BEYOND TRADITION: Looking Backwards, Moving Forwards

by Scarlet Cheng

We live in an era of unparalleled globalism – mass media and the internet have shrunken national boundaries, and travelling abroad for study, work or pleasure is commonplace.  Yet, national boundaries have not disappeared, and the media can sometimes make us feel that the cultural divide is even more pronounced between here and there.  In recent decades artists have been at the forefront of exploring and presenting difference, assimilation and dissimilation.  The United States, arguably the center of contemporary art and contemporary arts education, has been the destination of choice for many artists all over the world.  They come to study at noted institutions of higher learning, they come to be part of the vibrant art scene offered by such cities as New York and Los Angeles.  Some end up staying, some move on or return to their native country.

“Beyond Tradition” features the work of nine such global artists.  All were born in East Asia – in China, Korea or Japan — and had their early education and sometimes their college education in their native country.  Seven of them moved to the United States and stayed, while two remain in their native land.  As Asians, we generally accept that formal arts education begins in studying tradition, and in centuries past, copying the work of master calligraphers and painters was part and parcel of that education.

The artists in this exhibition have chosen their own way to take on tradition, and to recreate it in form and subject matter so that it speaks to us today.  Some may use a traditional material – such as paper or clay – and a traditional technique – such as papercutting or ceramics.  They may even create what appears to be traditional objects — vases, furnishings, portraits.   But none of them are working in a strictly traditional way, all are employing the alchemy of art to make something new, something that makes us look anew at both the familiar and the strange.  In her series “Candy,” for example, Seong Youn Koo presents color photographs featuring what look like peony flowers in vases, peonies being traditional symbols of wealth and splendor in East Asian art.  However, upon closer examination, the flowers are made up of candy – jelly beans, hard candies, wafers – assembled in such a way as to resemble densely packed petals.   There are also artists who are using the technology of our times to make work, as Hyegyung Kim, Zhi Lin, and Joo Yeon Woo are doing.

Certainly, traditional techniques can be used to make untraditional work.  Keiko Fukazawa was born in Japan, apprenticed in a traditional Japanese workshop to learn ceramics, but realized that the development of her career would be especially difficult since she was a woman.  Then she read an article about how Peter Voulkos was reinventing clay into a medium of contemporary sculpture in Los Angeles.  That sounded pretty exciting to her, and in 1984 she left Japan to study in the U. S.

Now head of the ceramics department at Pasadena City College, Fukazawa has been spending part of each summer in Jingdezhen, China, a city which for centuries has been famous for its production of fine ceramics.  There she discovered the prevalence of readymade forms, such as vases, flowers, and busts of Mao Zedong.  She purchased some of those forms and remade them into new interpretations of China’s recent history.

Two of her work using Mao busts are in this show – Bearded Mao with Mao having a full growth of “beard” made up of small blossoms, and Dreaming of Flowers with a Mao bust lying on its side, blossoms on his head and lying in fragments around his head.  This series was inspired by Mao’s “Let 100 Flowers Bloom” campaign of the late 1950s.  The Supreme Leader declared that he wanted the arts and sciences to flourish in a more open climate, that people should feel free to express what they thought about Communist policies.  However, those who spoke out were soon punished.  In Bearded Mao the flowers cover up the lower half of Mao’s face – and his mouth which announced the treacherous campaign.  In Dreaming the contrast between Mao’s benign image and the broken flowers lying around his head is deliberate — broken like the many promises he made.

Another artist using traditional technique and material is Xin Song, who makes elaborate paper cuttings.  It is a technique used to make folk art in China, and she learned it from Chinese farmers.  In her current practice, instead of using plain paper of one color, she cuts into photographs, magazines, Mylar, rice and other papers, and hangs and drapes the papers to create installations.  In this exhibition the ten panels of Ocean Life show fish and turtle in the turbulent churn of ocean waves and tide, while Message from Nature show cut paper in white and in black, dangling like forlorn shreds from the ceiling.

Of course, new technology and material are always attractive to artists ever seeking novel ways to express themselves and their ideas.  Zhi Lin’s video “Chinaman’s Chance” on Promontory Summit: Golden Spike Celebration, 12:30 PM, 10th May 1869 shows his installation, an amalgam of historical reinterpretation and art objects.  Lin was born in China and educated at the China Academy of Art.  As an immigrant to the United States, he became fascinated by the history of the first wave of Chinese who came here – those men who came to build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century.  When the last spike was pounded into the ground on May 10, 1869, there was a celebration which was captured by a famous photograph of men gathered around the two trains which met at Promontory Summit in Utah – not a “Chinaman” among them.

In Lin’s research, some 23,000 Chinese men had worked on the arduous construction, and in his art piece, he has imagined himself one of them.  During a modern-day re-enactment of the event, the artist made a video from the backside – because he and his imagined fellow workers, who toiled long and hard and under dangerous circumstances, have been excluded from the celebration, and from history itself.  Accompanying Lin’s original installation were thousands of rocks, inscribed with the names of Chinese workers.

Another use of modern technology can be found in Hyegyung Kim’s Media Bowha (Treasure). A traditional wooden cabinet topped with a vase has been placed in a room of its own, and becomes the screen for a series of black-and-white projections.  A twisted branch of cherry tree becomes filled with blossoms, which becomes a pattern of fans, which becomes a branch upon which a peacock sits, his feathers fluttering in the soft breeze.  “I was fascinated with the beauty of pure colors and patterns of Chinese landscape painting and Korean porcelain while I was studying Asian art history,” says Kim.  In recent work, “I grafted media art with Asian art, introducing light and movement to deliver the beauty of Asian art in more familiar ways to people of today.”

Aerosol (or spray) paint was developed for industrial uses, but now has been adopted by fine artists.  Enrico Isamu Ōyama makes paintings using latex and spray paint – reminiscent of the expressive, energetic strokes urban graffiti artist apply to public walls, vehicles, and other surfaces.   In these works from the series FFIGURATI, the spray paint moves in zigzags and circles across the canvas, not spelling words but creating dynamic iterations.

Several artists take on figurative depictions, though in very different ways.  Yooah Park studied traditional Korean painting with brush on paper at Ewha Women’s University, and later came to the U. S. to study at Harvard and at Columbia.  She continues as a painter, using a loose brushwork style to create scenes of contemporary Korean couples in contemporary settings – in one, a young couple have a meal at a restaurant, in another a couple is seated on chairs in a living room, both looking in the same direction, perhaps watching television.  They seem very conventional moments in bourgeois existence, but the faces of these people are missing.  In the painting Mr. and Mrs. Kwak there are vague indications of the man and the woman’s eyes and noses,  but they are for the most part blank – which makes the portraits seem generic, and perhaps a critique of the bland and predictable lifestyle these people are leading.

Using the physical self as central protagonist has been pioneered in the photographs of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura.  Jung S. Kim varies that genre by donning white makeup and different costumes to insert herself into reinterpretations of Korean legend and folk stories in her photographic series, Circle II:  Identical Illusion.  She connects this directly to her unhappy childhood when, she says, “Hidden in my world, in quiet and melancholy mood, I would adopt and replace different characters in the Korean fairy tale with myself and dream their happy lives to escape from reality.”

On the other hand, Joo Yeon Woo, who is also co-curator of this exhibition, wants to capture a certain reality, specifically the experiences of immigration and adapting to living in another culture.  “Beyond Tradition” features her series Gyopo Portraits, gyopo being the Korean term for Koreans living abroad, a term which applies to the artist, as well.  In visiting a number of Korean heritage schools in the U.S, she observed the struggle of trying to assimilate into mainstream American culture, while trying to retain one’s native culture.   She took photographs of people she met.

In the studio she uses a laser cutting machine to etch selected photographic portraits onto Plexiglass, and then, with engraving tools, adds details such as facial expression and hair texture.  Finally, she applies a heavy art paper over the etched surface, and forcefully rubs the back with her hands to obtain the low-relief works on paper.  “I was interested in the idea of boundaries,” says Woo.  “Depending on where you stand when you look at the images, the figures will appear and disappear, as if they’re living in an in-between world.”

In some ways all the artists in this exhibition are negotiating that in-between world.  Their artwork reflects and ruminates on the sense and specificities of dislocation, of being out-of-place and sometimes out-of-time, but they also suggest the forging of new identities as we find new homes for who we are.


SCARLET CHENG teaches contemporary Chinese and Japanese art history and topics in film history at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA, and at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, CA.  She is also a regular contributor of reviews and features to The Los Angeles Times and Artillery art magazine, and has been published in The Art Newspaper, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Village Voice.  During a sojourn in Hong Kong, she was managing editor of Asian Art News, the first English language magazine dedicated to covering the contemporary arts of Asia, and a contributing editor to Vogue Singapore.