Stripped of its muddled thesis, "Tradition and Innovation: Chinese and Korean Artists of Maryland" at the University of Maryland University College would be just a badly installed show in which some works sap vitality from others. Unfortunately, the exhibit also purports to be an investigation of how Asia's history and tradition affect nine contemporary artists. As such, it is a resounding flop.
The trouble begins with the thesis articulated in the exhibition's unsigned statement, which starts out by explaining that tradition and innovation have been complementary forces in China and Korea since time immemorial and that those cultures have histories "literally millennia long."
Because of that, the statement continues, it's "hardly surprising then that tradition should take on a very different meaning in Asia than it does here with our scant 200 years of existence. The Chinese and Korean artist can never escape tradition, but that very fact makes him all the more aware of the importance of innovation, creativity and originality."
Do tell. It's hard to say what is more offensive about those specious notions, their misrepresentation of Western cultural history or the crude stereotyping on which that falsehood rests. Simply put, the premise here is that Asian art is rooted in an ancient culture and is thus deep and rich, while American art grows from a young culture and is therefore shallow and superficial. That's an insult to Asian and American artists alike.
One doubts whether any artist in the exhibit, including those practicing traditional Asian art forms such as calligraphy, believes such drivel. But suppose for a moment that American art wasn't actually part of an artistic tradition dating back thousands of years, that it came into being when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Would that relatively truncated history mean artists in America were forever doomed to be less innovative, creative and original than their Chinese and Korean counterparts? No, it wouldn't.
And what to make of an artist like Nam June Paik, the Korean-born grand master of video art? His high-tech sculptural installations bear no apparent relation to Korea's artistic tradition. How did he manage to escape that inescapable tradition?
The truth is that the interplay of tradition and innovation is part of every culture. That began when the first hominids started experimenting with various ways to paint images on cave walls and continues to this day. How strongly a contemporary artist in America, China or Australia feels the weight of his culture's tradition depends on the individual.
While the exhibition's organizers might not grasp that point, the nine artists whose works are on display seem to, as can be seen in "The Rhetoric of Brushwork #5," a collaborative ink-and-watercolor by painter Bertrand Mao and calligrapher John S. Wang. Next to Mao's ethereal mountain landscape are Wang's Chinese characters, which translate as: "Without innovation, any artwork, traditional or contemporary, would be merely a skeleton. Yet, without roots, any innovation would come and go as quickly as a tornado."
While traditional Korean and Chinese elements can be found to greater or lesser degree in most of the paintings, drawings and sculpture in the exhibit, they hardly seem of central importance except in Mao and Wang's collaboration and the calligraphy of Myoung Won Kwon.
Whether it's Won Sook Kim's and B.G. Muhn's paintings, Foon Sham's sculptures or Jyung-Mee Park and Kit-Keung Kan's ink drawings on rice paper, the dominant aesthetic is a synthesis of Western and Asian elements, a synthesis that falls right in the mainstream of American contemporary art during this anything-goes era.
Sadly, even that is tough to appreciate because many of the works clash. Hsin-Hsi Chen's "Core" is a wonderful drawing, a postmodern, Escherlike construction of small black-and-white rooms or boxes that surround a central box in which she has created a miniature landscape with colored pencils. It's a forceful work, but no drawing can overcome the sheer size and explosive color of Kim's giant acrylic-on-canvas, "People Eating Mountains," that hangs nearby.
In fairness, the problems with the show's installation are partly due to the space, which is difficult. University College's Arts Program Gallery occupies a cavernous carpeted hallway in the basement of the Inn and Conference Center. Big pieces, particularly paintings, work well there. Smaller prints and drawings tend to get lost.
And the elongated display area may be better suited to one- or two-person shows than to a group exhibit, where maintaining thematic or stylistic continuity is more difficult. But even a better installation wouldn't overcome the problems with "Tradition and Innovation." Showing works by some Chinese and Korean artists living in Maryland wasn't a bad idea. But these artists deserved more thoughtful treatment than they received.
Tradition and Innovation: Chinese and Korean Artists of Maryland, at University College Inn and Conference Center, University Boulevard at Adelphi Road, College Park, daily, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. 301-985-7822, through Sept. 26.
CAPTION: Kit-Keung Kan's "White Water XX": In the mainstream of contemporary art.