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United by their differences

Asian American artists cover a lot of ground in 'One Way or Another.'

March 11, 2008|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

There isn't an Asian American aesthetic in contemporary art. There are lots of Asian American artists, but there is no singular, unitary guiding principle for how the art those artists make ought to look, never mind what its subjects should be.

Why should there be? Merely on a practical level, an American artist whose ancestry is traced to the Philippines is very different from one traced to Vietnam, Pakistan or Singapore. And Filipinos might be Chinese, indigenous, Spanish or another ethnicity. The ethnic cultural differences among artists, beyond checking the same Asian American box on some official form, are likely to be at least as great as any similarities.

So does it make sense for a museum exhibition to use Asian American identity as its organizing principle? Based on "One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now," which ends a 20-month tour at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo on May 4, the answer is yes.

In the 1990s, the assumption that minority artists ought to make their specific social, political and cultural status the subject of their work thankfully began to fall apart. This exhibition shows it's just one possibility. That's progress.

The show is a bit wobbly, with a considerable amount of work that doesn't yet feel fully formed. (Most of the artists are in their 30s.) But it's got a great title. "One Way or Another," Blondie's 1978 New Wave pop-disco-punk-reggae hit song, is suitably hybrid, not to mention cheekily aggressive in its "gonna get ya' " refrain. It also dates from the decade when all but one of the 17 artists was born.

How does that generation differ from what came before? Pop culture is part of the answer -- but only part. It's a generational marker for these artists, selected by a curatorial team that included JANM's Karin Higa, Melissa Chu of New York's Asia Society and UC Davis professor Susette S. Min. Six are based in New York, five in Los Angeles, four in the Bay Area and the remaining two in Chicago and Atlanta.

There's no pure abstraction in the show. Geraldine Lau's cut and pieced vinyl wall mural at the entry is perhaps the closest, although its small interlocking blocks of color plainly refer to population patterns in urban maps. Mika Tajima's visually inert cube of slatted wood and plastic is an artifact from a live electronic music performance, which plays on a nearby video monitor. Landscapes in Chinese brush painting undergird Jiha Moon's cascading torrents of blue paint.

Peculiar ceramic forms entangled in ropes and chains hanging from a tree-like wooden armature in Anna Sew Hoy's "Dreamcatcher" loosely recall traditional Chinese scholar's rocks. The Tang dynasty-era practice of finding a complete spiritual universe in an aesthetically attractive chunk of stone is given a Postmodern twist in these homemade blobs of glazed clay, which hang like oversized jewelry on a display stand.

More common are works that employ direct pop culture references. Bin Danh imprints Life magazine photographs of American casualties of the war in Vietnam onto sheets woven from leaves. Kaz Oshiro builds common domestic containers -- a trash can, kitchen cabinets and a small refrigerator -- from painted canvas and stretcher bars cleverly cobbled together as sculptures. Dressed in the costume of a pink fingernail or a shrimp and dancing for short videos in front of a Beverly Hills beauty parlor and a downtown sushi restaurant, Xavier Cha becomes a human TV ad -- and the embodiment of an Asian American cliche.

Indigo Som's photographs of rural Chinese restaurants in the American South house the imported cuisine in unlikely vessels, such as a Mission Style shed with a red tile roof. A culture clash with a political edge emerges in Saira Wasim's exquisite paintings in the style of Indian miniatures: One shows President Bush locked in an intimate embrace with a Saudi sheik, while in the background Vice President Dick Cheney hangs on for dear life to a galloping camel's hump.

All of these artists convey a level of informed professional accomplishment, which yields something of the phlegmatic feel of an art school MFA graduation show. Laurel Nakadate deviates from that pattern through a chilling engagement of actual risk.

Pole dancing at a public car park, she meets strangers on the street and brings them home to make videos. Watching Nakadate negotiate voyeuristic exchanges with forlorn men can raise the hair on the back of your neck.

The most accomplished works are Mari Eastman's fluid paintings, adorned here and there with glitter, and Patty Chang's striking video. Each is layered in ambiguity.

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