Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You

Review

Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You

By Renny Pritikin November 19, 2013

Ira Glass, the host of NPR’s This American Life, has developed a curatorial style that approaches the program’s weekly subject matter with no pretense at being encyclopedic. Its tacit argument is that three or four interesting and intelligent observations on any given topic, in addition to being informative and entertaining, open up a conversation in a democratic manner. Relieved of the responsibility to provide all the answers or points of view, Glass is able to broach a subject with a lighter hand and encourage listeners to do further research if so inclined.

Invited by the Asian Art Museum to curate three small, consecutive exhibitions in one of its more modest, out-of-the-way galleries, the San Francisco independent curator Glen Helfand has chosen a Glass-like approach. The curator’s assigned task was to use the lens of contemporary Bay Area art practice to gain a glimpse into how Asia is reflected, utilized, and understood here and now. In this second of three iterations of Proximities, Helfand has selected seven artists of various combinations of Asian, American, and European backgrounds. There was some critical online chatter during Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? about whether the show acknowledged, or instead indulged in, the traditional exoticized clichés about Asia. It’s tricky terrain: How do we parse one person’s engagement from another’s false consciousness?

Pawel Kruk, in his video The Lost Interview (2009), lip-synchs to the audio track of a legendary 1971 Bruce Lee interview. The lameness of Lee’s rhetoric aside, his equating of artistic and athletic effort is at least of passing interest. That a boy in Poland was moved by an Asian media darling’s rambling explanation of sincerity in art is not so much an example of orientalism as it is of a globalized and somewhat infantilized culture.

In one image in the gallery, Self-Portrait (1973), four pedestrians stand on the corner of San Francisco’s Sansome Street, captured under a street sign that reads in bold, capital letters: CALIFORNIA. Two are Asian men, two are white women; all look off in different directions and all are seen from the waist up. This is one of nine black-and-white prints from a suite of photographs taken by Michael Jang in 1973. The site is at the border between Chinatown and the Financial District, and between isolation and assimilation. Like the noted photographers of the time, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, who are referred to in the accompanying wall text, Jang used chance encounters on the street to humorously reveal contemporary realities for the Asian American community.

Kota Ezawa shows Self-Portrait as Someone Else (2013), a video based on a recording of a renowned Asian economist, also named Kota Ezawa, being interviewed about financial markets. Ezawa uses the original soundtrack, but with his own signature cut-paper animation. One of the Bay Area’s most subtle and evocative artists, Ezawa suggests the fragility of identity, and extends the conventions of self-portraiture to near breaking point. Similarly, Barry McGee, who like Ezawa is of mixed cultural descent, shows Untitled (2012), a wall-mounted set of two dozen DayGlo-orange wooden boxes, most with the name Fong—his mother’s maiden name—printed boldly, forward and backward, along with Western first names, three-letter acronyms, and one image: a drawing of a blank white book. Onto the pages of this empty book viewers may project the assumptions, prejudices, and preoccupations we carry about race, heritage, and the lives our neighbors live.

 

Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You is on view at the Asian Art Museum through December 8, 2013.

Proximities: A Show in Three Parts is on view at Asian Art Museum, in San Francisco, through October 25, 2013.

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