Editors' pick

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter


Editorial Review

Identity that goes beyond stereotypes

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Sept. 2, 2011

The group exhibition "Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter" asks what it means to be Asian in contemporary America. The answer is: It's complicated.

That's not just the assessment of an outsider. It's also the word used by Bibiane Choi - one of 60 Korean American subjects featured in the "Kyopo" portrait series on view in the smart and at times challenging National Portrait Gallery show - to describe her tangled feelings about identity.

Shot by Cindy Hwang, a photographer who works under the name CYJO, the portraits in "Kyopo" (a Korean term for an ethnic Korean who lives elsewhere) are each accompanied by short, first-person accounts reflecting on the nature of difference and assimilation. Lining both sides of the hallway along the exhibition entrance, the pictures have the slickness of a fashion shoot, but the texts reveal hidden depth and complexity.

Nowadays, we're more likely to see Asian Americans portrayed in popular media as computer geniuses, which is an improvement over earlier, less positive stereotypes. (For examples of those, see painter Roger Shimomura's witty assemblage of ethnic cartoon characters, "American vs. Disney Stereotypes.") But a cliche is still a cliche. CYJO's portraits, and her subjects' thoughtful stories, go a long way toward dispelling them.

While many of CYJO's subjects speak of being fully assimilated, that's not the case in the work of Hye Yeon Nam, a Korean PhD candidate whose four video self-portraits depict, in a way that's simultaneously wry and poignant, the awkwardness of being an outsider. In "Eating," "Drinking," "Walking" and "Sitting," the artist shows herself trying to eat cherry tomatoes using a ruler instead of a fork; sipping orange juice from a glass with a hole in the bottom; walking around New York with wooden boards on her feet; and sitting in a restaurant chair whose front legs have been sawed off. The absurdity is comical, but the metaphor for being just a little bit "other" cuts, too.

For artists Shizu Saldamando (an American of Japanese and Mexican ancestry) and Tam Tran, a Vietnamese-born immigrant raised in Memphis since childhood, the issue of fitting in is subtler. Both artists' work - Saldamando is a painter of her youthful peers, Tran a self-portrait photographer - explores gender, sexuality and social status as much as ethnicity. But what's interesting, particularly in Tran's slightly surreal images, is just how intertwined one stereotype can be with another. In her work, the teenage heroine of anime morphs from a hedonistic pop tart into a world-weary courtesan. Her works, which poke at the sensitive nexus of sex and race, are playful, yet pack a punch.

The work of Chinese-born, Kansas-based Zhang Chun Hong is the prettiest in the show. The artist draws on long paper scrolls, like the type used for landscapes, but her subject is hair - her own and that of her two sisters. Drawing the hair from behind, Zhang isolates the long, glossy black tresses from a body or face, making, in effect, another kind of landscape. But her pictures are also conceptual art of a sort, in which the twisted braids are tied up with notions of individuality and racial conformity.

One final note: Although the show features artists born both here and abroad, and ones of several ethic backgrounds, it's less diverse in other ways. Born and raised in Seattle, Shimomura is not just the only man in the show, but the only artist older than 40. That's not just okay. It might also be a sign that the long-standing sexism and ageism of the museum world - along with racism- have fallen by the wayside.

The story behind the work

As complicated - and, at times, as contradictory - as the work in "Portraiture Now" is, most of it involves fairly straightforward portraiture or self-portraiture. The photographs of Satomi Shirai are an exception. Drawn from the artist's "Home and Home: New York in My Life" series, Shirai's environmental portraits - shot in cluttered interior spaces in the Japanese immigrant's neighborhood in Queens - have a lot more mystery than the rest of the show.

Who are the people in them? And are the scenes staged or real? Her photos have the tension of tiny dramas.

The artist shoots both herself - that's her in "Laundry," with a Japan Day T-shirt drying on the balcony - and her friends. But the sitters are rarely identified, and sometimes, as in the case of the African American subject of "Eva," clearly not her. Faces are, as often as not, obscured. And the emotionally fraught settings - a floor strewn with the skins of peeled fruit in "Fortune Telling," or a figure hiding in the shower in "Shower Curtain" - seem a little theatrical.

The confusion is deliberate. Shirai's art is about dislocation, both literally and figuratively. "I try to create an experience of a moment," she has said, "that is in between everyday life and the extraordinary."

-- Michael O'Sullivan