Commentaries and Demarcations: Asian American Art

Article excerpt

Commentaries and Demarcations: Asian American Art Elaine H. Kim, Margo Machida, and Sharon Mizota. Fresh Talk/Daring Gazes: Conversations on Asian American Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 233 pp., 24 color ills., 69 b/w. $50, $21.95 paper.

Much has happened since the authors of Fresh Talk/Daring Gazes: Conversations on Asian American Art first conceived of this volume in 1989, when there were only a few scattered resources on this topic. Since then, exhibitions of contemporary Asian American art have been organized by museums on both coasts, and writings by artists, critics, and art historians have added to the growing bibliography of exhibition catalogues, books, and essays under this rubric.1 So Fresh Talk bears witness to a period of shifting perspectives on an emerging field. In the preface, the artist, curator, and scholar of Asian American art Margo Machida frames her experience of this process by stating that the volume was initially intended as a reference book, which would list Asian American artists and document their work, thereby providing an established shape to this overlooked community. However, as the book progressed and the institutional context of the field was transformed, the original idea of an inclusive sourcebook gave way to a project that was more focused, interpretive, and dialogic. In many ways, the struggle with these different goals and the shifting context appear on the surface of the text through the various tones and strategies that are taken throughout the volume. While such a multiplicity of voices and goals could be seen as a weakness, it is in fact the strength of Fresh Talk.

Three different pieces constitute the front matter, the preface by Machida, a foreword by Lisa Lowe, who is known for her critical work on Asian American cultural studies, and an extensive historical introduction by Elaine Kim, an ethnic-studies scholar who has helped forge the fields of Asian American literature and women's studies. Together, these three parts serve to introduce and to frame the collaborative text and the images that follow from a multiplicity of perspectives. Machida sets up the history of the project as an extensive partnership that witnessed the rise and ebb of interest in Asian America and multiculturalism in the art world. Lowe then engages in a treatment of Asian modernity and the politics of migration, weaving in discussions of the artists and their work. In her article, which constitutes the centerpiece of the introductory material, Kim places the contemporary artists of Fresh Talk within the larger history of Asian American art and selected contemporary exhibitions. In an act of self-conscious canon formation, Kim links the multimedia works of these late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century artists to nineteenthcentury commercial photography in San Francisco's Chinatown and the art of the Japanese American internment.2 Thus, the essay serves to solidify community links and to establish the collective body of work in Fresh Talk within a wider historical context of Asian American visual production.

Although the tone of the introductory essays is chiefly celebratory, the authors do cite problems and issues that have dominated critical responses to Asian American art. For instance, Machida laments the perception that "artists of Asian background are all too often perceived as yet another minoritized group encasing themselves in an exclusionary cultural armor while also clamoring for mainstream recognition" (xii). Further, she adds that Asian American perspectives in art have been labeled as "parochial and selfmarginalizing," despite the fact that they hold more general, but often overlooked, relevance (xii). Lowe urges dialogue and collaboration between Asian and non-Asian artists and critics (xxii). Kim adds a whole host of problems, such as the common conflation of Asian and Asian American art, which allows for Asian American production to be dislocated and cast as foreign, and the habitual reduction of Asian American art to mere autobiography (33, 36). …