Asian American Portraits
Grouping visual artists by ethnic identity is a tired curatorial tactic, but at least we get to see some great art in this one at the Asia Society Texas Center
"This exhibition displays the diversity of contemporary Asian American identity..." reads the copy for Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter at the Asia Society Texas Center, co-organized by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. Assembling a show around the ethnic identity of the artists has become a tired curatorial tactic that generally pisses artists off. Especially when it means that the only time certain artists get their work shown is when someone does an "Asian," "Latino," or "Black" show in which the aforementioned are only included if their work sufficiently references their identity. But, if this is the only way we are going to get to see this work, it's better than nothing.
Roger Shimomura may be in his 70s now, but that doesn't mean his scathing pop art wit has dulled. In a history painting-sized canvas, the artist casts himself as Washington crossing the Delaware in a boat filled with Samurai. In another work, he draws himself delivering a martial arts kick to a horde of racist Japanese caricatures. Shimomura and his family were interned at Minidoka during WWII when the artist was a child. His work is superbly painted, dynamically composed and fueled with incisive cultural critique.
Fellow painter Shizu Saldamano has some sensitively rendered portraits of her young friends. Seemingly captured from casual snapshots, they smile, kiss, sing karaoke or stare down into a drink. Saldamano renders the images backgroundless on a blank expanse of plywood or against a swath of gold overpainted on a Japanese screen. The gender and ethnicity of her subjects is often indistinct; the focus for Saldamano is on the people, not what others might label them — or her. (For those playing along, the wall text informs us that she is of Mexican and Japanese descent.)
Tam Tran's strange little self-portrait series Accents is pretty wonderful. In the digital age, young women have never photographed themselves more. Self-obsessed images that, 15 years ago, might have solely existed as poses in front of the mirror are now posted, Facebooked, tweeted and messaged ad infinitum. But Tran isn't just trying to take pretty or suggestive photos of herself, she's taking surreal, distorted and unsettling ones.
Shooting in an empty room, Tran wraps herself in scarves or dons something from her vaguely costume-y personal wardrobe. In the resulting images, her head may seem strangely large or small, her body placed oddly in a space that appears distorted. The cord she uses to trigger the camera shutter becomes a curling graphic element, spiraling from the foreground to Tran's figure. The small and unimposing scale of Tran's prints (roughly 8 x 10) works well, and their installation lets the viewer see the images in close proximity all in a row.
Oddly, in comparison to Tran's wholly self-portrait work, Satomi Shirai's photographs feel more self-involved. Where Tran moved with her family from Vietnam to Memphis as a small child, Shirai moved from Japan to New York in 2004 as an adult. Her photographs document her life in New York but they feel affected and self-conscious. Shirai's images show the artist hanging out her laundry, sitting with friends in the midst of a bunch of artfully arranged fruit peels, or bending her slender body down to look at her scale with pregnancy tests prominently placed on the bathroom sink in the foreground. The photos aren't staged enough to be interesting and don't feel real enough to be compelling, and the point of view seems inconsistent. Ultimately, Shirai is much more interested in herself than we are. The images seem to rely heavily on the exoticism of New York — something that is lost on an American audience.
Hye Yeon Nam came to the United States from Korea to study art. Nam creates performance videos in which the artist mechanically transforms something simple into something difficult. Her videos are strangely riveting, simple and profound. In one, the artist tries to eat a plateful of cherry tomatoes with a wooden ruler. In another, she walks through New York wearing a pair of plank-like wooden flip-flops that extend a foot ahead of her. In yet another, she sits to eat a meal at a restaurant in a chair whose front legs have been cut down, fighting to keep from sliding forward. Nam's actions are apt metaphors for life as an outsider. Anyone who has traveled abroad or lived in another culture knows the sense of being encumbered, awkward and wrongfooted that comes from unfamiliarity. But the artist's response isn't anger and frustration, rather, a dogged and patient determination and endurance.
Artist CYJO's KYOPO project is another standout. (Kyopo is a Korean term for ethnic Koreans living abroad.) A former fashion stylist, CYJO shot more than 200 portraits of people of Korean ancestry living in the United The artist started out with a single 2004 portrait and the project spread from subject to subject as each suggested others — the series includes everyone from politicians to comedians to athletes. The figures are shot consistently, full length and from the same distance. Underneath each photo is a brief but engaging text, taken from interviews with the subjects. The text under one woman's portrait reads: "Growing up in the Midwestern United States in the 1970s and '80s, I might as well have been [a] Martian given that most Americans' understanding of Korea, Korean culture, and Korean people came from the TV show M*A*S*H..."
Let's hope we see more of these artists, and not only in the company of each other.
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