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
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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 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)
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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:
For installation views of "Heart of Hearts" at Artists Space
For more information on Miyoko Ito: MATRIX 267 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive:
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Tuesday, June 5, 2018
"Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributions": Yun-Fei Ji Returns to Chinatown

Asian American Arts Centre helps promote Yun-Fei Ji’s recent exhibition

Yun-Fei Ji, Last Days of Village Wen (detail), 2011

Yun-Fei Ji’s “Rumors, Ridicules, and Retributions” is on view at the James Cohan Gallery at 291 Grand St through June 17. Ji’s previous work addressed the effects of the Three Gorges Dam on community displacement. Much of his new work addresses a similar project, the Nan Shui Bei Diao, or South-North Water Division, which plans to divert water from rural areas to rapidly growing urban centers. The resulting displacement of rural Chinese communities can be viewed parallel to the displacement of Asian American communities in Chinatown due to gentrification, as well as broader discourse on immigration in the US and abroad; the implications of Ji’s work extend to various global populations and ideological debates. Ji’s usage of traditional Chinese painting techniques to represent these scenes of industrial disaster and political and cultural history is subtle, subversive, and immensely relevant.

Yun-Fei Ji is one of many artists who were supported by the Asian American Arts Centre in the early stages of their careers before achieving international fame. His return to Chinatown is significant as he continues to pose questions important to Asian American activism and situate Asian issues in the contemporary art world, breaking down the concept of “Asian” as “other.” Through exhibitions such as Ji’s, AAAC aims to break down the isolation of the Asian American/Chinatown community so its culture becomes as well-known as its cuisine, and Asian American art becomes integrated within an international and city-wide context. Yun-Fei Ji’s exhibition can be situated in the context of Chinatown, China, and other displaced communities and environmental discourses, making his work and his presence vital to AAAC’s mission.

Yun-Fei Ji, Mistaking Each Other For Ghosts, 2007

AAAC brought together and worked with local artists and cultural activists to explore and develop a positive approach to promoting this exhibition. Community cultural perspectives and viewpoints from China helped to inform the following statement released by AAAC:

“Yun Fei Ji is coming to Chinatown. Such a prominent artist who is internationally recognized has asked that his next exhibition in NYC opening on April 28th be in this community.  The last time he was here was in 96’ and 99’ when I had the chance to exhibit him at AAAC – Asian American Arts Centre. At that time he was an emerging artist.  Long before his work was featured in ‘Displacement: the Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art’ in 2008 where reports of the flooding of the Yangtze River were based on his own interviews, research and observations, that revealed the impact on the Chinese people and their environment became an international story. 
“As an American citizen he has seen other disasters, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis. His work has been about China, his quotes – ‘What do you do when so much control and power is concentrated in the hands of a few?’ ‘I saw…how the people who put in all the work paid the price, and the people who benefited from all the work paid no price.’ these are about China too, but their meaning has implications everywhere. This will be his sixth exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery over several years, some at their gallery in Shanghai.  This is the first however, on 291 Grand St.  
“ ‘I try to mimic the method that underlies …early Chinese characters: I invent forms that are like words to describe the world’ – Yun Fei Ji offers us as Chinese a way to describe the world, even the world of New York City. 
“I have had the chance to exhibit several artists who are well known today, Ai Wei Wei, Mel Chin, Martin Wong, Xu Bing, and Zhang Hongtu among them, but all before they became so prominent. This may be the first time I will have the chance to welcome such an important artist back to this community. More of us going to the opening night would make this a wonderful occasion.  Artists like these can give us and Chinatown itself a new image, can give us a sense of who we are today.”

James Cohan Gallery has represented Asian American artists for over ten years and we thank them for their support. AAAC also thanks Bill Weinberg and Rong Xiaoqing, who have written insightful articles on Yun-Fei Ji’s exhibition at Village Voice and Sing Tao Daily. AAAC additionally thanks John Yau, poet and art critic, for his participation in the discussion with Yun-Fei Ji and Bob Lee of AAAC on Saturday, June 9 – 4pm to 6pm at James Cohan Gallery. John was in the first panel talk AAAC sponsored in 1983 so it is most appropriate he joins us for this event.

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