Pictures of You: Portraiture Now at the National Portrait Gallery
I recently made a trip to our nation’s capital and caught Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Although there have been a few significant Asian American arts shows in the past few years at major institutions (including One Way Or Another at the Asia Society in 2006 and Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents at the deYoung Museum in 2008) and Asian American community arts organizations like Kearny Street Workshop have been going strong for more than forty years, Portraiture Now is a coming-out of sorts for Asian American artists since it was organized by the Smithsonian aka this country’s big-time cultural gatekeeper.
Just downstairs from the Annie Leibowitz show and up the hall from Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, the show had a nice primetime location on on the NPG’s first floor, and it included some good stuff by mostly younger artists that moved beyond classic ideas of representation.
Self-portraiture figures into several of the artists’ work featured in the show. Tam Tran’s funky and intriguing photos of herself make good use of her unusual physicality and a fish-eye lens. Despite their prettiness, Zhang Chun Hong’s meticulous charcoal drawings of hers and her sisters’ hair become observations about the fetishization and objectification of the female Asian body. Hye Yeon Nam’s four-part video self-portrait, Walking, Drinking, Eating, and Sitting, something of a throwback to early lo-fi 1970s video art by Joan Jonas and Vito Acconci, uses absurd and repetitious actions to convey everyday life’s ongoing anxiety.
With their sleek surfaces and liberal use of gold leaf, Shizu Saldamando’s paintings of LA baby-dyke scenesters recall both medieval illuminated manuscripts and Japanese folding screens. By treating these images of her friends as semi-sacred iconography Salamando’s portraits combine the earthly and the sublime, capturing and elevating the everyday camaraderie of her crew.
CYJO’s KYOPO Project, a series of full-length, full-color photographs of more than 200 Korean Americans, features text in their own words detailing the subject’s relationship to their Korean American-ness. At the NPG the photos were mounted one after another down the length of two walls and seen this way the entire series makes for an impressive collective portrait, with the personal stories adding humor, complexity and nuance to the project.
The venerable Roger Shimomura represented the older set, with his reworkings of Pikachu and Hello Kitty demonstrating his continued awareness of the ironies of U.S. cultural representations. Americans vs. Japs, is a clever rendering that locates Shimomura’s (Japanese) American visage amidst a hoard of invading Japanese stereotypes borrowed from World War II propaganda. The painting shrewdly interrogates assumptions about Asian American identity in Shimomura’s signature style, blending classical Japanese brush paintings with U.S. pop culture iconography. The show also features his epic painting Shimomura Crossing The Delaware, which is at once a display of Shimomura’s technical mastery, a cogent critique of American pop history, and a brilliant goof on its source material located just down the hall in the NPG.
While I was on the Mall I also stopped in at Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by 18th-century painter Itō Jakuchū. On loan for only four weeks from Japan, the show includes some truly legendary paintings that in Japan are the equivalent of the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper. The show was packed four-deep with people on a Saturday afternoon, with a line to get in and a brisk sale of related prints, books, and postcards in the museum gift shop. In contrast, the Asian American NPG show was much more lightly attended, with plenty of room to sit and ponder the intricacies of meaning of each piece in the exhibit, but despite losing the popularity contest to the Jakuchū show’s more conventional appeal, its mere presence in the NPG, the first pan-Asian American show at the Smithsonian, surely recognizes the artistic and cultural relevance of Asians in the U.S.
The spiffy National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall opened across from the National Gallery in 2004 and the National Museum of African American History and Culture just broke ground in February 2012. The Asian American population is currently more than 5% in the U.S. and former UH Manoa professor Konrad Ng (aka Barack Obama’s brother-in-law) now heads up the Asian Pacific American Arts division of the Smithsonian. So this begs the questions: when will we Asian Americans get a national museum of our own? If the existence of high-profile Asian American art shows like Portraiture Now and the growing Asian American demographic are any indication, it seems to me that the time is now.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
August 12, 2011 through October 14, 2012