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Torn Between Two Cultures




at the Gary Marks Gallery, through April 26

By Mark Swartz

At the beginning of the century, Asian art represented either a pathway for collectors interested in cultivating different sensibilities or a resource for European and American modern artists searching for novel techniques. The differences that gave rise to such impulses have diminished since then, however. Eastern techniques are easily available to Western artists and vice versa, and the sensibilities of Hollywood have engulfed the globe and helped to create a common language of images.

Today Asian art is no longer the "other," instead reflecting the ways Asians reinterpret or distort American culture on the basis of their assumptions about it. For Americans, the results can be akin to looking in a fun-house mirror--and apparently we like the experience. The cover story of the March ARTnews touted a new generation of Asian artists, quoting a Sotheby's representative as saying, "Contemporary Asian art is one of the fastest-growing fields of collecting." On the cover is Mariko Mori's enhanced photograph with sound Birth of a Star (1995), which shows an Asian girl in a miniskirt listening to pop music on an oversize set of headphones--a piece that exemplifies the way Asian artists are reprocessing American culture. The ARTnews article also mentions Yasumasa Morimura, who does self-portraits dressed up as different movie stars.

Asian artists who look toward America are producing historical documents of the cultural ferment between East and West. But I would argue that Asian-American artists can create more personal, perhaps more effective meditations on the same subject because the cultural ferment takes place within them. "Dilemma," a group exhibition of ten young Asian-American artists, strives to present as many facets of this phenomenon as possible, including--as curator One Danny Yoon writes--the viewpoints of "the second generation [of immigrants], adoptees, those of mixed heritage, and lesbians and gays."

A sort of mascot for the show is the Japanese television superhero Ultraman, featured in Dean Yamada's painting Everyday Struggle and appearing on the exhibit's fliers and in its "user's guide." I imagine that this live-action character--who also appeared on U.S. TV, a sort of ancestor to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers--was the slightly depressing alternative to Superman and Spiderman for Asian-American boys growing up in the 1970s. Ultraman was Asian and, as usual with superheroes, caused a lot of mayhem, but he was hard to know as a person because you never saw his face. An unfortunate choice as hero but a suitably ironic emblem for this show, he exemplified the dreaded word "inscrutable."

Eric Manabat in his video installation, The Church of the United States in the Philippines, takes the most overtly political stance of the show, acknowledging that East-West discourse is rooted in European colonialism. The video, which takes the form of a cheap television commercial for the International Monetary Fund, shows two white salesmen exhorting viewers to dial 1-800-OUTA-DEBT in order to obtain emergency loans and "peace-keeping" troops--two strategies that perpetuate the unequal relations between first-world and third-world countries under what remains of the colonial system. Here, as in other shows, better-produced works of video art tend to be less political. Suji Lee's Scrub is shot more carefully that Manabat's video and has the slickness of an MTV clip; in it she coats herself in paint, inviting contemplation of cultural assumptions about skin color but failing to make any pointed observations.

Two of the more interesting artists satirize specific Asian stereotypes. Indigo Som's Howards and Hoovers is a reworked fan book of the type used by designers to select Pantone colors. The colors all have names--the slightly old-fashioned Anglo names that immigrant Asian parents give their sons because they phonetically resemble Asian names: Hubert, Curtis, Bonaparte. In the text that appears on clear plastic sheets between the leaves of colors, Som tells of meeting two people named Hoover Chan within three weeks. Her work, published under the auspices of Bitchy Buddha Press, is energized by the Asian art tradition of palm-sized books of calligraphy and ink drawings. Suen Wong's two "bad girl paintings," as she calls them, depict the bleached, punked-out Asian woman who's tired of fulfilling the academic and behavioral expectations of her parents and her society. Of course, by rebelling she winds up as yet another stereotype. That's just one of the dilemmas brought forth in "Dilemma."

Instead of directly addressing ethnic issues, Mari Eastman, Jin Lee, and Charlie Cho explore identity in a more general sense, using fragmentation to capture a state of mind. In other gallery settings--that is, in exhibits not emphasizing multiculturalism--the work of these talented artists brings to mind the fragmentation characteristic of young American artists of every background. But in this show, their pieces are about the fragmentation that comes from having parents who don't act like your friends' parents.

Eastman, who has lived in Singapore and Japan, grew up with what she calls "permanent culture shock." Her two unfinished paintings, installed with studied indifference in the gallery window, contain amid doodles of stars and arrows such mass-media images as Chewbacca and Calvin Klein models. Addressing the subject of identity tangentially, she gives her selection of cultural artifacts a kind of mercenary naivete.

In Lee's "Untitled Vignette" series, the fragmentation of the self is literal: each of its three blurred photos contains a single limb, which may or may not be attached to a body. Cho intersperses violence with memoir more elaborately in his photographic installation Love Crimes, featuring hundreds of pictures that have been cut in pieces and restored. Some of the photos are explicitly sexual, violent, or both, and some of them seem to have been candid shots of friends before the images were cut in pieces and dropped into this weird narrative. Altogether it looks like a storyboard for a David Lynch movie with an Asian cast.

Even when they're being individually ironic or disingenuous, collectively the artists featured in "Dilemma" are presenting forthright documents of their cultural predicament. And in doing so they're burying the inscrutability of Ultraman, the show's ridiculous and poignant mascot.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Second Honor" by Suen Wong.

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