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One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now

September 19, 2007 - December 23, 2007

Xavier Cha: Crystal Ball (poster from Human Advertisement Series), 2004; C-print; 18 x 24 in.; courtesy of the artist and Taxter & Spengemann, New York.

Glenn Kaino: Graft (salmon), 2006; shark skin, thread, salmon skin, plastic; 36 x 12 x 4 in.; collection of the artist; photo SJK, courtesy of The Project, New York.

Mari Eastman: Bird on Flowering Spray: Porcelain Cup, Chieng-lung Period (1736–1750), 2004; acrylic on canvas; 40 1/2 x 43 1/2 in.; collection of Rosette Delug; photo by Robert Wedemeyer, courtesy of Karyn Lovegrove Gallery.

Ala Ebtekar: Elemental, 2004 (detail); mixed media installation; dimensions variable; collection of the artist; photo courtesy of the artist.

Indigo Som: China Garden, Yazoo City, Mississippi, from the series Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South, 2004–05; digital pigment print; 34 x 34 in.; photo courtesy of the artist.

Saira Wasim: New World Order, 2006; gouache and gold on wasli paper; 6 1/4 x 10 1/4 in.; private collection; photo by Haroon Chaudhry, courtesy of the artist.

One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now brings together seventeen artists from across the country who challenge and extend the category of Asian American art. Most of the artists grew up in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, and the diversity of their work highlights boundless influences, from a wide array of art historical practices to popular culture touchstones, drawing on both local and international references. The exhibition was organized by the Asia Society Museum in New York, and conceived by its director, Melissa Chiu; Susette S. Min, assistant professor of Asian American studies and art history at UC Davis; and Karin Higa, senior curator of art at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. As Chiu has said, the exhibition was “born from a desire to evaluate an Asian American sense of self . . . and to focus attention on, and increase our understanding of, the individualism that comprises an Asian American cultural imagination.” The exhibition includes artists with roots in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Iran, Singapore, and the Philippines; with such geographic and cultural diversity, there can be no such thing as a collective definition of the constituency called Asian American. One Way or Another offers individual expressions that resonate with an internalized sense of Asian American identity to reflect, whether overtly or obliquely, upon the complex, ever-expanding, dynamic Asian diaspora.

Michael Arcega updates Noah’s Ark in Eternal Salivation, replete with exotic animal jerky in lieu of the animals themselves. The work engages Christian symbolic references with its play between “salivation” and “salvation” and its materially inventive gesture toward preservation—of body, spirit, or food. Xavier Cha works across many disciplines, combining sculpture and costume design with impromptu performance, video, and installation. For Human Advertisement Series she performs in the guise of a shrimp (for a sushi restaurant), a giant fingernail (for a nail salon), and a crystal ball (for a fortune teller), spoofing stereotypical Asian businesses. In Patty Chang’s video A Chinoiserie out of the Old West, actors read a translation of a magazine article written by cultural theorist Walter Benjamin about Anna May Wong, the first notable Chinese American film actress. His language is at times poetic and ornamental, his delivery occasionally halting, literalizing Chang’s ongoing interest in issues of “translation and transculturation at the advent of sound film.” Binh Danh marries image to landscape and place quite literally, transferring personal and historic photographs photosynthetically to the surface of freshly cut leaves. In his series Life: Dead, the artist adds the names of soldiers fallen in the Vietnam War as subtitles to his works, individualizing what has become in our minds an enormous collective death.

Mari Eastman paints imagery culled from sources as varied as magazines, books, illustrations, fabric patterns, and her own photos. Her use of airbrushing, accented with glitter and pastel washes, casts a romantic filter on reality, riffing on the stylistic mass reproduction of traditional Chinese motifs or Rococo orientalism and, more broadly, on the gap between the imagined ideal and unmediated reality. Ala Ebtekar’s installation Elemental merges the disparate influences of historic Iranian coffeehouse culture and contemporary American hip-hop culture. Ebtekar sees parallels between the marginalized voices expressed in the populist narratives and folk aesthetic of coffeehouse painting and the rhythmic storytelling of rap and visual punch of graffiti and hip-hop fashion. Chitra Ganesh’s paintings and murals are dreamlike evocations that layer visual references to Hindu and other mythologies, graphic novels, and zines with inspiration from lyric poetry and Bollywood music. These hybrid narratives explore the expression of gender and the role of sex and violence in both folklore and contemporary culture.

Glenn Kaino’s Graft comprises a pair of taxidermic animals whose forms are hybrids of mismatched body and skin—in one the skeleton of a salmon appears in the guise of a shark, in the other a pig wears a cow’s hide. The embedded conflict between each animal’s internal and external identity challenges fixed notions of self. Geraldine Lau’s site-specific vinyl mural employs the visual language of nautical cartography, charting histories of both Chinese immigration patterns and British colonial trade routes to narrate an abstracted journey of migration in relation to her native Singapore.

Jiha Moon’s otherworldly paintings imagine “places where opposite dreams coexist,” where Eastern and Western motifs merge and coalesce within a swirling ephemeral landscape. Moon invokes unique allegorical associations with the inscription of mythological imagery and pop culture symbolism like Hello Kitty and Pac-Man. Laurel Nakadate’s videos chronicle her chance encounters with strangers—specifically single, middle-aged men. In tandem, they script constructed narratives to play out in the men’s personal spaces, enacting dramas that engage with issues of voyeurism, exhibitionism, discomfort, isolation, and folly. Kaz Oshiro’s sculptures are deadpan copies of banal objects—kitchen cabinets, trash cans, mini-fridges—that, on close inspection, reveal themselves as assemblages of trompe-l’oeil paintings, surfaced with auto repair putty and meticulously painted. Their geometric forms recall Minimalist art, but their exactitude references the legacy of Pop art and the limits of replication. Anna Sew Hoy’s sculptures evince a sensitivity to texture and materiality in complexly interwoven forms or curious juxtapositions of found elements. Her interest in the balance of contrasting visual elements recalls the Japanese tradition of ikebana, but she is equally influenced by the overload of detritus in everyday life and the notion of disharmonic beauty that condition implies.

Jean Shin’s site-specific installation Unraveling visualizes the web of interrelationships among members of the Asian American arts community. The artist unravels sweaters, donated by individuals in each city to which the exhibition travels, reassembling their brightly colored yarns into a dynamic installation that literalizes the dense social network of affinities. Indigo Som travels the American South photographing Chinese restaurants, which she sees as “the most pervasively visible and yet unacknowledged” presence of Chinese Americans in the United States. For Som, these sites transcend their Chineseness, serving also as “anachronistic holdouts,” often the only mom-and-pop establishments in the commercial landscape. Mika Tajima’s installation works engage with histories of design and architecture and their relation to Modernism’s formal purity and utopian ideals. Extruded Plaid extends the familiar pattern of gridded, hatched lines into three dimensions with intersecting planes of Plexiglas. This formal remix of found material is mirrored by a sonic remix performed by the artist inside the structure. Saira Wasim’s works offer commentary on the “social and political issues that divide the modern world,” exquisitely rendered in the miniature-painting style of her native Pakistan. She uses satire and caricature to interrogate current events and their representation in the media, from the war in Iraq to religious clashes between the Islamic world and Western Europe.

With such a range of artistic positions, what unites these artists, as distinguished from previous generations, is a freedom to choose, manipulate, and reinvent different kinds of languages and issues, whether formal, conceptual, or political. The works in the exhibition, many of them made especially for this show, reflect this energy. Together, the artists and their work defy a definitive conception of Asian American art in favor of working—one way or another.

The exhibition was organized by Asia Society, New York, with support from Altria Group, Inc., the W. L. S. Spencer Foundation, Nimoy Foundation, and Asia Society’s Contemporary Art Council. The Berkeley presentation is supported in part by Richard Shapiro and Patricia Sakai. In-kind support provided by Southwest Airlines.