice, the student newspaper at Brandeis University, reports on the myth & history of Usen Castle. Now, I know this may be of little interest to anyone who didn’t go to Brandeis, but, here’s the story in a nutshell: we have a castle on campus. It is of course not a “real” castle, and, I think, looks it, when you consider the conical fairy-tale turret-toppers and such. But, it’s still really cool, and I’m still sad I never got to live there (it’s a sophomores-only dorm, and I didn’t make it into the Castle in the housing lottery that year).

Getting to the point, as at any college campus, a number of rumors and stories swirl around Brandeis campus about the true origins and history of the castle, some of them perpetrated and perpetuated by admissions tour guides and other official sources. In most accounts, the castle is said to have been based on a specific castle in Scotland (never named, or specified, in the story), which the campus architect saw and liked, but to which he was denied entry, and as a result, the castle looks like a castle on the outside, but follows a less than standard plan on the inside. I’ve also heard stories about it being formerly used as an animal hospital, and about Eleanor Roosevelt having lived there at some point. This week’s Justice article banishes these myths and gives the real story.

*The BBC reports on a recent large-scale public art project in which the silhouettes of 9000 bodies were created on a Normandy beach, a simple but powerful visual reminder of what took place there in June 1944, and just how many people lost their lives on that beach. As one of the organizers/artists is quoted as saying, “”All around us there are relics of the Second World War, but the one thing that is missing are the people that actually died.”

The silhouettes were created simply by disturbing the sand within roughly body-shaped stencils – the disturbing of the sand itself, I realize as I write this, gives a sort of symbolism of the project disturbing the beach, disturbing the peace the beach sees today, disturbing its current modern-day identity, and disturbing our own, what’s the word, our glazing over in our awareness of the battle. Of course, everyone knows of the storming of the beaches of Normandy, but how many of us have ever really given thought to the level of the violence, the number of the bodies, right there on that beach?

We are forced – powerfully, violently – to remember. And then, the tide came in, and washed away the entire artwork.

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Just a few things that have come up this week.

*Korea’s National Treasure Number One, Seoul’s Namdaemun (“South Great Gate”), severely damaged by an arsonist in 2008, has been reopened to the public after a US$24 million restoration project.

*Speaking of heritage issues, the New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Museum has agreed to return a pair of statues to Cambodia after Cambodian officials presented clear evidence that the statues had been taken out of the country illegally in the 1970s.

I find it heartening that the Cambodian Secretary of State is quoted as saying “This shows the high ethical standards and professional practices of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which they are known for.” It is wonderful to see the Metropolitan characterized in such a positive manner, as a potential partner and not as an adversary or obstacle.

*Meanwhile, on the subject of museums, there are apparently plans for a giant bubble to be installed at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn sculpture museum, seasonally, serving as a decidedly (post-?)modernist additional gallery space.

The Smithsonian Magazine article I found discussing this (thanks for the heads up, dad!) expresses concerns that the plan may not fly, as DC, the very model of a bureaucratic city, loves its drab grey concrete too much, and similarly creative contemporary-looking sort of projects have failed in the past. I guess only time will tell if it does manage to go through.

*On a separate subject, a recent blog post posted by the Queens Museum of Art invites us to consider social activist artistic practice, and the questions of what makes it “art”? and Why call it art?

Simply protest? Or Art?

There may be a standard term out there in the scholarly or art critic discourse for this precise type of art, but if there is, I do not know it. What this Queens Museum blog post, and I, are referring to is engaging in flat-out social activist activities — whether it be a protest poster, a march or sit-in, a stand where you sell or give away something in order to raise awareness for a cause, organizing communal/public vegetable gardens, or volunteering at, e.g. a soup kitchen or hospital — and then calling it “art” or “artistic practice.”

This is only extremely tentative, but my initial reaction was to, first, say that one key element is simply whether or not it is called “art” by its creators/organizers, and whether it is called “art” by critics or scholars. I think the difference is largely in how it is conceptualized. One person might engage in a given action or activity out of (more or less) purely political motives; she might make all organizational, logistical, and aesthetic decisions about the project based chiefly on how effective they will be towards successfully achieving the political goal. And others might see this activity, and might analyze it, describe it, through a political or social sciences lens. And then someone else might engage in precisely the same activity, but might choose to see the performative and discursive aspects of the act itself as being of chief importance over (or equal with) the success of the political aims. This person might call themselves an artist, and call what they are doing “artistic practice.” And others might examine the act, conceptualize it, describe it, in terms of art, aesthetics, or performance. Somewhere in there, I think, may be the answer. Not solely, simply, a matter of calling it art or not calling it art, but, truly, conceiving of it and conceptualizing its meaning differently, on a very fundamental basis.

Or, to touch upon a slightly different perspective of a closely related interpretation, perhaps what separates it is simply its cleverness and intertextuality. A protest that is powerfully clear in its targets, its aims, and its methods, may be art in the sense of the argument that everything is art, because everything contains aesthetic and performative aspects, and deeper meanings. But, when a social act is not clear in its targets, its aims, or its methods, when its purpose or meaning is not readily apparent, but requires some interpretation, discursive or intertextual references, or the like in order to understand – in short, when it’s clever – does that make it more strongly, more definitively, “art”?

As for the other question — why call it art? What does the person classifying it as such have to gain (or to lose)? — I leave it open.

What do you think? What makes an act of social engagement or protest “art”? What distinguishes it from purer, “non-art,” forms of social or political engagement?

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I didn’t realize that I had so much to say about this exhibit, especially since I said so much already before even seeing the exhibition. But, since the review I posted yesterday ended up being so long, I broke it off and am now writing a Part Two, focusing on prominent Japanese-American artist Roger Shimomura.

Shimomura is, of course, one of the real stars of the show. Or, at least, it is to me, as I’ve heard of him before and really like his work. Much of the media for this show focuses on his piece Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, and I have already discussed it myself, too, so I’ll keep it limited. But, just two things about it that make that piece even more incredible than I thought originally – one, that the silhouette of the original piece (George Washington and friends, in their boat) can be seen in the background, a seemingly minor detail, perhaps, which actually alters the narrative of the piece fairly dramatically. Shimomura is not replacing Washington, after all, but only upstaging him. Throughout American history, Asian-Americans have been, essentially, also-rans, or footnotes. Here, Shimomura places himself in the forefront and in the spotlight, implying something about a narrative of American history in which Washington and his ilk are still present, and still play out their important and influential historical roles, but in which Asian-Americans are shown to be Americans as well, to be present in the narrative. On a second note, I really like that Shimomura made his piece on roughly the same scale as the original now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum. It gives his piece grandeur, power, and impact, and also, if we want to read into it, says something about his piece, himself, and Japanese-Americans, Asian-Americans in general, not being smaller or lesser.


In some of the other pieces included in the exhibition, Shimomura addresses American stereotypes of Japanese, along two different lines. In American Hello Kitty and American Pikachu, Shimomura incorporates a self-portrait into the iconic cartoon characters, commenting, I guess, on American associations of Japan with anime (above all else). Frankly, I’m not quite sure exactly what he’s going for here. Is it meant to be a criticism? Is it a bad thing to associate Japan primarily/chiefly with anime? The Japanese government has been actively pushing quote-unquote “Cool Japan” for the last several years, as part of a concerted effort to expand Japanese soft power, and to thereby increase pro-Japan sentiments. Would Shimomura prefer that we associate Japan instead with negative things? That is, unless Shimomura’s whole point is not about Japan, but is instead about how we associate Japanese-Americans with Japanese culture rather than with American identity. If that’s it, that makes a lot more sense… especially in consideration of the themes of his other works.


Another set of works, titled American vs Japs and American vs Japs 2 depict Shimomura, painted relatively realistically, punching and kicking cartoonish stereotypical “Japs” drawn in the style of 1940s American propaganda. My kneejerk reaction is to see this as a terribly outdated battle. It’s not the 1940s anymore, and depictions of Japan in US mass media today doesn’t resemble this propaganda at all. Yet, on second thought, I realize that there are far too many in this country who, sadly, have not gotten the memo, and still hold onto completely outdated notions of anti-Japanese hatred. Comments of “that was for Pearl Harbor” and the like, as well as much worse vitriol, have appeared in disgustingly vast numbers on Internet forums and the like during US-Japan sporting events, and, perhaps most upsettingly of all, during the 3/11 disaster. Is this what Shimomura is fighting against? Actually, I kind of doubt it. Perhaps he’s more fighting that he (and other Americans) be the target of these attitudes, moreso than actually fighting against those attitudes existing. This is just my guess, based on his personal history of having been imprisoned in the WWII-era Internment Camps, and all the surrounding issues of Japanese-Americans as loyal Americans, being continually seen as not American enough, or as still foreign. I don’t know how much Shimomura has any real connections with Japan… from what little I know about him and his work, he’s much more focused on Japanese-American issues.

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I posted a while ago about an exhibition of Asian-American art being held at the National Portrait Gallery in DC, and lamented that I wasn’t going to be around during the two months it was going to be showing. Well, it turns out that I misread the dates – Portraiture Now! Asian American Portraits of Encounter” didn’t run for two months; it runs for a year and two months, closing Oct 14, 2012.

So, when I walked into the National Portrait Gallery / American Art Museum a week ago to see the Art of Video Games exhibition, I was extremely pleasantly surprised that I was going to get to see this great Asian-American art show. Sadly, I once again have no photos to share with you; but, even if I did, as is so often the case with artworks, there are significant elements of the experience of seeing the works in-person that just cannot be captured on digital film. Some of the pieces, such as Roger Shimomura’s Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, are quite large, and so have quite an impact by their size and scale. Others, such as Shizu Saldamando’s works, painted on bare wood, are so much more beautiful and intriguing when their varied textures are seen in person. There is something cooly beautiful about plain, bare wood, and as smooth as it may be, contrast with the sleek shine of oil paints and gold leaf brings out the slightly rough and matte texture of the wood.


Zhang Chun Hong, who I don’t believe I mentioned in my previous post on the exhibit, is represented by a series of works in charcoal on paper hanging scrolls. Each depicts the long, flowing tresses of an Asian(-American) woman, combining the aesthetics of traditional Chinese ink painting with an astonishing idealized realism, in the individual fine strands of hair, and careful attention to how light reflects off of it. One of these pieces, titled My Life Strands, is meant to suggest the twists of one’s hair as symbol or metaphor for the twisting path one takes through life, from youth into adulthood. Another is titled Cyclone, a reference to Hong’s current base of operations in Lawrence, Kansas; though we may joke about Kansas being the middle of nowhere, the University of Kansas, based in that same town of Lawrence, along with its on-campus museum, are actually known as a major center for studying Asian art. In fact, Roger Shimomura, another artist featured in this exhibit, is also based in Lawrence (and teaches at U of K).

A massive series of photos by Korean-American artist CYJO takes up the entirety of the corridor (for the length of the exhibit; other exhibits lay beyond). Her KYOPO Project consists of over 200 photographs, each depicting a Korean-American individual, simply standing in front of a plain, simple background. Each is accompanied by a short statement, excerpted from interviews with the individual, commenting on their personal relationship with their identity as “Korean-American” or “Korean & American.” Each photo individually is a rather plain piece, but in aggregate they provide a fascinating glimpse into the incredible diversity of the Korean-American community(ies) and complexity of individuals’ identities. And, of course, as one might expect, what these people relate is perfectly translatable to the experience of any one of us. It’s about the specifics of the Korean / Korean-American circumstance, sure, but nearly everything here is equally applicable whether you’re Greek-American, Vietnamese-American, or Armenian-American. All of us have a side to our identity that’s “American,” that makes us feel at home within an American cultural context, i.e. when surrounded by other Americans, yet which sets us apart as different when in the land (or culture) of our ancestors, whether it be Peru, France, or Korea. And all of us have a side of ourselves that sets us apart from other Americans, and which makes us feel at home within the specific cultural context of our heritage, whether that be in Chinatown, at a Russian Orthodox Church, at a Japan Society event, or at a relative’s quinceañera.

There was a time when my biggest wish was to be as “American” as I could. When looking different first became a source of rejection, in some ways I rejected my heritage. But now that I’ve grown and started to raise my own family, I feel an undeniable sense of gratitude to my parents and the values they worked so hard to instill in me, values shaped by a country half a world away. I’ll always be grateful to America for being a place where part of what it means to be a proud American is the ability to be openly proud of being Korean.

I wish I had taken more notes about individuals’ lives and messages, but I remember some of the general trends. I read about people who felt extremely close to their Korean identity, and others with more or less no connection to Korea. Many resented their parents for not being able to speak better English, and had little interest in Korean culture when they were young, thinking it strange, embarrassing, old-fashioned, or just plain lame insofar as that American popular culture was the very definition of “cool”; it was only when they were older that they came to appreciate the Korean side of their heritage and identity. Many regretted not speaking Korean more fluently, or lamented how being Korean-American means always being thought of as “Korean” when among [non-Korean-]Americans, being seen as “American” when in Korea, and never really fitting in in either place. These are stories that I think many of us can relate to; the stories of the many people pictured share many common threads, collectively weaving together a colorful picture of the Korean-American experience. But, there was great diversity as well. Some were blond; some were adopted. One gentleman was, if I remember correctly, African-American, but adopted and raised by white parents in Korea, making him, actually, much closer to Korea as his home and as his culture than many of the Americans of Korean descent raised in the United States. Korean-American Esther Park Goodhart is a comedian, and Hebrew teacher at four different schools, and describes herself in her statement as “Queen of the Jews.” And Jun Choi spoke about being elected mayor of Edison, NJ, a beautiful example of the diversity and ideals of America, in how a young Korean-American man can be elected mayor in a primarily white/black/Hispanic city with no sizable Korean community. (Edison was 1.63% Korean according to the 2000 Census.) I imagine that if I were more involved and connected with Korean-American communities, I might recognize more prominent figures amongst those featured here, but as is I was excited to see Greg Pak and Daniel Dae Kim.

CYJO’s installation reminds me of a video on display at the Center for Jewish History here in New York as part of an exhibition on the history of Jews in New York (until Dec 31, 2012). In it, we see interviews with a handful of members of the community sharing their thoughts on what it means to be a New York Jew. Personally, I thought this video, and indeed the whole exhibit, fascinating, though I wonder how many others would. Korean-Americans are perpetually seen as different, as immigrants, and while that in itself is a problem that I believe many of the artists in “Portraiture Now!” address, I do think that this makes the Korean-American experience an interesting one for many people. I don’t want to get into the discourses of the “model minority,” or the touchy political complexities of how Koreans might be viewed (in general / stereotypically) in American society, i.e. those things that make Korean-Americans, perhaps, a perfect group to show in this exhibition. But, I really wonder, if this series of photographs depicted Jewish-Americans rather than Korean-Americans, what kind of attention would the (Jewish-American) artist receive? What kind of response would the exhibit receive? Would it even be shown? This may be controversial, but I have a sense that people think the Jewish story has already been told, or that because we are (most of us) white, that our story doesn’t matter, or that we don’t have a story, or that purely by virtue of being white we are either not immigrants, or that we are part of the privileged minority and thus can’t be considered a “minority.” Then, too, of course, there are all the complexities added in by the political controversies regarding Israel, and the complex of anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews having too much power, too much money, too much influence. I don’t know how far anti-Korean sentiment might go here in the US, but I do know that there are whole swaths of society that would react negatively to the suggestion of anything asking them to identify with Jews, or to think the Jewish story worth hearing, or to think the Jewish story an integral part of the American story. … I see the connections. I look at Korean-American stories and think of my own stories. But as much as I would love to see an exhibition addressing the diversity of Jewish-American identity in this same way, I don’t think it can, or would, be shown, or would receive as positive (or at worst, neutral) a response as it being done with Korean-Americans, as part of an exhibit of Asian-American art. What do you think?

“Portraiture Now! Asian American Portraits of Encounter” shows at the National Portrait Gallery at Washington DC’s Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro stop until October 14, 2012. Admission is free.
More about this exhibit, here, within the next couple days.

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If only this exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC) had opened a week or two earlier, I could have seen it in person. As I sit here at my desk at the East-West Center in Honolulu it seems crazy that just a week ago I was sitting at a desk in the Smithsonian.

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter” opens today at the National Portrait Gallery (not to be confused with the National Gallery of Art, which is not part of the Smithsonian), and runs through October 14. The exhibit features works by a small handful of Asian-American (or Asian residents in the US) contemporary artists, which touch upon questions of identity, especially as it pertains to being Asian or Asian-American in America.

Roger Shimomura is one artist I have discussed previously; during World War II, he and his family were interned in internment camps, purely for the “crime” of having been of the same ethnic descent as those who attacked our country on December 7, 1941, and with whom we were now at war. .. Like many who suffered that injustice, Shimomura continues to speak out, so to speak, through his art, about those events. I am not familiar with a broad range of his works, but a couple I mentioned in my post about Shimomura a few years ago stand out as particularly biting, and amusing, if I may use that word, in the jabs they make at the assumptions and attitudes behind the institution of that Japanese-American relocation. To take one example, a work titled “Shadow of the Enemy” depicts the shadow, against a shed, of a pigtailed girl playing jump-rope.

One of the works by Shimomura featured now in this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a sort of spoof of the famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware. In it, Shimomura addresses a different, but strongly related, problem faced by Japanese-Americans (and Asian-Americans more broadly) in the United States. Namely, the idea of the Asian(-American) as the perpetual foreigner. I must admit that I too am guilty of perpetuating this discourse, that is, of having difficulty seeing people of Asian descent as being just as “American” as those of European descent. We see people with Asian features, and we, at the very least, think of them as Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, with the “-American” very much secondary in our subconscious (or conscious) assessment of who we think of them as. We may assume they don’t speak English, or even if we don’t quite make that assumption, we are surprised and a little thrown off when someone’s accent, speech patterns, body language, etc. are wholly American, no different from those of an American of non-Asian (read: white, European) ancestry.

Image from BBC News, (c) Roger Shimomura

So, in “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware,” the artist has the famous scene re-enacted in ukiyo-e style – bright colors, line drawing, a relatively flat description of space, not incorporating techniques of light & shadow, illusion of three-dimensionality, or linear perspective. The figures, in Colonial Revolutionary Army garb or the like in the original, are now kabuki characters copied from the style of Sharaku, with samurai top-knots and kimono. Washington himself is represented with a self-portrait of Shimomura, looking a bit like Colonel Sanders, but in any case, more to the point looking (presumably) rather like himself, dressed up as Washington. The piece, I suppose, presents an idea that Japanese(-Americans) are inherently so foreign that any situation they exist in is itself foreign as well. That Japanese(-Americans) do not exist in the same America that we do, that they don’t wear the same clothes, that they are somehow fundamentally different creatures. That they don’t even occupy the same world of linear perspective, light & shadow, and oil painting realism as “real” Americans, but instead perpetually belong to a world of a wholly different style and aesthetic – one of exaggerated features in line drawing with fields of bright color, etc.

However we wish to phrase precisely what it is the work does and how it does it – and I am sure that Mr. Shimomura, the NPG curators, and others, would each have a different way of expressing what is going on here – I think that the piece definitely does bring to the fore this issue of the perception of Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners. I’d be curious and interested to see a piece done in the opposite manner, incorporating Japanese faces and figures into the Washington piece just as it originally was – in oils, with colonial-era costume and all the standard techniques of realism – addressing the issue from the opposite point of view. Rather than painting the stereotype, and in doing so challenging it, what if Shimomura (or someone else) were to challenge it by painting against the stereotype, and depicting freedom fighters in the Revolution as including people of East Asian descent, suggesting the idea that we all hold equal claim to the heritage of the identity of being Americans? After all, my skin may be Caucasian peachy white, but I am myself the grandson of immigrants of Jewish Polish/Russian ancestry, not the descendant of English colonists, and I have been raised to feel fully and truly American; so if I can claim the Revolution as my own, as part of my identity, why do we continue to think, on some level, consciously or unconsciously, that those of Asian descent cannot?

The exhibition also includes works by Satomi Shirai and Shizu Saldamando, whom I had not previously heard of, along with a number of other artists who are new to me.

Photograph by Satomi Shirai. From satomishirai.com.

The works of Satomi Shirai, a zaibei (resident in the US) Japanese artist featured in the show, are mostly photographs of herself in presumably staged compositions, relating in one way or another to anxieties or feelings, or identity issues, she confronts after moving from Japan to New York City. Many depict a messy situation in her New York apartment, either piles of clothes in the bedroom, or piles of dishes and other things on the kitchen counters.

In several photographs, the subject (presumably Shirai herself, though I can’t be sure) is in a state of undress, or half-undressed, with her back to the camera, a pile of clothing nearby. Do the clothes represent trying on different identities, or dressing up to fit in? Her body language as she tries on a red dress seems to indicate uncertainty, as she looks downwards, either at herself in the dress, or at the pile of clothes beneath her. If the clothes represent taking on an American identity, or dressing up in American fashions, then perhaps she is uncertain about whether or not this suits her, whether she likes it, whether American identity “works” on her.

In many of the pieces, the subject’s face is not visible to the viewer – either the subject is facing away from the camera, as in this work, or their head is cropped out. This is not the case consistently for all of Shirai’s pieces, however, so I am not sure if anything can really be said about it as a conscious, meaningful, move.

All together, her pieces seem to simply document life in an apartment in Queens, and the effort to adapt to a new place, a new life. Some seem more staged and unreal, such as one in which fruit peels are scattered across the floor in what seems a perfectly staged, composed composition, and others are blatantly not scenes in New York, such as those in tatami-lined rooms. Were the beach photos taken in New York somewhere? (Coney Island, perhaps?)

I’m not sure what I have to say, what interpretations might be made of these works, but Shirai definitely seems to have a knack for making the everyday into an artistic composition. Scenes of her drilling to install shelves or just sitting around reading a book have a clarity and sharpness that you rarely see in truly amateur photography (e.g. my own point-and-shoot digital photography), and a sense of composition, with diagonals and foreground and background and such that one would expect to see in a perfectly planned out painting. I wish I could attend this exhibit and learn more about the artist, her process and techniques, and her ideas and intentions.

“Cat and Cam.” Shizu Saldamando. Oils and gold leaf on found screen.

Meanwhile, half-Japanese half-Mexican Shizu Saldamando produces highly detailed & realistic portraits of her friends and family, mainly in colored pencil or ballpoint pen. We see the fashions and lifestyle of a typical Hispanic neighborhood, seen in leather jackets, drinking liquor out of a plastic bag, tattoos, and souped-up cars. He makes use of glitter and holograms to reflect the aesthetics of the Quinceañera, something that I personally feel is way over the top in terms of makeup and dress and all the things surrounding it – not unlike Long Island Bar Mitzvahs.

But, anyway, what is of particular interest for me is the series of works in which she incorporates more Japanese themes. In “Cat and Carm,” part of her “Stay Gold” series, Saldamando portrays her friends in a highly realistic manner, in oil paints, against a gold leaf background – essentially exactly the background that would be used in a traditional Japanese folding screen painting. Another work from the series, “Carm’s Crew,” also uses gold leaf and oil paints, but incorporates as well the Rising Sun motif.

The works of these three artists alone do a great job of representing the diversity within the Japanese-American community, the diversity of experience for Japanese & Japanese-Americans in the US. Combined with the other artists in the exhibition, I’m sure it must be really something. If any of you get the chance to see it, report back and let me know what you thought of it.

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