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Proximities 1 @ Asian Art Museum

Lisa K. Blatt, "People's Park, Shanghai, China May 10, 2007 10:50 pm",  2007, photo on aluminum


On the Asian Art Museum’s second floor, in one squarish room between early Japan and Korea 1392-present, visitors suddenly enter a different nation altogether. Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? is riot of colorful art objects spread across every kind of media not represented in the permanent collection. Curated by Glen Helfand, the series of Proximities exhibitions (three in total) seeks to examine the “wide, elusive range of Asia through the varied perspectives of Bay Area artists.” This first installment is a tantalizing, if fragmented beginning, enticing visitors to return and absorb the project one exhibition at a time.   It features Andrew Witrak, Larry Sultan, Lisa K. Blatt, Ala Ebtekar, Tucker Nichols, Elisheva Biernoff and James Gobel.

The premise of the show allows for artists with a variety of relationships to Asia (from cultural heritage to secondhand knowledge gleaned from media images) to explore those connections through video, sculpture, painting, photography and installation. Proximities 1 engages with place – specific places, generalized places and imagined places – yielding a responses that range from humorous to critical. If this sounds like a mishmash, that’s because it is. Each piece is a personal reaction to the exhibition’s prompt, complete with a block of first-person text describing the artists’ inspirations and motivations. The text is a crucial element of the exhibition – helping to tie together almost impossibly disparate practices into a thoughtful and surprising show.
Andrew Witrak, "Trouble in Paradise #2",  2013, cocktail umbrellas, styrofoam

Andrew Witrak’s Trouble in Paradise #2 is the centerpiece of the exhibition.  A two-person pool raft covered with cocktail umbrellas, it packs a candy-colored visual wallop, but I found his second piece, Hospitality Channel: Bali, more compelling.  It’s an loop of tropical vacation imagery (a tennis ball on a red clay court, couples enjoying spa treatment, a turquoise infinity pool) with fictional logo (“Grand Colonial BALI”) forever stuck in the upper left hand corner of the screen. The “Ken Burns effect” serves the slow-paced video well, as increasingly nondescript images of ridiculous luxury slide into view.

While Witrak’s pieces address the cliches of upscale Asian travel, Lisa K. Blatt’s photo and video work looks at the night light of Shanghai.  In her two People’s Park prints, the unpopulated scenes are illuminated by toxic, otherworldly colors. An accompanying projected video, Untitled (Shanghai Ads), shows shifting colors reflected off gently moving water.  In both, man-made light has overtaken the surroundings, coloring it completely, a testament to the city’s 24-hour cycle of activity.
Tucker Nichols’ installation of drawings mounted to drywall over a gallery doorway seems to reference the museum, or anyplace where cultural artifacts are collected. His childlike drawings of vases, bottles and statues, rendered through simple lines on a colored paper, mix high and low art in an “improbable storage shelf.”  The depicted objects could be real, remembered or completely fabricated — we have no way of knowing. In this respect, they question the cultural significance and commercial value we assign to “Asian antiquities”, indecipherable under Nichols’ hand from thrift store finds.
Elisheva Biernoff’s three trompe l’oeil postcards are the visual opposites of Nichols’ messy drawings, but they push the real/replica question even further. The acrylic on plywood series Sonzai Shinai: Okinawa Woodpecker, Tsushima Leopard Cat and Amami Rabbit, reproduces postcards depicting endangered Japanese animals, complete with postmarks and personal notes on the versos. It’s unclear if the paintings are based on found postcards or if they’re invented.  Whatever the case, their placement inside a plexiglass box in which the threatened habitats are replicated, makes for an engaging viewing experience.
Larry Sultan, "Antioch Creek", 2008, C-print

Other works in the exhibition touch on the artists’ personal relationships to specific nations. Ala Ebtekar creates an alternate reality for Iran in a series of prints merging real architecture, science fiction and idealized space to question what type of future a hybrid nostalgia might produce. James Gobel charts an imaginary voyage to the Phillipines. In his three-panel felt, yarn and acrylic piece You’re Gone Away But, You’ll Come Back Some Day, the Philippine flag is repeated and fragmented and melded with patterns,

bits of text and dashes of embroidery thread.

One of the best things about Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? is that the seven Bay Area artists involved place their own unique relationships with Asia into a contemporary dialog with the museum’s collection.   For many it was a confusing, thrilling experience. Though the exhibition is at first a shock to the system – the muted hues of the Korea and Japan rooms clash sharply with the bright white walls of the exhibition – I left linking visual cues in the surrounding galleries back to the works on display.  Nichols’ stacked drawings, for example, were almost immediately summoned by a display of vases and pots based on “Studios at the Qing Court”. Gobel’s colors and patterns echoed a vitrine of Korean wrapping cloths.  Shades of Larry Sultan’s Antioch Creek, centered on a blooming cherry tree, can be found in countless works throughout the museum.
For the Asian Museum, Proximities is an attempt to link its exhibitions and collection to a contemporary dialogue, but it remains to be seen if the additional exhibitions will provide a broader, more coherent argument for “elusive Asia.” In the next two shows, artists will address family and community and trade and commerce, respectively. As an experiment in categorization, the exhibition is a welcome change of pace from the museum’s blockbuster approach.  It brings the what-is-Asia? conversation into the present moment.
Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? @ the Asian Art Museum through July 21, 2013.
About the Author:
Sarah Hotchkiss is an artist and arts writer based in San Francisco. She contributes frequently to the KQED Arts blog and Art Practical and her writing has been featured in essays for Southern Exposure, The Present Group and Gazzetta. She received her M.F.A. from California College of the Arts in 2011. Her artwork has been included in group shows in the greater New York and San Francisco areas, including Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, MacArthur B Arthur and the Popular Workshop. She has attended residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, the Esalen Institute and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

One Response to “Proximities 1 @ Asian Art Museum”

  1. Here’s a look at the racial dynamics and cultural politics of Proximities 1, in the context of recent news headlines about race and the museum’s own history:


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