Tuesday, July 3, 2018
‘Detained’ in America: Immigration, Incarceration, and Imperialism in Diasporic Art

On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in favor of upholding President Trump’s travel ban against Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Although the official majority position written by Chief Justice John Roberts shies away from an explicit alignment with anti-Muslim bias, the fact remains that imposing a prohibition on migrants and visitors from five Muslim-majority countries enacts a vicious ideology of nativism against Muslims and other communities that do not fit the criteria of white, Christian, English-speaking, Western educated, upper-class, able-bodied, documented citizen. The same logic can be applied to the Department of Justice’s announcement on June 29 that it would, after intense public outcry, keep immigrant families together—in indefinite detention.

These decisions, far from being exceptions to the rule of American values, merely continue a long tradition in the country’s history of criminalizing the migrations and movements of people of color in the name of “security”, “merit”, and “legality”.

As the American people are confronted with the compounding moral crises of unchecked ICE raids, immigrant concentration camps, anti-black police brutality, complicity in Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, federal-level assaults on the labor movement, and Islamophobic travel bans, they would do well to look to the past for clues concerning the cause and consequence of their country’s shameful behavior both within and beyond its borders. This behavior—all of it transpiring under the failed leadership of the U.S. political establishment—has evaded justice and public apprehension for decades, if not centuries.

In this context, the Asian American Arts Centre looks back to 2006, when the Centre organized Detained, an exhibition and panel discussion that approached questions of incarceration, racial profiling, immigration, visibility, interconnectedness, public memory, and injustice through the art and activism of Asian and Arab Americans situated amidst multiple diasporas. Responding in large part to the targeting of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities in the post-9/11 era, Detained exhibited a cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary selection of artists including Wafaa Bilal, Chitra Ganesh, Mariam Ghani, Dorothy Imagire, Pia Lindman, Trong Nguyen, Lina Pallotta, Jenny Pollack, Dread Scott, and Rene Yung. The accompanying panel featured five activists whose work converged on fighting detention under the U.S. military-prison-industrial complex: Palestinian rights campaigner Konrad Aderer, Monami Malek of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), Adem Carroll of the Islamic Circle of North America, Tushar Sheth of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and Visible Collective.

AAAC, Exhibition postcard for 'Detained' (2006)

In addition to the panel and exhibition, Detained also featured a talk by James Yee, a former chaplain for the U.S. Army stationed at Guantanamo Bay who was arrested on unsubstantiated espionage charges and detained in solitary confinement for 76 days in 2003. Yee, a New Jersey-born Chinese American who converted to Islam, spoke out against the torture and unjust incarceration of Guantanamo’s Muslim detainees to whom he had been assigned to administer spiritual aid—and was tortured by his own country in return.

Turning to the artists, we witness parallels that run across (but do not negate) lines of race, time, gender, location, medium, and gesture. From the unsettling photographic/performance/video art of Wafaa Bilal’s “The Human Condition”, Trong Nguyen’s “Messages from Guantanamo”, and Jenny Polak & Dread Scott’s “Welcome to America”, to the archivalist re-creations of Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani’s “Index of the Disappeared” and Dorothy Imagire’s “Japanese American Concentration Camp”, there runs a common ethos of making visible that which has been concealed from view in American culture. Much like Ganesh and Ghani’s interactive “Guantanamo Effect”, we can thread an incriminating red line linking out-of-sight, out-of-mind incarceration centers like Angel Island, Carlisle boarding school, Attica, Manzanar, Guantanamo Bay, Rikers Island, and Brownsville together: an unthinkable genealogy of grotesque relations.

Chitra Ganesh & Mariam Ghani, "Guantanamo Effect" (2013), digital catalogue. All credit goes to the artists

In that vein, Wafaa Bilal’s watershed 2007 exhibition “Domestic Tension”, though it was not featured in Detained, exposes the contradictions of U.S. imperialism in creating climates of total war and total indifference that simultaneously co-constitute and slip past each other—holding some in thrall so that the rest might be “free”. For 31 days, Bilal confined himself to a solitary room and placed his body at the mercy of a paintball rifle whose trigger could be pulled via an open-access chat room trafficked by thousands of visitors by the end of the month. The ceaseless rat-tat-tat of the rifle, the large splotches of yellow paint plastering the room, and Bilal’s vulnerable, fugitive figure are testaments to the faceless, nameless precision violence which the artist experienced firsthand as an Iraqi refugee who lost his brother to an unmanned U.S. drone strike in 2005.

Wafaa Bilal, "Domestic Tension" (2007), photograph. All credit goes to the artist

So let’s expand our frame of reference: as Wafaa Bilal’s art shows us, detention, violence, and containment are issues that cannot be limited to sites existing within the mapped borders of the United States. All the different waves of migrants and refugees from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who have flocked to North America within the past hundred years—where are they coming from? And I don’t mean this in the No, where are you really from? sense. What I am asking is: what are the contexts, the conditions, the circumstances out of which certain groups of people have been compelled to take flight—and then get detained?

To try to answer that question, we need to start asking a larger set of questions: How many wars has the United States, whether by direct invasion or proxy campaign, started in the rest of the world? How many military bases have we—and I say we because most of us have consented to this peculiar government and its perplexing history—installed in countries that we have no conceivable right to occupy? How many violent coups and capitalist regimes have we financed in Central and South America? How many bombs have we dropped on Southeast, Central, and East Asia? How many tons of oil, rubber, cocoa, gold, salt, diamonds, ivory, and wood have we extracted from Africa—and for how much profit?

Interchange the recipients in each of the questions above and you’ll get directly variable results. However, the underlying function—U.S. imperialism—remains the same. At every link in the chain of the many diasporas implicated in the Detained exhibition, the myth of American benevolence crumples and collapses under the weight of its own deafening hypocrisy. People come to this country because this country has undermined and maimed their countries; we detain people from those countries because we believe they will undermine and maim this country. This empire.

Without losing sight of what is unfolding right before us—American state and corporate interests culling working class families and children for indefinite detention in euphemized concentration camps—we push forward through the veils of anonymity, indifference, and misinformation obscuring our view of the larger picture. No longer able to fool ourselves, art pushes us to confront the reality of the kind of people we really are—and the possibilities of who we might become.

Written by AAAC Summer intern Jeremiah Kim.
Read more
Thomas McEvilley | Asian American Art: The Transitional Generation

AAAC recently rediscovered an unpublished article written by late art historian Thomas McEvilley (1939-2013). McEvilley was an esteemed art history professor at Rice University, a contributing editor for Artforum and a senior advisor for Trans. He also contributed to the catalogue accompanying Contemporary Art in Asia: Tradition/Tensions. Another of McEvilley's articles, "Negotiating Modernisms: Contemporary Asian Art and the West" from the 1996 issue of ArtSpiral, is available on our website.

"Asian American Art: The Transitional Generation" was written on the occasion of AAAC's 2000 exhibition "Milieu III: Color," featuring the work of Natvar Bhavsar, Venancio C. Igarta, James Kuo, Ted Kurahara, and Seong Moy. McEvilley discusses an earlier variation of this lineup, in which Yun Gee and Miyoko Ito were included instead of Kuo and Moy (Ito could not be exhibited due to issues with shipping). "Milieu III" was the third in a series of exhibitions, "Asian Americans and Their Milieu 1945-65," curated by Robert Lee. Due to lack of funding, the "Milieu III" catalogue, with McEvilley's accompanying essay, was never published. We present the essay in its entirety here, along with several images of relevant artwork.

Natvar Bhavsar, Akshyaa, 1992. Photo courtesy of Asian American Arts Centre

Thomas McEvilley 


The theme of this exhibition, “Color,” refers directly to the confrontation of Asian artists, who often come from a black-and-white emphasizing visual tradition, with the emphasis in western Late Modernism--from Fauvism to Color Field painting--on expanses of bright saturated color.  It refers indirectly to the racial theme underlying the situation these artists have lived in most their adult lives.  

The artists in this exhibition--all in various ways “artists of color”--came to the United States during the period of Modernism, and their works are being exhibited here now in the period of post-Modernism. This situation is very different from that of artists who arrived in this country in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, and again from that of younger artists who have arrived since the revision of immigration laws in 1966 shifted preference away from Europe. Before the founding of the League of Nations at the end of World War I there was little opportunity for a non-western immigrant to enter the activity and discourse of Modernism, which was seen as a specifically western phenomenon not necessarily susceptible to being transplanted elsewhere.  The nineteenth century linkage of blood and soil meant that it could not be appropriate to an immigrant population either.  

In that era the Hegelian view of culture and history still held sway; each nation was said to have a national character which determined, and was revealed in its art and culture as well as in its politics and social structure.  Both national character and cultural tendency were regarded as linked to ethnicity, so each artist was regarded as irremediably fixed in his tradition; any move to get outside it would seem like a kind of betrayal of himself as well as of his national compeers.  As Sartre said in his introduction to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, a member of a colonized culture who took a position sympathetic to the colonizers had nothing left, neither the identity he was born and raised with nor the identity he sought to acquire through imitation.  Neither will have him, and he enters a kind of no-man’s land.  This was the hard fact: a member of a colonized culture could enter Modernism only through an act of betraying himself, his family, and his inherited community values.  The idea of a national identity which should be puristically maintained collaborated with the closely associated quality of race to create unbridgeable gaps between the world cultures and peoples.  A Chinese artist might come to America and begin making art there, but it would have to be his traditional or inherited artistic direction that he followed. Virtually no non-white people were recognized as validly entering and practicing Modernism. 

This situation changed in the early twentieth century.  The League of Nations was one reason and the breakdown of intercultural barriers by the foundational discoveries of modern physics--such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, which unfolded from 1905 to 1915--was another.  Both these developments promoted a sense of the universality of the human situation rather than its separation into parochial enclaves. At the same time the period of “primitivism” was occurring, when Picasso, Braque, Klee and other prominent western artists awakened to the aesthetic presence of non-western art in their midst and received its imprint. As African, Oceanic and Asian art demonstrably influenced European artistic Modernism, the sense of the universality of human selfhood increasingly took the place of the old insistence on national character and identity. 

James Kuo, Composition #1, 1993. Photo courtesy of AAAC.
From that time until the end of colonialism in the generation after World War II, it was possible for persons of other cultures to enter Modernism and take on the supposedly universalized identity of the Modernist westerner--but the cost was high. One might not bear the stigmata of a betrayer, but still a certain abandonment, even a tacit renunciation, of one’s inherited cultural identity seemed involved.  One would have to turn ones back on one’s own education and begin all over again, learning the art history and the discourse and values surrounding it, and attempting to generate enthusiasm for them as one’s own.  In this period the great examples are the Bombay Progressives, who in 1947 renounced the Indian heritage in favor of adopting European Modernist approaches to art making, on the assumption that such approaches were not ethnocentrically European but were somehow universal, like the western science that applied in the same way everywhere and the western capitalism which, in the immediate post-war era, seemed about to do the same. The individual artist was still supposed to be puristic in his cultural makeup, but now it was an alien or adopted purism.  As the Indian or Chinese artist had been supposed to be puristically Indian or Chinese, so now, becoming a westerner, he was to be puristically western. 

Hiddenly, such an artist must have perceived himself to be a hybrid, aware of an almost secret level of earlier conditioning lying beneath the surface veneer of westernization. Only recently did this hybridity come out of hiding and announce itself as a new approach to the idea of an inclusive and universal society.  With the end of colonialism in the years between 1947 and 1976 it was no longer possible for the West to pretend that it was the only cultural presence in a world of strangely silent aliens.   Indeed, as post-colonialism produced its inevitable byproduct of postmodernist multiculturalism, the situation of hybridity became elevated to a new idea of the cosmopolitan; only he who has nomadically made his way from culture to culture, acquiring layers that were not hidden but indexed on the surface, could claim to be, as Diogenes called himself, a Citizen of the World. Hybridism, nomadism, decentering, and pastiche became the ideals of a new age of humanity.  Now it was possible for the artist to merge the styles of various cultures retaining the one into which he or she was born as the foundation on which the nomadic superstructure of a variety of relativized points of view was erected.

In many parts of the world which have not yet entered Modernism this program may seem out-of-synch. As W.J.T. Mitchell has remarked, the western postmodernist might be advocating decentering to one who is still seeking a center, offering postmodernism to one who still longs for the charisma of Modernism.  For those of a generation that remembers the truth of yesterday, the Modernist benediction may still seem meaningful.  

Hegel declared both Africa and Asia ahistorical; they had not yet entered history, it seemed to him, because history meant progress and progress meant a conscious use of one’s life to work toward the shared human goal of a universal civilization. Since Africans and Asians, in his view, did not contribute to the constructive work of progress, they did not share in the creation of the meaning of history--which was virtually the same as not even existing at all.  Like the birds and animals, none of whom participated in the historical work of Progress, they were a part of that pointless and endless cyclicity of sameness that Hegel called Madness.  Like the insane in general, they had no legitimate self or identity.  

V. C. Igarta, Title Unknown, 1983. Photo courtesy of AAAC.

The artists in “Color” came to the United States in the second phase--after the League of Nations but before the end of colonialism. For immigrants of their generation the acquisition of Modernism as a new foundation for self-expression was a matter of pride; it not only offered economic success but also success as a person--entry into a community dedicated to the project of history and supposedly in tune with it. Each underwent a series of reshapings and redirectings in making the adjustment, and selected the elements of the contemporary western tradition that seemed most useful in terms of his or her past conditioning and the need to modify it. 

The oldest artist in the group, Yun Gee (1906 1963), exhibited between 1925 and 1939. He overlapped the pre-Modern and the Modernist phases, and enthusiastically and affirmatively plunged himself and his work into the Modern. His works from the 1920s and 30s show a precise and accurate sense of the aesthetic underlying the Modernism of his time.   Hints of Cubism share the surface with the perspectival illusion of deep space. Though the paints “holds the surface” it still is supple enough to open deep graceful holes into the space behind. In Park Bench II (1927) the dark thicket in the background is distanced by the bright and happy glitter of the yellow roadway; the fractalized or cubized bodies of the figures blend into and stand out from the interlocking paint meshes. The ages of Cezanne, Robert Delaunay, Leger and Picasso are blended with smoothness and sweetness. The pictorial surface is resplendent with difference--in tonality and distance--while clinging together as tightly as the skin of a peach.  In Street Scene (1926) humans carry on their daily activities beneath a sublime chaos of sky that seems almost El Greco-like in its implication of an unknown presence hanging over human life.  Though Yun Gee learned watercolor in China as a child, there is not much of Chinese tradition to be seen here. He has magically put off one selfhood like a robe and put on another to wear it with supreme comfort.  

Filipino by birth, V.C. Igarta began to exhibit his Magic Realist paintings in New York in 1938. Featuring moody young women--either white- or dark-skinned--seeming to concentrate their selfhood before a backdrop of natural forms, they verged on sentimental evocation of the non-western world as both lower than culture--that is, natural--and higher than it--that is, transcendent.  The non-western woman as a symbol of nature and the unconscious rightness of things is a Modernist cliche. Igarta’s later work evolved into geometric abstraction of high quality, though it appeared after the moment when geometric abstraction seemed brought about by an inner necessity of art history.  The paintings combine push-pull effects that gesture toward Hans Hoffman’s influence with a subtle look of color-mixing after the style of Joseph Albers in the semi-transparent overlays.  The planes are centered round the area where they interlock, pulling apart yet held together, with a balance of gentle but strong forces. 

Ted Kurahara, Triple Light Blue, 1984. Photo courtesy of AAAC                                                                
Ted Kurahara most directly addresses the theme of color which is a unifying subtext of the exhibition. Coming from a culture where economy of color-means was valued as one of the signs of artistic maturity, Kurahara, of all these artists, yields himself most fully to the late Modernist sense of the transcendent unity of saturated monochrome color.  The most successful works in these terms are the triptychs combining abstract expressionist thematics with those of Color Field and Minimalism, and based in their elegant edge -framing on Jo Baer’s work of the early 1970s.  Triple Mars Black (1982-83) and Triple Light Blue (1984-85) combine Baer’s elegant minimalism with suggestions of Barnett Newman’s hieratic iconicity of color. Like such African American artists as Joe Overstreet, Sam Gilliam and Frank Bowling, Kurahara continues making abstractions with an inner drift toward the monochrome after the mainstream of white western art history has left it as a milestone marking a turning of art’s path. The triptychs, with their threeness in oneness, gesture theologically toward the western idea of the Trinity, and toward such Modernist landmarks as Yves Klein’s Louisiana Museum triptych representing the trinity in Rosicrucian blue, red and gold.

Miyoko Ito (1918-1983) might be described as luxuriating in a restrained sense of color.  Her compositions, mostly based on the still life, have a powerful sense of illustration or design, as if she wanted to reveal her sense of the underlying harmony of things.  Like other artists of Asian extraction in her age group she was attracted to Cubism for the way it fitted everything together like facets of complex jewels, to Hoffman for the same quality as well as for his lack of fear of bright saturated colors, and to such soft Impressionist avatars as Dufy and Bonnard, for the intimate serenity of their view of life.  The prepared ground seems to exude the forms upon it, and to hold them together as a substrate lying beneath and unifying them. Her works achieved a high resolution in the mid-1950s in paintings such as Act II in the Dusk (1955) and several Untitleds in which gouache-thickened grey-greens and browns mesh like pieces of collage in an homage to the richness of evening’s muted colors.

Natvar Bhavsar (b. 1936) began exhibiting his work in the mid-1960s, when post-Modernism was just beginning in this country or just about to begin.  His work is rooted in late Modernism, especially in the poured Color Field paintings of Morris Louis.  Nevertheless, perhaps because of the beginning of multiculturalism in the United States with the Beat Zen movement of the late 1950s and the counterculture of the early 1960s, he also incorporated references to his Indian heritage, as a postmodernist nomadic artist might do.  Straining powdered pigment through a screen onto a canvas heavily soaked with binder, he creates what Irving Sandler has called “cloud like . . . continuums of color in which there are no recognizable subjects or discrete forms.”  The technique refers on the one hand to Indian cult practices involving the application of pure powdered pigment to various natural surfaces and on the other to the western Modernist worship of pure color as a vehicle of transcendent feeling.  Yves Klein--whose influence from Japanese artists such as the Gutai Group in the mid-1950s may have positioned him as a sympathetic figure to Asian sensibilities--had pioneered the practice in the late 1950s. More recently, Indian-born Anish Kapoor and American Lita Albuquerque have applied unmodulated powdered pigment to sculptural forms that suggest an organic sublime.  But closest in spirit to Bhavsar’s practice is the remark attributed to the Color Field painter Jules Olitski that what he sought in his paintings was an effect as of powdered pigment flung into the air and filling the space evenly yet airily before it began to float downward. Chinese and Japanese ideas of the Void and the Indefinite seem to create a link with the transcendentalism of Modernist abstraction.

Seong Moy, The Little "500", 1958. Color woodcut. Photo courtesy of AAAC

The Chinese, Japanese, and Indian traditions have all produced magnificent schools of abstraction, both hard-edged and painterly, yet it is not their own traditions that these artists rooted themselves in for their drive toward the universal. Western abstraction had its own claim to universality, which had two foundations. One was the theosophical tradition of the mystical value of “pure color” which supposedly addressed only “higher” faculties.  This view underlay much of the formalist criticism of Greenberg, Fried and others, but was brought most glaringly into the open by Sheldon Nodelman. For artists whose early conditioning was Asian, this transcendentalism merged with elements of Taoism, Hinduism, and Eastern Buddhism. In addition, the point of abstraction, in terms of Modernist thinking about particularity and universality, was that one supposedly could not identify an artist’s ethnicity or gender by contemplating his or her abstract painting.  The abstractness of the work pointed toward the fundamental building blocks of nature which--like Plato’s “five regular solids” in the Timaeus--are prior to ethnic identity.  So universalistic abstraction functioned as a medium of exchange and recombination through which Modernism sought to go beyond ethnicity into an idealized or dreamed-up realm of superpersons who transcended particularity.  These superpersons were blank in terms of the differentia of culture and the body--but in being blank they were also closer to being white people than anything else.  In projecting outward its idea of universality, the West had projected outward its idea of itself, only slightly hidden. 

This was why Modernist idealism had an enormously dangerous potential that does not even need to be specified--it underlies many of the disasters of our century.  Still it possessed a certain nobility in its desire to go beyond difference.  The problem is that this desire was unclear, so its nobility went astray.  Even logic might show this. The path beyond difference might more fruitfully be sought in the pastiche of different traditions than in the elevation of one to the status of a universal blank. This proposed elevation was to be a form of the Hegelian miracle of Aufhebung or sublation, whereby something incorporates its opposite yet manages to become thereby even more purely itself.

Young Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, who now lives in New York, once put a volume of western art history and a volume of Chinese art history in a washing machine; through the little window they could be observed coming apart and mixing and finally blending into a kind of pasty grey matter; now it all looked the same, though nothing had been removed or denied on either side. In this simple exemplum, the project of attaining a position beyond ethnic differences is not pursued by directly denying them.  First they are affirmed, then confronted with one another in an intercourse which in time blends them.   Nothing became more purely itself, because nothing else was denied its selfhood. This blending of particular differentia is a down-to-earth or nominalist approach as compared with the transcendentalist positing of a blankness that is not inwardly defiled by a admixture.  The transcendent blank of a mystical white canvas (“one white as one god,” as Rauschenberg said of his white paintings in 1951) is based on a denial of difference and an exclusion of it, whereas the indistinguishable mass of things blended together is based on the affirmation of difference--which it includes in an embrace so ample as to include its opposite too.  

Notes  ----------------------------
1. G.W.F. Hegel. The Philosophy of History, English translation by J. Sibree (Buffalo, New–York: Prometheus Books, 1991), passim.

2. Jean Paul Sartre, Preface, in Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, English translation by Constance Farrington Harmondsworth, England, and New York: Penguin, 1967).

3. See William Rubin, ed., Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, 2 vols. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984) and see also letters sections, Artforum magazine, November 1984, February and May 1985.

4. See Thomas McEvilley, The Postmodern Transformation of Art, in Michael Kelly, ed., Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19), 4 vols. 1, pp. 433-439.

5. W.J.T. Mitchell, Postcolonial culture, Post-Imperial Criticism. In Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, ed., The Post Colonial Studies Reader  (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 477

6. Irving Sandler, Natvar Bhavsar: Painting and the Reality of Color (Sydney: Craftsmen House in association with G + B Arts International, 1998), p.8.

7. See Thomas McEvilley, Seeking the Absolute through Paint: The Monochrome Icon, in The Exiles return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post Modern Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 9-56.  
Read more
Friday, June 29, 2018
Recognizing Tradition in Modernity: Recap of Yun-Fei Ji Panel Discussion with John Yau and Robert Lee

John Yau, Yun-Fei Ji, and Robert Lee at the panel at James Cohan Gallery
In celebration of artist Yun-Fei Ji’s recent solo exhibition “Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributions” at the James Cohan Gallery on 291 Grand Street, the Asian American Arts Centre organized a panel discussion at James Cohan on Saturday, June 9 that featured Yun-Fei Ji, art critic John Yau, and AAAC Executive Director Robert Lee.

To kick off the conversation, Yau interviewed Ji about his early life growing up in China and the development of his artistic and thematic sensibilities as Ji moved between various contexts on different continents over the course of his career. As Ji recounted his personal journey navigating childhood ghost stories, China’s political landscape, a master’s program at the University of Arkansas, and the New York City art scene, he corroborated the stark analysis posed by John Yau in the opening paragraph of his recent article in Hyperallergic: “[Ji] is a Chinese artist who isn’t just a Chinese artist, an American artist who isn’t just an American artist. When a curator at an American museum told him he couldn’t show his work because he is Chinese, he replied: ‘I am as American as Willem de Kooning.’... In the age of globalization and migration, both voluntary and forced, Ji is an artist who doesn’t quite fit comfortably into China or America.

As AAAC intern Amy Hong noted in a previous Artspiral blog article previewing Yun-Fei Ji’s exhibition and panel at James Cohan, the Arts Centre has supported Ji since the early days of his career by exhibiting his work on two separate occasions in the 1996 and ‘99—well before Ji became an internationally acclaimed artist. Reflecting on the question of identity, AAAC Director Robert Lee has emphasized that the Arts Centre considered Ji an Asian American artist back then and continues to see him in that light today. Lee maintains that Ji is an artist who “inherits the heritage of two or more major traditions, and understands the contradictions, paradoxes, and dilemmas of straddling multiple cultures as generative for renewal and social change.”

In the latter half of the 20th century, multiple generations of Chinese artists in China and the United States struggled with the issue of inhabiting an uneasy space between two cultures. Many of these artists looked upon China’s immense, rich artistic heritage as a burden; they resolved to become modern by rejecting centuries-old Chinese techniques and embracing wholly American styles of abstract expressionism, conceptual art, and minimalism. It is only within the past 20 years that a new generation of Chinese artists including Yun-Fei Ji has taken on the mantle of tradition once again, breaking new ground on ancient soil.

During the panel, Lee acknowledged these historical trends by raising the question of tradition and modernity in Ji’s work: How is it so easy for Ji to see himself as a modern artist although he uses traditional Chinese tools and methods? Rather than elucidate his internal mindset, Ji responded in a fashion that was as specular as his art: he reflected the question back at Lee, leaving the answer to the asker’s own interpretation. To Lee, then, Yun-Fei Ji’s art might be considered akin to a period film—in other words, Ji adopts a historical setting as a stage by which to address contemporary issues like gentrification and displacement.

In that vein, one audience member asked during the Q&A whether Yun-Fei Ji’s exhibition had been organized as a response to the controversy and community outrage surrounding James Cohan’s exhibition of Israeli-German-American artist Omer Fast’s solo installation August eight months ago. A representative of James Cohan Gallery clarified that Ji’s exhibition had already been scheduled months in advance of Fast’s exhibition.

Although neither Yun-Fei Ji nor Robert Lee weighed in on the question at the time, it goes without saying that the panel itself—which touched on Ji’s ability to connect themes of displacement and haunting across multiple cultures and social configurations—occupied a definitive space in relation to the issues highlighted by the Chinatown community’s reaction to Fast’s installation. By making a concerted effort to welcome Ji back to Chinatown and draw in community members for the event, the Arts Centre aimed to emphasize the value of the James Cohan Gallery as a contemporary art institution that can genuinely invigorate the cultural life of the community. Artists like Yun-Fei Ji whose works can span centuries and speak to a myriad of audiences are crucial to the AAAC’s mission of cultivating Asian American art and making it accessible to the world-at-large.

– Written by AAAC intern Jeremiah Kim
Read more
Friday, June 15, 2018
Remembering 'Public Art in Chinatown': 40 Years of Community-Centered Art at AAAC

In the summer of 1988, the Asian American Arts Centre launched an innovative exhibition titled Public Art in Chinatown. Curated by the Centre’s Executive Director Bob Lee and accompanied by essays from prominent Asian American critics and scholars such as John Yau, Peter Kwong, and Kyong Park, Public Art in Chinatown comprised a selection of sculptures, models, drawings, and site plans for specific locations in the Chinatown community by 14 artists. “The aim of the exhibition,” Lee explained in an issue of the Hong Kong-based art magazine Artention International, was “to present a new image for Chinatown, not only to its Asian inhabitants, but to all Americans.”

Among the 14 artists who contributed to the project, Mel Chin drafted a proposal for a community park in a small, triangular patch of grass enclosed by the Manhattan Bridge, Forsyth Street, and Canal Street. The park, which he called “The Garden Where the Wild Grass Obscures the True Pearl,” would be infused with the Chinese philosophical and metaphysical tradition of Feng Shui in order to “amplify and circulate the cultural breath essential to revitalize the spirit of self” for Chinatown’s increasingly diverse array of residents in the late 1980s. Chin planned to build and deposit a religious reliquary at a specific location within the park that would channel cosmic energy between Chinatown’s communities and the worlds they straddled. According to Bob Lee, Chin consulted—with AAAC’s assistance—a local Daoist shaman to visit the site and pinpoint the exact location where this reliquary should be laid.

Although the proposal for Chin’s park was never realized, his vision for rejuvenating an unnoticed, unremarkable plot of land in Chinatown speaks to the Asian American Arts Centre’s primary goals in curating Public Art in Chinatown in 1988 and ensuing exhibitions over the past  four decades: to diminish the divide between the arts and the general public, and to continuously cultivate the Asian American artistic tradition in our local, national, and international context.

Today, we witness echoes of Mel Chin’s public art proposal for the entrance to Manhattan Bridge taking on a new shape only a few blocks away. In April 2017 the New York City Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the Van Alen Institute and Chinatown Partnership, announced its Gateways to Chinatown project, calling for proposals to “plan, design, and construct an iconic contemporary neighborhood marker” at the intersection of Chinatown and Little Italy—an island of land enclosed by Baxter, Walker, and Canal streets, commonly known as the Canal Street Triangle. This design competition, funded by local government and NYC-based non-profits, promises a budget of $900,000 for the winning team to erect its design, with construction planned to commence this year.

Beneath the gleaming facade of the project’s website and the proposals from various architecture and design firms, however, lies an unaddressed problem: in order to build the information kiosk which paved the way for the anticipated Gateways to Chinatown landmark, the city first had to forcibly expel 32 vendors of “counterfeit merchandise” from the Canal Street Triangle in 2008. While undoubtedly a complex issue, at the heart of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crackdown on Chinatown’s informal street economy was an attempt to protect the profits of multi-billion dollar fashion companies like Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Rolex. Ten years down the pipeline, as the NYC DOT aims to “stimulate economic development” through Gateways to Chinatown, one cannot help but wonder whose interests will be served by this “development”—and who will be shoved to the curb.

Although some of the proposals for the Gateways to Chinatown competition are at least culturally and aesthetically tasteful—one submission by Clouds Architecture Office, a stark-white ovalesque arch, evokes the elevated annular form of Toshio Sasaki’s otherworldly “Sun Gate” monument proposal next to the Manhattan Bridge Gate for Public Art in Chinatown in 1988—others are downright tone-deaf. One of the more extravagant (and therefore, lucrative) proposals by architecture firm ODA New York reveals the distance between upscale contractors for public projects and the communities they are supposed to serve. ODA’s “Dragon Gate” pavilion design suspends a pixelated red dragon within a boxy steel lattice structure whose copper-painted bars double as a bamboo facsimile. Though it purports to “delicately blend traditional [Chinese] cultural heritage with modern materials and construction,” this design makes an elementary blunder: the dragon, an unrestrainable figure of power, prosperity, and heavenly authority in Chinese culture, is effectively trapped inside a flimsy cage for all the world to see. Given that members of the Chinatown community have already expressed their ire at the exact same problem appearing in the Triangle’s new information kiosk (in this case, a gold dragon meekly peeks its head out from under the kiosk’s roof), the outrage will likely be ten times as loud if ODA’s proposal is chosen by the city.

The commoditizing, corporatist undertones of this new public art project in Chinatown stand in stark contrast to Mel Chin’s proposal in 1988. Whereas the monument that will soon tower over Canal Street’s teeming thoroughfare has its foundations in the criminalization of poor and working-class residents, Chin took conscious steps to “incorporate...rather than ignore” the concerns of the homeless who occupied his proposed site. Taking stock of the Public Art in Chinatown exhibition, John Yau assessed that Chin’s work “transcend[ed] the cultural diversity that currently exist[ed] within the [Chinatown] community by reaching back to the deepest past...an archaic origin,” while also addressing “the deepening gulfs separating the various social strata of contemporary society.”

The title of Yau’s essay—“To Propose, To Provoke”—reminds us of art’s role in relation to the community in which it is situated, whether that be Manhattan’s Chinatown or the larger collectivity of Asian Americans and diasporic Asians scattered across the globe. As our society continues to evolve and grapple with its own contradictions, we must keep a watchful eye to the artists who make us “aware of the changing ingredients of reality.” By the same token, we must remain vigilant to forces which seek to conceal those very contradictions under the mask of art and culture. As AAAC looks back from 2018 to 1988, we recognize what has changed in the circumstances and values guiding our work—and what hasn’t.

— Written by Jeremiah Kim (2018 Summer Intern)
Read more
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Miyoko Ito: A Search for Place

Artists Space’s recent exhibition of Asian American artist Miyoko Ito, “Heart of Hearts” (April 7 - May 6, 2018), presents oil paintings from the 1970s until her death in 1983. Ito was active from the mid-40s to early 80s. This important early Asian American artist should be recognized for her unique manner of visual expression that mediated questions of heritage and modernity.

Miyoko Ito, Island in the Sun (1978), oil on canvas. Photo by Bob Lee

The Asian American Arts Centre attempted to exhibit Ito with other Asian American artists in 2000 for the exhibition “Milieu Part III: Color.” This show was the third in a series entitled “Asian Americans and Their Milieu 1945-65,” curated by Robert Lee. We wish we could have exhibited Ito in 2000 as we intended. However, due to complications that arose during the shipping process, her work could not be included in the show. It instead opened with the five remaining artists’ work (Natvar Bhavsar, Venancio C. Igarta, James Kuo, Ted Kurahara, and Seong Moy). Among these artists, Ito’s use of color is distinct; her use of extremely vivid hues, analogous colors, and subtle contrasts is fresh and highly evolved. These sumptuous color schemes, in conjunction with her surreal compositions, contribute to the strange allure of her work. In a recently rediscovered article written on "Milieu III" by established art critic Thomas McEvilley, never published for lack of funding, McEvilley writes:

"Miyoko Ito (1918-1983) might be described as luxuriating in a restrained sense of color.  Her compositions, mostly based on the still life, have a powerful sense of illustration or design, as if she wanted to reveal her sense of the underlying harmony of things.  Like other artists of Asian extraction in her age group she was attracted to Cubism for the way it fitted everything together like facets of complex jewels, to Hoffman for the same quality as well as for his lack of fear of bright saturated colors, and to such soft Impressionist avatars as Dufy and Bonnard, for the intimate serenity of their view of life.  The prepared ground seems to exude the forms upon it, and to hold them together as a substrate lying beneath and unifying them.  Her works achieved a high resolution in the mid-1950s in paintings such as Act II in the Dusk (1955) and several Untitleds in which gouache-thickened grey-greens and browns mesh like pieces of collage in an homage to the richness of evening’s muted colors."

Miyoko Ito, Gorodiva (1968), oil on canvas. Photo by Bob Lee

Miyoko Ito was born in 1918 in Berkeley, California to Japanese parents. As a young child, her family moved to Japan, where she excelled at calligraphy and traditional landscape painting. In a 1978 interview with Dennis Barrie, Ito states, “Those five years [in Japan] are the root of what I am now,” indicating the continuing significance of Japanese tradition in her work. After returning to Berkeley at age ten, a decision made by the family due to her ill health, she struggled to learn English; in order to do so, she resolved to suppress her knowledge of Japanese. Although she continued to read in Japanese, she refused to speak it. Ito cites her troubled relationship with language as a factor in her development as a visual artist.

In 1942 Ito was sent to an internment camp south of San Francisco, the Tanforan Assembly Center, with her husband who was later sent to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah; both internment camps held approximately 8,000 Japanese Americans. She received her diploma from UC Berkeley in the mail while at Tanforan. While it is difficult to directly relate her experience in the camps to her later work’s imagery and style, it likely had a profound impact. After a brief stint at Smith College, she moved to Chicago in 1944 to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She remained there until her death in 1983.

Ito’s work is marked by a precise use of color and extremely subtle tonal variations that are both soothing and disorienting. These abstract oil paintings feature ambiguous curved and geometric shapes that multiply evoke landscape, architecture, and the body. The frames of the canvases seem to open into various alternate interior spaces that simultaneously flatten themselves. In Tabled Presence (1971) the viewer looks into the interior of a box-like structure in the upper portion of the canvas, yet its contours do not logically correspond to the space inside; two tubes project from a wall only to transition into flat shapes, breaking the illusion of space. The entire structure, generally planar but unrecognizable, can also read as a kind of bust or portrait. This allusive, elusive imagery is hypnotic and mysterious; ultimately, her works resist easy description.

Miyoko Ito, Mandarin, or the Red Empress (1977), oil on canvas. Photo by Bob Lee

Her brightly saturated palettes, fusion of the geometric and the organic, ambiguous imagery recall Western movements such as Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism; in fact, Ito cites Hans Hofmann and Picasso as two major influences on her work. Perhaps her training in Japanese calligraphy and landscape painting can be seen in her extremely fine, carefully layered application of paint. It is also possible to read in her shifting indications of space a search for place, a reflection of the instability and geographical dislocations of her youth and early adulthood.

An excerpt from the 2000 press release for “Milieu III” reads:

“Asian American artists’ work reflects the struggle to respond to these conditions and their dual cultural heritage.  Asian American artists faced a choice.  They chose to affirm or revise, reconcile or ignore, embrace or deny these cultural sources.  Each of the artists in this exhibition carried forward various artistic goals. When seen as a spectrum of Asian adaptations reflecting the processes of diversity and hybridity, they betray, often inadvertently, a spacious geometry of a multicultural universe.”

Miyoko Ito’s work too can be read as a mediation of differing cultures and traditions that resulted in a unique hybrid of Asian American art. Despite Ito’s renown in Chicago, she did not achieve during her lifetime the broader recognition she deserves. Perhaps "Heart of Hearts" and BAMPFA's exhibition of Ito's work earlier this year signify the approach of a critical reappraisal of her work.

Written by summer 2018 intern Amy Hong


For more information on Miyoko Ito: https://brooklynrail.org/2006/05/artseen/miyoko-ito
For installation views of "Heart of Hearts" at Artists Spacehttp://www.artnews.com/2018/04/25/miyoko-ito-artists-space-new-york/
For more information on Miyoko Ito: MATRIX 267 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive: http://theseenjournal.org/art-seen-national/looking-westward-chicago-artist-returns-home/
Read more