Crossed Cultures

The character of The Simpsons' convenience store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetalon is as exaggerated as his name is long. But he's one of the few Asian immigrants seen on TV in recent memory, and his experiences (particularly his attempts to get a green card) have rung true for many Asian-Americans unaccustomed to seeing their growing presence reflected in the national culture.

Unlikely as it may seem, Apu's appearance reflects a growing interest in Asian-Americans, as evidenced by the popularity of novelist Amy Tan and 1994's short-lived sitcom, All-American Girl, network TV's first attempt to build a show around an Asian-American family. And as if to claim Asian-Americans as official fodder for multiculturalism, 1994 also saw New York become host to a slew of exhibits featuring Asian-American visual artists. One of those, "Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian-American Art," is now on view at the University of Houston's Blaffer Gallery.

Though the show, sponsored by the Asia Society Galleries, includes no Houston artists, it's still a fitting one for the city. During the '80s, the Asian population in Harris County grew enormously, and it's still growing, though it remains Houston's smallest minority group. If, that is, it can be called a singular group -- "Asia" is a geographic overlay that includes areas as disparate as the archipelagic Philippines and mainland China. The exhibit finds itself in the difficult position of using this overlay at the same time that it seeks to dispel myths about the "Orient" as an entity and present artists that may not identify themselves as "Asian." Ultimately, it focuses on the notion of bicultural identity -- something not unique to America's Asians -- as common ground.

A recent survey revealed that 90 percent of the Asian adults living in Harris County are immigrants; the 20 artists in "Asia/America" are also immigrants, from China, India, Japan, Korea, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Some have been here for decades; others are recent arrivals. Since the artists all live in America, and feel the daily influences any American feels, it's not surprising that the majority of them make art that looks like other contemporary art made in the West. Some of it, such as sculptor Zarina's metal house-on-wheels plaques, doesn't possess a single "Asian" particular. The small houses could be for any migrant who carries "home" along with him.

But more often, cultural specificities are cycled into the work. Chinese-American Hung Liu's paintings juxtapose disparate images just as David Salle might, but her source material comes from historical photos of dynasty courtesans and Chinatown prostitutes. Liu's scholarly approach brings up another perplexing aspect of this show: the relationship between the works and their accompanying wall text. The text not only gives background information on the artists and the sometimes dramatic circumstances under which they left their native countries, but "explains" the artworks. In Liu's case and a few others, such explanation is essential to understanding the artist's intent. But in most cases, the curatorial voice overwhelms the work in question, creating a shadow-image that destroys alternative interpretations or ambiguity. The works seem forced into a framework that deals only with identity issues.

As it is, many of the pieces that actually do deal with identity are already far too literal -- a surprising trait in this second wave of multicultural art. Hanh Thi Pham's staged photo tableaux present painfully obvious, poorly acted scenarios of cultural voyeurism. In one, a curious white couple peers through a fake stage window into the home of a Vietnamese woman who is holding up a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll; the wall text informs us that the object is one the woman "believes they would be pleased to see in an alien land." Another tableau shows a young Vietnamese girl spying on a white couple in their home, which is decorated with a tiger skin that the wall text says is Vietnamese. Takako Nagai's Self-Portrait is a painting of a Japanese kimono consumed by flames, a "down with tradition" image that's too easy to be provocative. Mitsuo Toshida's parsed images of a maze and an Asian applying theatrical makeup represent the navigation of a new culture without any particular insight. Sisavath Panyathip's painting Baptism shows a human figure with a Bible and a lotus blossom floating before it, the latter closer to the figure's heart. The text tells us that when Panyathip left Laos as a teenager, he was sponsored by a Mormon family. To please his hosts, he converted to Christianity, but "silently insisted on retaining a strong sense of Laotian identity" -- hence the symbols' placement. If this truly is the explanation for this amateurish painting, the audience would have been better off ignorant.

Using such standard symbols almost guarantees a dilution of meaning. These works are as unilluminating as a visit to an ecumenical chapel. To experience another religion, one has to be willing to visit its unique place of worship. In the same way, an artist, or an audience, whose approach to a work is framed by its "difference" (that is, the contention that Asian-American art has something special to offer) must be willing to venture into unexplored terrain. The better work in the show -- Marlon Fuentes' photo-composite faces, Jin Soo Kim's caged found furniture and debris, Ken Chu's slightly silly cutout urban scenes -- do just that, inviting us to open a door to compassion in the sense of feeling with someone as opposed to for them.

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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Shaila Dewan