Reviewed by Michael S. Gant
QUESTIONS of identity bedevil the essayists in Asian/American/Modern Art: Shifting Currents, 1900–1972, a survey of 20th-century works by Asian American artists. As the introduction to this excellent catalog to a traveling exhibit (which runs through Jan. 18 at the de Young Museum) says, the term Asian American didn't even exist when the artists in the show were working. Clear influences from a variety of cultures—Japanese, Chinese, Filipino—can be seen in the well-annotated individual entries; so too are stylistic movements, from Cubism to Minimalism. The multitude of visions included soon swamp any collectivizing critique.
Instead, Asian/America/Modern Art presents a wonderfully wide swath of artworks, from famous exercises in sculptural purity by Isamu Noguchi to the little-known photographer Chao-chen Yang, whose 1951 color photograph Apprehension, showing a frightened man on the phone, anticipates the "staged" photography of Cindy Sherman and others. Seattle-based Yang experimented in what he called the "atomchrome color process" but was stymied by technological shortfalls.
Some artists speak directly to the Japanese-American experience of the World War II internment camps. The most affecting example is Dan Harada's 1944 oil Barracks, which emphasizes the isolation that prisoners felt in an empty, sand-colored landscape of barracks casting shadows so dense they are pools of blackness on the canvas. Artists like C.C. Wang and Chang Dai-chien rework traditional Chinese landscape and scroll paintings to new ends.
One of Northern California's leading painters, Chiura Obata, has two landscapes that might be called fire and ice. Lake Basin in the High Sierra (circa 1930), done in ink on silk, depicts an oval blue lake backed by a rising range of glacier and granite; Setting Sun: Sacramento (1928) turns a sunset into a high sky laced with tendrils of fiery clouds that seem like mythological creatures. Also impressive is Filipino artist Alfonso Ossorio's Beachcomber (1953), a large, dense-all-over field of biomorphic figures swarming in some kind of cosmic force field of creation and dissolution. This exceptional piece exists in its own nether land between surrealism and drippy action painting. Just as startling a discovery is Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman's T-shaped mural Urban Fantasy (1954), which posits a present world of motion (ocean liner, diesel train and delivery vans) below a skyful of sci-fi possibilities (a red rocket ship, a hovercraft and a monorail). It's no surprise to learn that Kingman had a career as an illustrator and designer for Hollywood films. (Edited by Daniell Cornell and Mark Dean Johnson; University of California Press; 168 pages; $45 hardback)
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