In 1996 the Blaffer Gallery hosted "Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art," organized by the Asia Society, New York. This was when "identity" was the buzzword in contemporary art, and the exhibition was quite an edgy endeavor for the super-conservative Asia Society, which had previously focused its exhibitions on antiquities. Ten years later, the Asia Society is back at it with "One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now," curated by Melissa Chiu, Karin Higa and Susette S. Min, also on view at the Blaffer. According to the gallery Web site, the difference between then and now is that the 1996 exhibition "showed artists wrestling with their immigrant experience," while the current one "focuses on new work by artists who are firmly rooted in the United States."
I especially remember that 1996 show because an Asian American artist I know was excluded from the exhibition. The reason: His work was deemed "not Asian enough." Later, my friend's work was considered Asian enough for some other group "Asian" shows, but as his career took off, he chose to stop participating in them. When I called him and told him about the current show, he said, "God, are they still doing that?" (He chooses to remain anonymous.)
A lot of things have changed in the last ten years, but organizing shows around ethnicity isn't one of them. "One Way or Another" has a lot of really strong -- and varied -- art. The artists are mostly younger than 35, and their work doesn't exclusively deal with being Asian, unlike the work in the previous show. During the 1990s boom in exhibitions about identity, diversity and multiculturalism, an artist pretty much had to make work about being black or gay or female or whatever...in order to be included. Issues of identity can be rich fodder for artists, but they are still individuals. There are a whole lot of "diverse" artists who resent people assuming that their "diversity" is the only subject they can make art about.
"One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now"
Blaffer Gallery, the University of Houston, 120 Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9530.
Through March 31.
Kaz Oshiro's work, one of the standouts in "One Way or Another," has nothing to do with being Asian. Oshiro's focus is on making subversive "paintings." If a painting is pigment applied to a stretched canvas, then that's what Oshiro's work is, but its appearance is anything but traditional. Oshiro essentially builds three-dimensional sculptures out of stretched canvases and then exactingly paints them to look like their subjects. He fetishizes the banal, with perfect replicas of dorm refrigerators, cheap plastic laminate cabinets and trash bins complete with little pictograms of a hand tossing away a cup. The grubbiness and wonky doors of the crappy cabinets are perfectly duplicated, down to the tiny residue of a squashed fly. Oshiro's work is clever, witty and exquisitely executed.
Now, Oshiro would probably never have been considered for a show like the 1996 "Asia/America" exhibition. Thankfully, the curators of "One Way or Another" included him because he has such great work. In their essay about the artist, there is no Asian American angle. But at the end, the author states, "While keeping a close tie with his hometown [Okinawa], today [Oshiro] considers himself simply as an artist based in Los Angeles." The author is simultaneously trying to establish Oshiro's "Asian-ness" and acknowledge what seems to be the artist's irritation with expectations of "Asian-ness" being placed on his work.
Mika Tajima presents a very cool installation, Extruded Plaid (Suicidal Desires) (2006), in which she riffs on minimalism in hip, pop colors. Strips of vividly hued fluorescent Plexiglas and wood are stacked on top of each other to create a sort of giant, three-dimensional swatch of plaid. Large mirrors propped up behind have "plaid" patterns excised from them. Tajima has irreverently morphed the revered minimalist grid into a plaid pattern.
Meanwhile, Chitra Ganesh's wall-based installation features a fluidly surreal mural. The wall is washed with a lovely translucent lavender hue and sprinkled with glitter. The mural depicts girlish but mutant images of women painted with flowing lines and Hindu third eyes. Ganesh has collaged elements onto the painting; long black braids curl out from the wall as do long spiky plastic eyelashes. Disembodied limbs circle on the wall, split open to reveal bloodlike clusters of red objects -- beads and fishing lures. Ganesh's work is singular -- simultaneously elegant and unsettling.
Jean Shin makes some good work, but her installation for "One Way or Another" isn't her best. In a striking 2004 project at the MOMA, Shin took clothes contributed by MOMA staff and cut them out at the seams. She then starched the pieces to opposite walls, where they created a mosaic of color, shape and pattern. The seams she cut out stretched overhead, linking the two. For "One Way or Another" Shin did something similar, but it's not as successful. She collected sweaters from members of the Asian community, layered them on the walls in a corner of the gallery, and then unraveled yarn to reach back and forth to connect them. It just doesn't work that well visually, and adding labels identifying each person who gave each sweater is hitting the viewer over the head.
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One of the funniest and most goofily subversive artists in the show is Xavier Cha. A series of videos records some of her antics. For Cha's 2003 series of works, Topiary Tags, Cha cut her name into hedges all over Los Angeles. Hedge after hedge is shown with a giant "xavier" carved into it. For her 2004 Human Advertisement Series, Cha dressed herself up like a giant shrimp and stood outside Sushi Roku dancing with a lot of pelvic thrusts. In another "ad," the artist dressed as a giant pink fingernail with French polish and boogied outside a nail salon. In yet another she crouched inside a huge plastic "crystal ball" in front of a tarot card reader's strip mall storefront. It's really great to see an artist who so warmly embraces her inner crackpot.
It's great "One Way or Another" is open to a broader range of work than its 1996 forebear, but that does bring up some curatorial complications. If the work included does not all speak to a central idea, then the only organizing principle of the exhibition that remains is the identity of the artists. For all the curator's good intentions and ideas, if you try to break the show's premise down, it becomes absurd. It seems to be based on some idea that people of tremendously varied cultural ancestry -- everything from Persian to Chinese -- but carrying genetic material originating on the continent of Asia, all have something in common. Obviously, this isn't the point the curators intend to make. Ultimately, they are operating as a kind of chamber of commerce for artists of Asian heritage.
Despite all those diverse shows in the 1990s, not much has changed -- the art world has pretty much remained predominantly white and predominantly male. In a discussion in the exhibition catalog, a curator observes that "the art world today is in many ways less conscious about issues of diversity than in the 1990s." I think that that is true, but instead of diversity as a fad, we need real and systemic change. We need to allow for a broad range of work by a broad range of people.
I'm really glad I got to see the work in "One Way or Another." I know the curators want to make sure that work by Asian American artists is seen and they want the art world to acknowledge the strong work they're producing. If catchall groupings of artists based on ethnicity are the only way I get to see it, that's still preferable to not seeing it at all.