The Boon and Burden of Uprooting Oneself Two West Coast Exhibitions Tackle Immigration and Issues of Cultural Identity Head On

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In Franz Kafka's "Amerika," new arrivals are greeted by a Statue of Liberty brandishing not a torch to light the way, but a sword to bar entrance. Two exhibitions in San Diego, located on the Mexican border, cast light on the double-edged sword of life on the frontier.

Both "Common Ground," at the downtown branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and "Tracing Cultures," which just finished a stop at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, pose questions of cultural identity. Living in limbo between cultures offers an opportunity to mingle inherited and adopted cultures. Yet the price of breaking with the past, according to the artists, is dislocation.

"Common Ground" highlights 17 emerging and established artists from the San Diego area whose work fuses the personal and political. Influenced by proximity to the Mexican border, the artists cast a sharp eye on contemporary Southwest culture.

For David Avalos, danger hides beneath the colorful stereotype of a Mexican-American. "Shards From a Glass House" (1995) is a powerful installation that includes a metal pinata suspended from a gallows. A spotlight casts a shadow to suggest a lynching, while a plaque reads: "He wanted to be their Mr. Fiesta but his pinata was in the shop for repairs getting bullet-proofed."

Wick Alexander examines the tensions and ties between the two countries. Two narrative paintings, done in a flat, Mexican folk-art style, explore the dualism of Southern California, where pleasure sometimes collides with violence. In "Beach Culture," sun worshipers frolic innocently at an amusement park. Yet every peak on a roller-coaster ride precedes a big drop. "Gun Culture" shows the flip side, with a gun show displaying heat-seeking missiles, flame-throwers, and a sign advertising "Muskets to Magnums."

"20th Century" (1995), a monumental painting by Mary Plaisted Austin, attempts to sum up a century of American life. It portrays a rising wave that starts at ground zero. A montage of headlines announces: "Demented Militarism" and "Reports Reveal Nuclear Bomb Builders' Errors." Bright icons like a soda machine represent consumer culture, while a spiral of skeletons under the headline "Genetics: the Future is Now" portrays the artist's sense of modern science's menace. From these dark phantoms, the painting lightens to gold leaf at the top. The Statue of Liberty rises above, like a phoenix from the wasteland.

The "Tracing Cultures" exhibit explicitly deals with issues related to immigration. It is one installment in a three-part series of exhibitions on the subject, jointly organized by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, the Friends of Photography/Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco, and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz. Photographs by 12 contemporary artists, many of whom are immigrants or first- second- or third-generation Americans, define identity at the nexus of cultures.

I.T.O. (whose given name is Shigeki Ito) combines symbols of Japanese and American culture in an attempt to cross cultural boundaries and reduce conflict. In "Ethnocentrism II - the Revenge of Sushi" (1990-95), trays of sushi encircle vintage photos of Civil War generals. As if on an altar, the artist offers pairs of seafood to placate the gods of ethnic strife. …