The exhibition called "Finding Family Stories" is one of those big, paradoxical projects, as grandly ambitious as it is inherently personal.
In collaboration with the Skirball Cultural Center and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, the show, spawned by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, involves six artists who explore their own cultural and familial roots as members of the Japanese American, American Jewish and California Native American communities. The artists have work at all three venues concurrently, an aspect that also emphasizes the project's cross-cultural intentions.
At the Skirball, the most impressive work, by virtue of its creative resourcefulness and subtle emotional punch, is Kim Yasuda's installation piece "resuscitate," a requiem for her father. On the gallery floor, carpet fragments are piled high to create topographical contours, a reference to her father's unfulfilled desire to visit the Grand Canyon.
House-bound desires become the dominant theme, as with two large black-and-white photographs, part of the installation, called "Ceiling/Sky." One is of a "cottage-cheese" ceiling, an indigenous suburban texture that is a common sight from bed. The twin image hints at a star-filled sky, with twinkly white lights in a dark space that, on close examination, is just ceiling in a dimmer light.
The most disarming touch in Yasuda's work is a small round hole in a wall, with a video loop of her father speaking in slow motion. The sounds we hear, though, are operatic snippets from Bizet's "Carmen," a piece he loved. The effect is ethereal, a portrait personal yet disembodied.
With her installation, Yasuda walks down a simple, telling path that resonates with her father's presence.
Joyce Dallal is of Iraqi-Jewish-American ancestry, and her installation documents the difficulties her father had securing citizenship in the United States, chronicled in letters, articles and papers. Also in Dallal's corner of the gallery, a card table sits on a "rug" with Arabic lettering and a collage of maps and newspaper articles. On the table sits a backgammon board. It's a game, she notes, of middle-Eastern origin, in which the process of securely getting pieces "home" makes a neat analogy to her father's own plight.
American artist Aaron Glass, who is Jewish, took the exhibition's stated mission of linking his life to that of his forebears seriously. With "Projections of the Past," he draws a direct visual link, by projecting the images of the faces of bygone relatives on plaster casts of the artist's own head. By so doing, Glass creates startling intergenerational fusion. As he writes about the project: "I fell away; they came to life."
The back gallery is given over to two-dimensional work. Native American references come in the form of mystical paintings, such as the rock art-referential works of Frank LaPena and the depictions of Native American ceremonies by Judith A. Lowry.
Her paintings are large and vivid, and yet reality freely yields to mysticism.
Eddie Kurushima's deceptively calm, reportorial paintings of life in the Japanese interment camps during World War II documents that dark chapter of the Japanese American experience. Rendered with an anecdotal, illustrative style, Kurushima's images amount to a series of vignettes from a cultural incarceration. Life goes on as usual, in unusual circumstances, a point brought home in an image showing gun-clutching guards in the foreground.
Overall, the art here ranges widely in content, but that's part and parcel of the idea behind the show. It's less a coherent curatorial effort than an open forum in which the sum effect of these artists' work is a look back, and inward, at forces that have shaped their awareness.
Sometimes, they're considering lives spent on various margins of American society. Elsewhere, the focus is closer to home, on the intimacy of family life. In either case, this is art about pursuing the tracks of one's own heritage, in the effort to both broaden and personalize one's outlook.
* "Finding Family Stories," through March 22 at the Skirball Cultural Center and Museum, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday; (310) 440-4500.