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Asian American Portraits of Encounter
Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles, California
Review by Jeanne Willette

Shizu Saldamando, ''Cat and Carm,'' 2008, gold leaf and oil on wood. Photo: Michael Underwood.


Continuing through September 22, 2013


What does “identity” mean in a nation that is rapidly becoming a bright golden mocha? More specifically why would any museum want to mount a problematic exhibition titled “Asian American Portraits?” And to pose an even more challenging question, why would any artist who happens to be Asian American participate in such a show? 


The answers are more complex than the questions, and it is interesting to note that "Portraiture Now" originated out of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., a place with far fewer Americans of Asian heritage than in Los Angeles and a museum where most of those presented are white and male. Clearly, the correction, or as some would say, token inclusion on the East Coast, was not only necessary but overdue. 


However, the question of identity is fraught for those who have always been Americans, such as Roger Shimomura and Shizu Saldamando, who find such a limiting and stereotyping label to be irritating. In fact, Shimomura had to demand that the Gallery remove the demeaning hyphen before he would agree to participate as an “Asian American,” emphasis on American. A prominent performance artist, Seattle-born Shimomura traveled the nation presenting plays based on his grandmother’s diaries and her experiences in an American concentration camp during the Second World War. As a painter he does mash-ups of Los Angeles artists Sandow Birk, Robbie Conal, and Bay Area painter Robert Colescott. Shimomura follows in their footsteps by appropriating American iconic paintings redone in a cartoon style. Like Yasamasa Morimura, the artist inserts himself in the scenes: in Washington Crossing the Delaware, Shimomura is the Founding Father sailing into immortality with Samurai warriors as the patriots on board. 


Saldamando, an L. A. lady, was raised by activist parents: a Mexican father who loves Santana and the Beatles, and a Japanese American mother who worked for the Yellow Power movement. An observer of her social circle — mostly women and a few hip guys — Saldamando uses collage as a metaphor for merged and layered personal histories in mixed communities. Casual snapshots of her friends are painted onto wood grained or gold leaf backgrounds. Cat and Carm kiss on the edge of a field of gold leaf, and Carm reappears in "Carms’ Crew," three women in hoodies surrounded by golden rays of a rising sun. Like Shimomura, Saldamando understands that “ethnicity” is a rich gift, an exchange of cultures, but that the situation for those who are recent arrivals is somewhat different. 


The question of identity for immigrants becomes one of what has been left behind in the home country and what emerges in the new land. Zhang Chun Hong was trained as a professional artist from the age of fifteen in her home territory in China, Shenyang, Liaoning. Zhang came to America to go to graduate school at UC Davis, and her large vertical scrolls are graphite works showing the importance of family. The subject is hair, over life-sized portraits of female hair, long, dark, dense braided gleaming hair viewed from the back, twists that journey down the wall and into the gallery space. Polished and twisted, these charcoal ropes of hair are about relationships among herself, her twin sister and her older sister, making contact and keeping close. 


Satomi Shirai has been in America only a few years and the photographs of her life in New York are explorations of her new surroundings. Deceptively casual and seemingly un-posed, her images are actually staged contemplations of everyday activities, the familiar made strange, taking place in her apartment or in the homes of friends. Lacking the dark tones or the dark themes of Nan Goldin, the colors of Satomi’s digital images are light and fresh. The reexamination of the quotidian is compelling but allows the viewer to enter into the lives of others and to create their own narrative. In contrast to the intimate approach of Satomi, CYJO, aka Cindy Hwang, uses full body portraits of members of the people of the KYOPO, the Korean diaspora. Presented in the museum as intermediate size mug shots, the portraits line the wall. These are photos of people we all know (such as Daniel Dae Kim) and people who are unknown but a familiar part of the American scene. These individuals are the newcomers who, like CYJO have come to America and create a hybrid persona at the other edge of the Pacific Rim.  


Published courtesy of ArtSceneCal ©2013

Japanese American National Museum (JANM)

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