Posts tagged ‘asian american artists’

Pictures of You: Portraiture Now at the National Portrait Gallery

Youniverse, Tam Tran, digital print, 2010

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.

Cat and Carm, Shizu Saldamando, Gold leaf and oil on wood, 2008

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.

Shimomura Crossing The Delaware, Roger Shimomura, 2011

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.

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

August 12, 2011 through October 14, 2012

October 12, 2012 at 4:05 am Leave a comment

The Myth of Chinese Restaurants, Part Three: Indigo Som’s Chinese Restaurant Project

Wonderful House, Indigo Som, color photograph, 2002

Wonderful House, Rock Springs, Wyoming, 2002, iris print, 34"x34", Indigo Som

Regarding Chinese restaurants of a different sort, Indigo Som has an installation from her Chinese Restaurant Project in Present Tense Bienniel: Chinese Character, at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco. Indigo’s project is manifold and ongoing, but its three main parts basically attempt to document and capture the gestalt of Chinese eateries in the U.S. and look at the ways in which these omnipresent establishments reflect and represent Chinese American culture, both real and imagined.

My brother and his wife once went on a driving trip that took them through a sparsely populated part of Idaho. On the way they stopped at a roadside restaurant and when they walked in, the Chinese proprietor spotted them immediately. As soon as he saw that my brother was Chinese, a huge grin broke out on his face. My brother must’ve been the first Chinese person outside of his own family that the owner had seen in a mighty long time. Indigo’s project reminds me of this incident in that it demonstrates both the pervasiveness and the isolation of these solitary outposts. Living in the Bay Area, which is clogged with Asians of every make and model, it’s pretty easy to forget that Asian Americans still only make up about 4% of the total U.S. population. The Chinese Restaurant Project captures some of the melancholy of life outside of urban centers for many Asians in this country.

Woo's Pagoda, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Indigo Som

Woo's Pagoda, Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 2003, inkjet print, 34x34", Indigo Som

Some of you might be familiar with the large-scale color prints of Chinese restaurant facades that Indigo’s exhibited extensively in the past few years—she’s been selectively documenting Chinese restaurants across the U.S. for a while now, shooting hordes of images of this multifarious architectural phenomenon with a plastic, fixed-focus Holga camera. Many of the pictures were taken in locations far from sizable Chinese American communities and are plaintive reflections on the sometimes funky, in-between state of being Chinese in America.

The other two parts of the Chinese Restaurant Project are Indigo’s blog documentation of her travels across the country in search of Chinese restaurants and her quixotic attempt to collect a menu from every one of the thousands of Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

Indigo’s project captures the absurdity of attempting to define “Chinese American culture” in this modern world. Signage from most of the restaurants uses “ching-chong” script, or what Indigo calls the “Evil Chinky Font,” the one that poorly emulates classical Chinese calligraphy; names for the restaurants usually involve pagodas, jade, bamboo and other tiresome “Chinese” signifiers. Her menu collection also demonstrates the ways in which these restaurants have adapted Chinese cuisine to suit the tastes of the mainstream American palate, such as the weird pervasiveness of Crab Rangoon, those nasty little deep-fried cream cheese and surimi wontons that in all likelihood were invented in the 1950s at Trader Vic’s, that tiki torch lounge heaven in San Francisco.

Chinese Menus, Present Tense Bieniel, Indigo Som

Chinese Menus, Present Tense Bienniel, 2009, Indigo Som

On display as part of Present Tense Bienniel is a floor-to-ceiling installation of all of Indigo’s current collection of Chinese menus, which number in the hundreds. Covering a pretty big corner of the gallery, it’s still only a tease of what the piece will be when Indigo has, say, a thousand Chinese restaurant menus papering an entire gallery. Knowing her capacity for obsessive activity and her dedication to her goal, I have no doubt that one day we’ll see an entire floor of the deYoung Museum covered over with menus sporting the Evil Chinky Font from all over the country. But until then, this little snippet will more than suffice.

Present Tense Biennial: Chinese Character – an exhibition of
contemporary artwork by 31 artists that reflect and reinterpret China
Curated by Kevin Chen

May 1 – August 23, 2009
Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10am to 4pm; Sundays, 12 to 4pm

Chinese Culture Center, 750 Kearny Street, 3rd Floor (inside the Hilton Hotel), between Clay & Washington Streets in San Francisco CA

Admission is free.

May 18, 2009 at 6:10 am 6 comments


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