Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Laura Kina: A Many-Splendored Thing

"Laura Kina: A Many-Splendored Thing"

A retrospective featuring over thirty selected paintings, drawings and textiles (1995-present) from her Refrigerator, Hapa Soap Opera, Loving, Aloha Dreams, and Devon Avenue Sampler series as wellas some early and new works on exhibit for the first time. Kina's art collectively embraces "ikigai" or the Japanese belief of "a sense of life worth living" and reflects her "postcolonial pop aesthetic" as a multiracial Okinawan Jewish artist/educator/scholar living in a South Asian Indian neighborhood in Chicago.

April 2nd - May 30th
Gene Siskel Film Center Café Gallery
Opening reception, Friday, April 2nd from 6-8pm

In conjunction with the 15th annual
Foundation for Asian American Independent Media
Asian American Showcase
Gene Siskel Film Center
164 North State Street
Chicago, Illinois 60601

Glance quickly at a Laura Kina painting and what comes to mind at first is Hello Kitty goes to Bollywood in Pearl Harbor by a Coca Cola sign. Or surely Pop gone haywire as the resultant byproduct the artist creates deftly fuses these loaded icons into a NeoPop Orientalism or less ironical Post Japonisme of East morphing West and vice versa not just Americanized but transnationalized.

Yet to label her oeuvre strictly as such is an injustice because what you also see ostensibly hybridizes the anecdotal and historical, family and society, private and public conflated through collage of art imitating, or drawing from, life, particularly her life as a mixed Asian "hapa haole" alternately fascinated, bemused and obsessed with being in-between.

Which is why upon a closer look describing her artistic process akin to “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” is so apt. Picture, if you recall, Jennifer Jones as a forlorn Eurasian doctor atop a hill overlooking Kowloon Bay in Hong Kong pining for her lover, a married journalist returned to America played by William Holden and come to understand why Kina’s version of her floating world so much resembles the movie itself. Indeed, both “colorfully” depict mixed race representations beyond accepted cultural norms except that Hollywood in this maudlin adaptation based on true events really does exoticize the subject matter as taboo whereas Kina selectively reinvents the nonfictional into the fictive Asian American mainstream. Not commercially slick as something pejorative but professionally crafted by her ability to wield a brush with facility, precision and grace to be part artifice, partly romantic. So not only is it dramatization but autobiography beyond pop culture in collision with Pop Art.

And that is her genius: Kina circumvents the so-called “multicultural” melodrama instead preferring a more straightforward approach celebrating the sameness of difference that in doing so resists the role of victim inherent to the book, movie or song with a good-natured smile, bright colors and an even sunnier disposition as it were. But this is not to say that her overall work is apolitical. Nothing could be further from the truth as she constantly confronts the status quo not in search of but to challenge identity as a given. In fact, her practice seems centered on the question about how such multiplicities that constitutes the Asian American Diaspora become seamlessly perceived if not understood as in her series of life-sized portraits in charcoal dealing with the famous Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case.

By this then, “many” to Kina is not so much an adjective as it functions as a conceptual directive. Bringing many things together, occupying many places at once belies the generalization of how she combines and recontextualizes the multitude of bits and pieces into layered, oftentimes multiple paneled compositions full of the recognizably everyday versus the intimately arcane. A swatch of fabric belonging to her maternal grandmother, floral patterns from kimonos, a snippet from a favorite Brady Bunch episode, an old black and white family photograph, these very personal images never appear detached as if truncated or worse amputated but rather beautiful because Laura loves to share a glimpse of her past. So true to form, she bends time, dovetails related events and mixes mass media which, of course, compels the viewer to acknowledge and advocate "ikigai" or the Japanese belief of "a sense of life worth living."

The work on display covering almost the last fifteen years reflects this attitude of a world we are very much curious about and a vital part of. Now just be happy to see the way Laura Kina lightens the gravity by which everyone walks through it nimbly and sprightly.

~ Larry Lee, March 15, 2010.

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