By John Held, Jr.
Asian American Women Artists Association
“underCurrents and the Quest for Space”
May 2-May 25, 2013
SOMArts Cultural Center
934 Brannan Street
The diversity of work in this exhibition of Asian American women matches the multiplicity of heritages represented by the artists themselves, hailing as they do from Korean, Chinese, Taiwanese, Hawaiian, Vietnamese, Japanese and Indian lineages. From painting to photography, installation to video, etching to textile design, the exhibition spans the diverse mix of contemporary art found in many wide-ranging group exhibitions, but the emphasis on Asian American concerns, especially those of women, make this exhibition one of particular interest to the San Francisco community, which prides itself in its multicultural internationalism.
Jointly produced by the Asian American Women Artists Association and the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, the juried show was organized by Linda Inson Choy, who worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, form 1996 to 2004, and has since gone one to independently curate exhibitions at Mills College and Incheon Art Platform, Incheon, Korea, as well as organizing panels at the College Art Association Conference for the past four years. The high quality of work selected was assured by the selection of Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, and Mary-Ann Milford, an Asian art specialist and Professor of Art History at Mills College, Oakland, as jurors.
The call for entries encouraged Asian American artists to “submit works that address a discourse on the under-discussed issues impacting Asian Americans” and “to identify and contemplate the political implications of what lies below the surface, while exploring possibilities for the future of Asian Americans.” The press release for the exhibition carries this discourse further. “Model Minority, Shy, Exotic, Quiet, Oriental, Brilliant at Science and Math…These are common stereotypes about Asian Americans that, when left unchallenged, can lead to misunderstandings, discrimination, and the continued invisibility of this group.” In presenting their work to the public, the curatorial team and artists hope to imagine, “the larger space Asian Americans can inhabit in the American psyche.”
All of the artists bring exceptional backgrounds to the exhibition, but I was particularly struck by the inclusion of Manon Bogerd-Wada, a recent California College of the Arts graduate, and daughter of my old friend Yoshi Wada, a Fluxus sound artist, and assistant to George Maciunas from 1968 until the Fluxus maestro’s passing in 1978. Summoning the well-known Surrealist phrase by René Magritte, Manon contributes a self-portrait, “It Is Not,” with the subtitle, “Ceci n’est pas une asiatique.” This eludes to the artist’s contention that, “a person may belong to multiple places but also belongs nowhere. This piece speaks to the conundrum that a person is but also is not the sum of parts.”
Fluxus included a healthy dose of multi-culturalism but was defined by attitude at the expense of nationality. As Bogerd-Wada implies, a person is not easily defined simply by place of origin. Many of the artists included in the present exhibition would be at home in contemporary group shows of a more general nature.
Of personal interest (being a former art librarian) was a transformed card catalog case by Bay Area artist Reiko Fujii. The interactive piece allows the viewer to thumb through the contents; embellished descriptions on discarded catalog cards of art books from a local art college. The obsolete paper technology superseded by digital access now allows creative enhancement, with the artist instructing us, “to look through the drawers with curiosity not judgment.” What is on the surface a rather neutral object, closer inspection of the cards reveal concerns central to the exhibition’s focus. It just takes a little digging – the “undercurrents,” that the exhibitions title implies.
Works by Mitsuko Brooks, a New York City Artist, who exhibited at “Documenta 13,” and Brenda Louie, who received an MFA in visual arts from Stanford University in 1993, and has since gone on to teach at Cal State Sacramento, are an easy fit in any exhibition of contemporary art. Brooks, a photographer, and Louie, a painter, are adeptly at home in any situation, both of their work having broad appeal. While Louie’s painting in the show is literally cosmic in scope, and on the surface, Brook’s photographs are examples of contemporary body art at home in many a general gallery situation (“She is naked, she is whole and she exists as a person, not an exotic Asian female.”), continued reading of the artists’ statement reveals, “a deep longing to belong to Japan, yet identifying so much with my ingrained upbringing.”
Other works in the show have definite Asian-American associations. Judy Shintani’s deconstructed kimonos work exquisitely as both assemblage and installation, and have readily accessible connotations with the condition of Asian-American women. So too does the work of Redwood City resident Karen Chew, who describes her work as focusing “on how the differences between (my) mother’s childhood experience as a third generation Chinese-American differs from (my) own.” Her collage work, “express the internal questions of her identity and what her own definition of what a ‘good girl’ should be, and if having an opinion and sharing it affects that perception.”
“Having and opinion and sharing it,” is the reason for the entire exhibition. As a collective whole the artists express the “undercurrents” motivating them to “quest for space.” The wide-ranging exhibition will be of interest to anyone with or without a curiosity about the plight of the Asian-American woman artist. It’s simply great art that stands alone, secondarily highlighting the conditions under which the work was produced.