To what degree does an artist's heritage inform his work? It is a particularly American question, since, no matter how deep our roots in this soil may dig, all of us have, to some degree, a multiple identity. But so what? Shouldn't an American artist be considered an artist foremost, an American as a second thought, and a hyphenated identity as an afterthought?
These are the sorts of questions implicitly — and explicitly — raised by "One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now," which opens today at Asia Society. To their credit, the team of three curators here worry these issues without over heating or spoiling the stew with dogma: In the end, they agreed that, as their wall text reads, "The artists and their work defy a definitive conception of Asian American art."
Viewers will be happy to note that the majority of the 17 contributors are artists first; they don't seem any more concerned with these questions than Irish Americans or Italian Americans or Mexican Americans, which is to say, some are and some aren't.
I can't tell you what part of his lineage got Glenn Kaino into the exhibition, but his artistic heritage, evident in "Graft" (2006), includes Damien Hirst. Made specifically for this show, the work consists of a salmon and a pig, sewn together from sharkskin and cowhide respectively, each propped in a vitrine. Conceptually, it lofts broad ideas about hybrid identities as well as our nip-and-tuck culture; visually, the two creatures have an at once cute and Frankensteinian appeal.
Only a few of the artists here work in modes that draw directly on ancestral styles — not surprisingly, they tend to be among the minority who were not born in this country. Taking cues from Chinese brush painting, Jiha Moon, who was born in Korea, makes splashily energetic paintings in ink and acrylic, which exploit ambiguous, or surreal, elements — disembodied mouths, rainbows, wispy or gestural brushstrokes-to form semiabstract canvases.
Pakistan-born Saira Wasim is the only included artist speaking in an overtly political voice. Her miniature paintings use the old Mughal style to comment on the present day — a fertile micro-genre now over a decade old. In one gouache, "New World Order" (2006), President Bush sits atop a globe composed of roiling animals, a tiny Pervez Musharraf on his lap, while a much smaller Tony Blair, grinning idiotically, shelters an infant-size Hamid Karzai.
Others employ modern techniques while referring to Asian history or culture. Among the most striking examples here is Binh Danh's "One Week's Dead #2" (2006). Originally from Vietnam, Mr. Danh reproduces pages from Life magazine's photo roster of the dead in the Vietnam War on tree leaves, using chlorophyll print and resin. It's a powerful mix of allusions: to the poet Shelley's trope of the dead as fallen leaves, to the tree of life, to the current American war. Mr. Danh wields history like a weapon. Ala Ebtekar freely mixes history with contemporary culture. For the show, he constructed a Persian-style coffeehouse, complete with benches, hookahs, pillows, and boom boxes, all painted white. On the walls hang old photographs of Iranian or Persian wrestlers; on the floor he has parked sets of removed sneakers.
Naturally, the greater proportion of artists here work in idioms that seem as international as the Internet. The ever-resourceful Jean Shin asked members of the Asian American arts community to donate sweaters and woven garments, which she then partly unraveled to create a beautiful, Web-like sculptural installation leading one simultaneously through the museum's architecture and among the connections between individuals (as represented by their clothing).
Chitra Ganesh has also created a site-specific work for this exhibition, a mural collage.Wall-sized, the piece layers tinted washes, colored plastic, and drawings of fantastic, anthropomorphic creatures. Indigo Som serves up three compelling photographs from the series "Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South" (2004–06). And, though they lurk like chameleons in the urban underbrush, Kaz Oshiro's three-dimensional paintings, on acrylic and canvas, mimicking everyday objects — a trash bin, a microwave oven — once seen become instantly recognizable.
So too are Laurel Nakadate's inimitable videos. Disturbing, hilarious, sexy, tender, and brilliant, hers are some of the most accomplished videos currently being made.At 15 minutes, "I Want To Be the One To Walk in the Sun" (2006) links a number of vignettes, in which the music playing is crucial and no other sounds are heard: the artist in a Western convenience store attempting, and failing, to persuade the bearded counter man to strip with her; the artist dancing, in jeans and boots, on the porch of a white neo-Gothic house to Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," as a slight wind shakes the camera; dancing in what looks like a bordello from the old West, dressed like a tart, while a dog humps her leg; she and a notably unattractive middle-aged man stripping to their underwear and then silently directing each other to spin like tops, all to the sounds of "What About Love" by Heart.
Compared to this carnival of genres and emotions, Patty Chang's video "A Chinoiserie Out of the Old West" (no date because it remains a work in progress), wherein two people, a man and a woman, seem to take turns translating from an article by Walter Benjamin about Anna May Wong, is as airless and musty as an old schoolroom.
"One Way or Another" takes its title from a song by Blondie, and it could as easily describe the attitudes of a generation of artists whatever their ethnicity. Which is another way of saying that this show demonstrates that Asian-American art, like contemporary art in general, is, if not a mixing pot, then a cauldron abubble with highly effective potions.
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