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Crossed Cultures

Is "A" for Asia, America -- or both?

Baochi Zhang's sculpture A Thousand and One Restless Nights is a narrow metal bed frame pitched at an alarming slant. Though we're told it's based on a Chinese proverb, "sleep on brushwood and taste gall," the piece easily brings to mind the barracks at the immigrant detention centers where many new arrivals were given their first taste of America. Because the viewer can so easily imagine herself on the impossibly uncomfortable bed, she gets a visceral idea of the emotional torque of living in a new, inhospitable world. Similarly, Toi Ungkavatanapong's lyrical Thai-style houses, mounted like litters on miniature carrying splints, are what would be called personal rather than economy-sized, but they're still infused by a tangibly large sense of lonely self-comfort.

Masami Teraoka is one of the few artists in the show who looks to his native land (as well as American pop art) for aesthetic inspiration. He bases his large watercolors on ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints that were made from the 17th to the 19th centuries for popular consumption and were often used as invitations to kabuki theater. Using the flat colors and black outlines of the ukiyo-e, Teraoka depicts imaginary vignettes between Japanese and Americans, often placing incongruous hamburgers or video equipment in the hands of traditionally attired geishas. In his "New Wave" series, two of which are included in the exhibit, Japanese tourists encounter Americans on a Hawaiian beach. In one, a young Japanese woman eyes an Anglo man, who is in turn eyeing an inset cartouche depicting a sushi meal. In a piece from his "Tale of 1,000 Condoms" series, Teraoka shows a Japanese man and an American woman tete a tete, tearing open condom wrappers with their teeth over cafe au lait. Teraoka is a master of the ribald humor that characterizes some Japanese erotic art, as well as of the pained expression. His work heightens the absurdity of cultural assumptions and exchange.

Humor -- one sure way of disarming defenses -- is the missing ingredient in much of this show. It is the funny works that go the furthest, perhaps because they play on our narcissism by representing our own culture, however dryly. Tseng Kwong Chi's series of large black-and-white photographs pit one country's kitsch against the other's: he dresses in a high-collared "Mao suit" and visits U.S. tourist spots such as Mount Rushmore, the Hollywood sign and the Statue of Liberty. Straight-faced, he poses in front of the monument in question or, in one photo, next to a smiling Disney World Mickey. Is he sending these photos home to his relatives, or to some cultural intelligence agency? The viewer is uneasy, realizing tourist fetishizing can cut both ways.

Despite the bitterness and alienation many artists in this exhibit express, the show itself is encouraging. In some ways, it serves to normalize Asian-Americans as artists, and prove that for what it's worth, these artists can make work with as much facility as anyone else. And it also proves that they can fall into the same traps as others. Just like any artists, Asian-Americans must avoid reliance on cliches and integrate various aspects of themselves in their work. Yes, their audience must seek to understand. But they must also open themselves up to be understood.

"Asia/America" shows through July 28 at the University of Houston,
Blaffer Gallery (entrance no. 16 off Cullen), 743-9530.

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