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Dislocating Asian American Art

A show decidedly about Asian American art thus makes me apprehensive,
so I had mixed feelings about whether to anticipate or dread the
exhibition One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, organized by
Asia Society in New York and currently on view at the Blaffer Gallery
at the University of Houston.

Chitra Ganesh...Untitled (detail)...2006...Glitter, sumi ink, glass, pipe cleaners...googly eyes, shredded tire rubber...glass beads, translucent plastic...fake hair, spray paint, acrylic...and MDF panels...Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Erben Gallery, New York

After the homogenizing take on multiculturalism in the late 1980s and 1990s, scholars and critics in the 21st century have become more tactful about assuming a singular view of an artist predicated on his or her cultural background. A show decidedly about Asian American art thus makes me apprehensive, so I had mixed feelings about whether to anticipate or dread the exhibition One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now, organized by Asia Society in New York and currently on view at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston.

One Way or Another showcases 17 mostly emerging Asian American artists — Michael Arcega, Xavier Cha, Patty Chang, Binh Danh, Mari Eastman, Ala Ebtekar, Chitra Ganesh, Glenn Kaino, Geraldine Lau, Jiha Moon, Laurel Nakadate, Kaz Oshiro, Anna Sew Hoy, Jean Shin, Indigo Som, Mika Tajima, and Saira Wasim — born in the late 1960s and 1970s, who have Pan-Asian ethnic ties, such as with Japan, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Iran. But whether they were born or raised here, these Asian American artists are undoubtedly deeply rooted in the United States.

When you walk into the Blaffer Gallery, you immediately encounter Glenn Kaino’s Graft (salmon), a taxidermic sculpture of a salmon covered in a crude patchwork of shark skins. To your right, you see Mari Eastman’s Bird on Flowering Spray: Porcelain Cup, Chien-lung Period (1736-1750), an acrylic painting of a china plate adorned with a decorative image of a bird and colorful foliage. What seems like a racially and politically charged introduction to the show — Kaino’s dual-identity iconography of the pastiche salmon/shark and Eastman’s visual reference to the Orientalist’s fascination with all things Asian — acts as a deceptive façade to the show’s actually varied holdings.

Deviating from the show’s predecessor, Asia Society’s 1994 Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art, the curators of One Way or Another, Melissa Chiu, Karin Higa, and Susette S. Min, present the complexity of Asian American art by refusing to establish any organizational themes or thesis. The curators’ refreshing stance celebrates the diversity in Asian American art by allowing the wide range of artworks to stand on their own merit. This is made further obvious by the sparse use of interpretive material throughout the exhibition.

Michael Arcega...Eternal Salivation...2006...Alligator, antelope, beef, buffalo...crocodile, deer, elk, emu...kangaroo, lizard, ostrich...pig, salmon, seahorses, shark...snails, tuna, turkey...wild boar, yak, trees, and plants...Courtesy of Heather Marx Gallery, San Francisco

Some of the works take the Asian American art theme quite literally, such as Indigo Som’s Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South, which displays photographs of quaint Chinese restaurants in the rural South. Without any cars or human activity visible around the restaurants, as well as their conscious framing in long shots, the buildings stand stark and isolated, reflecting the immigrants who established them. Som’s work is a poignant homage to the Chinese restaurant and the part of the Asian American experience it represents.

Ala Ebtekar in Elemental intersperses attributes of hip-hop, such as a boombox, sneakers, and jackets, into the interior of a traditional Iranian coffeehouse adorned with the usual paintings and photos on the walls and hookahs on the seats. Ebtekar then neutralizes the scene by whitewashing everything except the colorful hip-hop attire. Unfortunately, his interest in comparing the two large subcultures, hip-hop and coffeehouse, becomes lost in works that seem quaint and crowded in the small niche of their installation.

In addition, there are works that do not overtly focus on Asian American issues, but rather on how Asian American issues are just one of many that inform the artists’ works. Chitra Ganesh’s psychedelic large-scale mural Untitled explores exoticism and gender issues. The wall drawings feature distorted, menacing female figures with multiple eyes and appendages holding scissors and other sharp implements. A brightly flaming hookah floats in the middle among the bodily forms sinuously connected to each other. Ganesh’s dynamic collage approach, using a variety of material from sumi ink to googly eyes, makes the installation of mythical and extraordinary female characters cross into the viewer’s space.

Some works in One Way or Another do not seem to visually deal with Asian American issues at all, such as Mika Tajima’s Extruded Plaid (Suicidal Desires,) a formal study of colors and forms in the commonplace motif of plaid. The Plexiglas panels of alternating blue, orange, and white form a lattice structure, whose colors and forms are extended into the surrounding space by the two large mirrors placed behind it and by leftover panels scattered on the floor. The nearby TV playing a recording of Tajima’s nuanced sound performance joins with the “plaid” sculpture to create an intense, coherent experience.

Two of the strongest pieces in the exhibition are Saira Wasim’s New World Order and Jean Shin’s Unraveling. Both play with issues that lie at the heart of the connections between art, Asia, and contemporary America, though from quite different approaches. Wasim’s careful, intimate drawings, following in the tradition of Indian miniature painting, portray satirical vignettes of the politics of the U.S. and its “war on terror,” such as a portrait of a saintly George Bush with a halo framing his head holding a doll-sized version of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in his lap.

Jean Shin’s Unraveling, like many of her other works that manifest subcultures and communities, comprises two walls of sweaters, all contributed by members of the Asian and Asian American art community in New York. Each sweater has been carefully unraveled, then connected with the unraveled sweaters of people its owner knows, resulting in a visual network representing the community. As the exhibition travels, the work will continue to grow as more sweaters are added. Unraveling best epitomizes the poignancy and richness of the many people, voices, and artistic visions represented in One Way or Another.

The curators have stated that they chose the title for the exhibition because of the pop culture references they saw prevalent in this generation of artists’ works, as well as the artists’ shifting negotiations with their identity. It can also be said that this defiant phrase serves as the mantra for Asian American artists who refuse to have their art judged by race, ethnicity, or any other external factors: One way or another, we are here, and this is our art.

Images courtesy Blaffer Gallery.

Vivian Li is a curatorial assistant at the MFAH.

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