Femininity in Contemporary Asian Art
If the Shoe Fits... and Vernal Visions
Curated by Patricia Eichenbaum Karetzky
Asian female artists of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indian ancestry
have contributed to this exhibition. The group varies in age; preferred
media (painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, ceramics, textile, video
and installation art); and residence (some living here, others abroad).
This exhibition falls into two divisions united by theme: If the Shoe
Fits and Vernal Visions.
Working in contemporary
modes these female artists from Asia address the issues of femininity.
Several employ the "sexy ideal" of movie stars of Shanghai,
Hong Kong or Mumbai (Bollywood); others portray women as young contemporaries
in modern day (MTV) attire. Many artists use the foot or shoe as a primary
object of personal identity. It is curious that the sexual fixation with
alluring footwear that temporarily empowers women and results in the deformation
of the foot is prominent in both the East (the bound foot) and the West
(the torturous high heel). The price of not adhering to such standard
modes of dress may be a loss of self-esteem and of desirability. The story
of Cinderella, of Chinese origin, highlights the importance of such myths
in traditional society and their exploration by these modern Asian artists
reveals that they are still potent. In the myth, the desirability of a
woman is judged by the size of her foot. Should it be too big, the consequence
is complete rejection.
The theme of If
the Shoe Fits asks the question "what does it take to be accepted
as a woman in modern society, and how does the art of contemporary Asian
women respond to this issue." The focus of the shoe arose as an observation
made while viewing many of the artists' work. But the importance of the
shoe as a symbol of personal identity in contemporary culture is not limited
to the Cinderella syndrome, as is evident in several common idiomatic
expressions in English. The phrase If the shoe fits. . . is also
a metaphor for one's inner character, often revealing aspects of the personality
that is otherwise denied. If the shoe fits, if the description
of one's character is apt, wear it, that is acknowledge it. The
shoe is the mold of the character. Though deception is possible with the
wearing of other articles of clothing, footwear reveals the true self.
Such sentiments are also revealed in the expression, You don't know
a man until you have walked a mile in his shoesówearing someone else's
shoes provides insight into their personality or, I wouldn't want to
be in his shoes. By contrast, the expression the clothes make
the manÖsuggests that behavior can be altered by outer adornment.
Lastly, feet of clay, connotes human fallibility and the revelation
Several of the artists
concentrate on the question of sexuality and the promotion of the self,
whether in personal relationships or professionally. Cui Xiuwen, for example,
has recorded the behavior of young women administering to their makeup
and getups by placing a hidden camera in a dance club in Beijing. Others
have created a personal diary of their own artistic adventures and family
history. Nina Kuo, whose work contrasts images of femininity in Asian
American culture, has taken a photograph of her grandmother in Nantung,
China when she went for the first time to meet her. Proudly, the grandmother
held up the embroidered three-inch lotus slippers for her bound feet.
In other works Kuo recreates the sexy Chi Pao dress, on which she
silk screens still photographs from old Chinese films. One called Shoeless,
shows the barefoot heroine reclining wistfully in bed, her servant holding
her high heels aloft. Xing Fei combines personal photographs, images of
events, objects from her past and calligraphy in a series of works entitled
Journey, a search for woman's self discovery inspired by the events
of September 11. Betty YaQin Chou makes several hundreds of wax models
of her feet and places them in a mandala-like configuration, with a time
line that mixes personal and historical events. Questions of sexuality
and genetic transmission are raised in uncovering the evolution of her
family tree. Using shoes as a metaphor for people, Il Sun Hong creates
pristine installations made from traditional paper. Old-fashioned Korean
flat shoes are shown in contrast to high heels to describe social situations.
The works displayed by Cai Jin also use shoes as a metaphor. Cai paints
evening shoesótall brocade, silk, and silver high-heeled shoesówith red
and colored pint. The pattern of the painted design resembles the rendering
of desiccated banana leaves that she paints in red on her large-scale
canvases. Carefully arranged so as to suggest a narrative, some shoes
are standing upright, others, as if kicked off in exhaustion, lie on their
Other artists in the show use a figurative art format. Li Hong's works show young barefoot women of indeterminate ethnic identity huddled together in a fish bowl, overshadowed by gigantic exotic orchids, and accompanied by commercial expressions that attest to the superiority of a product, its reliability and renown. Safe Handling Instructions by Mimi Kim asks the question of feminine identity of Asian American women by showing a timeline of female evolution, from youth to old age, with black and white drawings of figures lined up like a bar graph in a medical-sociological chart. Mimi not only questions society's assumptions about gender, but the very nature of medical knowledge, where feminine health services are often ill-informed and inadequate. Ancient images of Indian goddesses, especially Durgaóthe female destructive goddess, figure in the colorful works of Siona Benjamin. Durga sticks her tongue out in the traditional expression of hostility, but here the blue-skinned goddess, wearing black high heel pumps, wields modern instrumentsa spatula, tennis racquet, spade, fork and iron. Are these the weapons of the modern woman? Keiko Naka's canvases present riotous send-ups of stereotypical images of great works of Western art. She places herself in the Renaissance compositions, her blowsy image totally at variance with tradition. Instead of the Japanese ideal of beautyósmall, thin, delicate, and modestly clad, the protagonist, boisterous and voluptuous, dominates the scene; her flesh explodes on the canvas. Similarly, Sukanya Rahman questions notions of femininity in her collages that appropriate images from modern and vintage photos of "Bollywood/Mumbai" movies, fanzines, Hollywood publicity images, cartoons, religious posters and ads for beauty products, all combined with an ironic twist. In this way she asks, what is feminine, what is media hype.
A subgroup of works
relate to landscape and the environment. In their themes, delicate colors,
forms and patterns, these renderings of the natural world present the
procreative aspectóMother Nature's realm. The paintings, drawings, textiles
and ceramic sculpture in Vernal Visions provide a feminine perspective
of the external world. Tamako Nakanishi's drawings of landscapes and studies
of leaves, seeds and flowers evoke the stirrings of early spring. In her
paired abstract paintings, Jung Hyang Kim celebrates its rhythms, patterns
and colors. Kinuko Ueno's textiles present its budding trees and creatures
in the forest. Garden-like visions are created with tiny leaves covered
with clay slip by Keiko Fujita. Lastly Yuki Moriya has created new worlds,
and extraterrestrial environments, using clay and glass, the materials
of nature and industry, that radiate "gleams" of light.
In sum this exhibition views the works of contemporary Asian women's art and the way in which they express their ideas about sexual identity, cultural heritage, and the role of women in the modern world.
If the Shoe Fits
Li Hong's paintings are portraits of young women. In highly realistic style, girls of indeterminate race are delineated, often shown in pairs, clinging to one. Sensuous, the voluptuous beauties seem apprehensive. Li paints on the transparent shower curtains, which evoke the privacy and intimacy of the bathroom. Despite the depiction of amorphous space, the setting is restrictive, in part because of the scale relationships. Surrounded by swimming large golden carp, one girl presses her hands up against the imaginary glass wall of a fishbowl. In another, huge hothouse orchids overwhelm the space, the girl turns to the right as if to escape. The exotic flowers are rendered with technical brilliance; their delicate feminine forms carefully delineated and vividly colored. In a third composition two girls huddle together in scanty clothes and bare feet; they seem trapped inside, looking out uneasily at the viewer, beseeching, questioning. In the fourth work, two girls share a coat. Framing the figures are written upbeat advertising slogansóguaranteeing satisfaction, and the superiority of the product. Like the false promises of cosmetic products, the slogans portray the women as commodity, whose happiness is an advertising fallacy.
Xing Fei combines drawing, painting, photo transfer, calligraphy, printed texts and illustrations from novels. Xing describes these complex and multi-layered images as a woman's self discovery inspired by the events of 9/11. The chaos of the tragic day reminded her of the Cultural Revolution. On the right of the colorful and dynamic composition of "growing up" is a photograph of Xing as a child painting that was printed in the local newspaper, an image that anticipated her future vocation. Many of the images are taken from her childhood diary that her father found. The second piece, The Cultural Revolution, is dedicated to the chaotic events of the seventies that upended everyone's life in China. The conformity of Maoist uniforms worn by men and women recalls the repressive society in which sexuality, expressions of femininity, and human affection were punished. As Maoist garments shrouded the bodies, Maoist dictums inhibited freedom of expression. The third painting is a celebration of "giving life." Xing explores her own procreative cycle as well as the ancient images of fertility goddesses, a cult that has reemerged in China. Photographs of herself just prior to giving birth are embedded in the composition that celebrates giving life. The American flag is also present, as testimony to the freedoms that sustain individual expression.
Cai Jin paints images of banana leaves, withered and dried, which she reinvigorates with red/polychrome pigments on canvases that reach wall size proportions. In the rich red impasto used for the leaves, crepuscular forms of other colors squiggle and turn with the visceral movement of veins and arteries. Both the rich texture and vibrant color belie the bent broken forms of the stalks and their desiccated leaves. Cai has used figured silk as the surface for her animated designs, contrasting the feminine materials that filled interior chambers of women with the dying desiccated forms. For Cai, using red is one of the premises of her painting. The connotations of red are universalóblood, reproduction, femininity, violence, and internal organs are easily evoked. But when asked about the color, Cai reminisces about her father's occupation as a leader of a Beijing Chinese opera troop, wistfully remembering the beautiful costumes and elaborately made-up actors that peopled her youth. In applying the pattern of red banana leaves to shoes, Cai suggests a narrative of violence and pain, inherent in both the color and in the style of application of the pigment. Knowing Cai's youthful experience with the Chinese opera, however, the shoes also allude to the colorful costumes and high drama of her youth.
Mini Chi Pao Noir: Shoeless Lady, 2000
Chi Pao Noir: Shoe Store Spam, 2001
Kuo is a photographer whose work often depicts the complexities of Asian, and Asian- American femininity and gender. Kuo met her grandmother for the first time when she traveled to China in the 80s and was amazed by her grandmother's broken feet. In a black and white portrait her grandmother, in full frontal pose, has her tiny shoes nearby. In other works, Kuo recreates the famous sexy, slender cut Chi Pao dress in cotton or silk, sometimes in miniature size. On the dresses she transfers photos from old Chinese movies from the 30s and 40s when western fashions were readily adopted, especially the exotic high heel, bobbed hair and makeup. These works highlight the changing ideal of Asian femininity, in particular they document the new allure of the high heel: in one work, women are in a shoe store trying on the new styles; in another a barefoot beauty lounges in bed as a servant brings her pumps to her. Kuo's works nostalgically recreate outmoded ideals of beauty, presenting the ephemeral nature of fashion and the extremes to which women have traditionally been driven to radically alter their appearance to conform with ideals of beauty that are inappropriate, impractical, painful and crippling.
Mimi Kim is a painter, sculptor and installation artist whose versatility is readily apparent. Her works have strong themes that question racial ideals and gender stereotypes. Recent pieces revolve around the material of meat. In a large painting the parts of the cow are illustrated and identified, such a chart is based on butcher shop signs. In a related effort, Fetish, using processed meat, Kim has fashioned items of women's lingerie and a pair of boots. Safe Handling Instructions by Mimi Kim asks the question of feminine identity of Asian American women by showing a timeline of female evolution, from youth to old age, with black and white drawings of figures lined up like a bar graph in a medical-sociological chart. Painted in red across the pubic area is a USDA stamp of approval. Kim not only questions society's assumptions about gender, but the very nature of medical knowledge, where feminine health services are often ill-informed and inadequate. This combination suggests how women have been marginalized and reduced to sexual objects. These pieces distinguish the elements of our respective cultures that cast women in the light of a commodity, denying them individuality, intelligence, spirituality or creativity.
BETTY YAQIN CHOU
Chou laboriously cast hundreds of pairs of her own feet out of three kinds of waxóflex, bee and candle. The feet are not idealized. Cast to show their imperfections, the feet signify the frailty of the human condition. The pairs of feet are arranged in an intriguing geometrical configuration based on five circles and the figure eightóa closed formóthe composition reverberates with centripetal force. Chou says the mandala-like pattern of five concentric circles, is representative of the continuous process of history. A dateline written in a mixture of Spanish and English begins with Columbus' discovery of the Americas. Moments in the difficult political and private lives of her forebears who emigrated to the Caribbean beginning in 1806 are recorded, with curious details like "Mom Disappears." Here Chou uses her body as a multivalent symbol of time passed, distance traveled, and genetic relationships. The feet are a metaphor for the many tens of thousands of steps her ancestors took and numerous generations of her genealogy. The image is a most personal one, not only replicating her own form, but alluding to her parent's body, those of her forebears, and the genetic links of the family tree.
IL SUN HONG
Il Sun Hong sculpts shoes out of traditional Korean paper. She likes their beautiful shape, curved lines and symbolic meaning. "Each shoe in my work functions like a tool, like a brush in paintings." Hong shapes the shoes in varying colors, cuts them into parts, and arranges them in eye-catching patterns. Limited in hue and number, the slightly irregular hand-made forms are presented in a pristine minimalist installation. Vivid in their tonalities though banal in subject, they take on a precious quality, resembling colored stones in a jeweled setting. Narrative content is suggested by the titles and colors. In Commuting linear arrangements of the heels recall the impersonal urban life, assembly-line production, and the tedium of "commuting." In Waterdrops, Korean flat shoes, more irregular in contour, evoke the agrarian society of traditional Korea, rather than the high heels of glamorous city life; sex is contrasted with work. Using the language of contemporary art, Hong builds a bridge to the traditional Korean images that she daily engages, transforming them into modern art.
Supper on New Years Eve, 2000
Keiko Naka's paintings challenge the youthful, slender ideal of Japanese womanhood. Portraying reality, Naka says "I find the woman with a broken arm, the woman who drops the glass and the fat woman who can't zip her wedding-dress, how colorful, cheerful, and melancholic they are!" Influenced by the western artistic tradition, Keiko paints animated and dynamically foreshortened figures with a thick impasto of oil paint. Multiracial participants abound. In Supper on New Years Eve, the main figure, naked and blond, sits at a table filled with Japanese delicacies. She is oblivious to those around her, unlike the Japanese who are so self-conscious. In her enthusiasm, food and people are propelled into space. This raucous celebration is far from the solemn rites of New Years, when bills and debts are settled, the home scrubbed and cold food served. Evening in Okinawa, the site of the American Army base since the end of W W II and contentious enclave of American culture, has a blowsy, nearly naked voluptuous entertainer joyously belting out her song into the microphone. Nearby are her African-American back-up singers and electric piano player. In these paintings Keiko flouts Japanese female propriety. Her fleshy naked women enjoy themselves, as if for the first time.
Finding Home #40 "Curry-oke" 2000
Finding Home #51 "Namaz" 2001
Spicy Girl Series: Allrounders Techniques of Ecstasy,
Siona Benjamin, born in India, now lives in the U.S. In her art she incorporates symbols both of her Jewish Heritage and icons of the Hindu religion. Benjamin uses the artistic vocabulary of Indian miniatures and upgrades them for the twenty-first century. Her works focus on issues of feminine identification, both divine and mortal. Siona recreates Durga, Hindu goddess of destruction, in terms of contemporary culture. In Spicy Girl the blue-skinned goddess with tongue sticking out, now represents the Indian émigré living in America; the hands, which once held the weapons of the gods, now wield kitchen utensils, spade, iron and tennis racket. She walks in high-heels. Open the box and you find the ancient female fertility symbols of the womb, the yoni and yantra.
In Finding Home Series #29, a young beauty painted in the style of an Indian miniature has a tiger's body, a tail that ends in an electric plug, and paws that terminate in Mickey Mouse heads. She is swimming in the river, and on the far shore are low rolling hills done in the style of Pahari miniatures, a nuclear explosion erupting, and flaming Hebrew characters. The work is colorful and precise, recalling the delicate Indian miniatures of the eighteenth century. Benjamin is a world citizen, who while seeking to forge a new identity does not reject her rich religious and cultural traditions.
Sukanya Rahman, from Calcutta, makes relatively small shallow boxes filled with images appropriated from modern and vintage "Bollywood/Mumbai" fanzines, Hollywood publicity images, cartoons, religious posters and ads for beauty products, all combined with an ironic twist. She arranges and paints over them uniting their brilliant colors, eye-catching designs, and intent on persuading the viewer of their appeal. In Matrimonial we have a Bollywood beauty in deep dÈcolletÈ; beauty products that offer whitened skin; above are a bra and panties; luscious red lips float to the right. In the lower right is an Indian goddess in silks and jewels; a leg in fishnet stocking and gold high heel sandals. An exotic flower and brilliant parrot frame the top. Placed upside down is a piece of a Persian manuscript, an eye from a partial view of a face stares out intently. Drawn from the popular culture these works characterize the confusion of contemporary society, where old values of propriety and self-confidence in one's character are replaced by the desire to be attractive at whatever cost. What is femininity? Is it just the trappings of beauty sold in the magazines? These collages express the complex and often contradictory notions of womanhood and the contrasting values of glamour and spirituality, vice and virtue, east and west.
Cui's stance on the condition of women is evident in her paintings from the late eighties, but most recently she has directed her critical gaze to the contemporary situation by placing a hidden camera in a dance club in Beijing. Over a period of hours young women come and go, adjusting their brassieres, their make-up, their hair. Some change their garments preparing for the night by donning sexier and more revealing outfits. Late in the video the female bathroom attendant appears, sheepishly doing her chores. Her physical plainness and unobtrusive behavior is a foil for the exotic plumage of the girls, their nervous administrations to their appearance and strident voices. It is only in the last minutes of the video that it is apparent that some of these girls are for hire. In shrill tomes they discuss their dates and count their money. This is a very telling tale of the reemergence of sexual activities such as "escort" services in modern China, in the wake of Communist control of "vice and lewd behavior."
Victoria Yang is a self-taught artist. She is a renaissance woman who is active in the world of business in Shanghai. In contrast to her dynamic presence in the professional world, her paintings suggest a rustic repose. These are largely interior views of small Western style rooms filled with rugged country furniture, large wooden pieces, and encrustations of paint on the walls. Her technique relies on a thick application of paint that leaves a visceral presence on the surface of the canvas. In Western style, the works are filled with light and the source of the light is identifiable, brilliantly illuminating the interiors. Sometimes vivid floral patterns enliven the walls. These are quiet interiors, rooms that are empty but inviting with comfortable chairs. Yang has also done figural works, but these are less distinct than the interiorsóthe figures are sketchily done. Sometimes the style is extremely realistic, other times a more expressionistic technique is used, with heavy application of paint and abstract arrangement of color. The painting in the exhibition, a decidedly voluptuous female form, falls within the category of abstract works. The blue hourglass shape that dominates the picture plane clearly alludes to the female torso, and the delicate star-like patterns of yellow recall intricate feminine ornaments.
JUNG HYANG KIM
Jung Hyang Kim makes large scale paired canvasesóone a complex geometric design; the other a delicate lyrical floral motif. The floral designs recall the Buddhist imagery of her youthólotus flowers, plum blossoms, and the intricate textile patterns of traditional Korean weaving. Kim's paintings embody the ancient Asian mysticism of yin and yang: the opposition of female/male, shadow/sun, water/stone, and permanent/ ephemeral. Like mandalas, Buddhist diagrams of the cosmos, used in pairs, they represent the diamond (the eternalóunchanging) and womb mandala (the ephemeralógrowing) aspects of the universe. United by the color scheme, the panels contrast geometrical and floral, infinite space and surface design, hard edges and soft. Kim's technique varies from etched designs with the point of the brush, layered veils of colored, calligraphic lines, or rich impasto of pigment.
In Memory of Seeds, pastel spring colors unite the canvases. On the left beneath the pink background, are disks painted in muted tones of blue, gray, mauve and rose pink. On the right a multi-layered blue background supports delicate drawings of fragile flowers in a blue outline. Bursts of seed spores explode in hues of blue, gray, mauve and rose. It is as if these seed bursts are viewed under the microscope in the left side of the picture.
Kinuko Ueno, who lives in Osaka, uses a traditional medium, batik, for her installations. Ueno recreates pastoral views of nature and mythological themes comprising Japanese folklore. Categorically, her designs are brilliantly coloredófuchsia, red, cadmium yellow and sky blue dominate renderings of nature. Ueno is basically self-taught, her compositions are ambitious and complex wax resist dyed textiles. A sense of independence seems to fill the characters in her textile narratives with a joyful exuberance.
Each character is animated in its own way and there is the sense of experiencing a dramatic moment in the forest. Looking at her designs one can appreciate Ueno's experience as an actor and dancer. In Tree the form is etched in the wax resist technique against a background of mottled colorsóreds, blues and greens. The slim, boughless tree gives birth to numerous small flowers, promising hope and renewal. In 1985 she became a member of the theatrical company Taihen (meaning "extremely difficult") which consisted of only handicapped participants. After that she became a member of the "Cosmic Dance Company."
15. YUKI MORIYA
In Kyoto, Japan, Yuki Moriya makes ceramic works of art that resemble astral forms. In Cosmic City she built a series of clay skyscrapers. Delicately hued and lit from the inside, the city took on an otherworldly appearance. In her clay Orbit of Stars clay cylinders glazed white cover huge 8-foot wire hoops on which the ancient symbol for stars was painted. In Gleam, Yuki recreates the night sky in her dark blue glass discs. Heavily framed by black clay, the circular forms are illuminated from beneath. In concert with her earlier work, these ceramic pieces resemble the stars of the constellations. Here the celestial bodies have become palpable, three-dimensional forms that reflect light. Smaller jewel-like, light green glass disc shapes are also part of the composition. Similarly encased in black clay, these forms suggest a secondary chain of stars in the nocturnal sky. Yuki transports the viewer to an astral realm, watching the movement of the stars.
In the work of Keiko Fujita, who is from Aichi, themes of rebirth dominate. In earlier works she used egg-shape forms for her ceramic installations, lately she has turned to the delicate young leaves of spring. Fujita encases the fragile leaves in a clay slip and sometimes glazes them with a luminous finish. In one piece she created a pristine Zen garden in miniature. The leaves, arranged in pools and eddies around small white stones, looked as if a huge windstorm had felled them. Here in a multi-partitioned installation, her slip-coated leaves in combination with an assortment of natural materials such as seeds and tiny stones are encased in acrylic and framed. Finely ground earth-colored powders act as a mat for the varied compositions. Creamy white and earth tones dominate the pieces, which seem to be an attempt to understand the mystery of germination by analytical presentation. Keiko reaches out to the viewer to engage them. She is writing to them on clay-baked leaves.
Tamako Nakanishi, who lives in Osaka, is an accomplished poet and self-taught artist who makes intricate drawings of the natural world with colored pencils. Each work is made up of tiny lines that adhere, like magnetic filings, to create dynamic visual patterns. The tiny vegetal structures, leaves and seedpods of spring are all examined with an objective eye and delineated with such exactitude that they appear like biological studies. One mountain view of a village at first glance looks like a close-up view of a flower. The rose tones of the drawing enhance the double reading of the image. Lights that seem to twinkle in the mountains, upon second glance, are a flower's stamen. In the second work, Bush, the title suggests a double entendre, for the image distinctly renders a mountain valley. The water of the river is incandescent among the verdant hills. Tamako's intricate renderings of natural forms recreate the stirrings of spring with a meticulous hand that suggest the spiritual energy that engenders them.
If The Shoe Fits...
Decent Rebellion, 2001
Journey: Growing Up, The Cultural Revolution,
Wai Po, Grandmother, Nantung, China, 1980
Mini Chi Pao Noir Shoeless Lady, 2000
Mini Chi Pao Noir: Shoe Store Spam, 2001
Safe Handling Instructions, 2001-2002
Betty YaQin Chou
Il Sun Hong
Il Sun Hong
Evening in Okinawa, 2001
Supper on New Years Eve, 2000
Finding Home #29, 1999
Finding Home #40 ìCurry-okeî, 2000
Finding Home #51 ìNamazî, 2001
Spicy Girl Series: ì Allrounders Techniques of Ectasyî, 1999
Matrimonial #3-Dowry, 2001
Jung Hyang Kim
Memories of Seeds-Spring, 2001
Mountain Swaying with Lights, 1991