Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Seeing in color - art and mixed race

I was reviewing an Asian American marketing book (Many Cultures One Market by Robert Kumaki and Jack Moran) and getting my toenails painted dark fuchsia pink, just a few steps from blood red, at a neighborhood Vietnamese nail salon when I got a text that the New York Times article I've been waiting for had finally come out:
Pushing Boundaries, Mixed-Race Artists Gain Notice by Felicia Lee
The article highlights, amongst others, the recent Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, works by authors such as Heidi Durrow and Danzy Senna, filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearn's "One Big Hapa Family" and artist Kip Fulbeck's traveling exhibition Part Asian/100% Hapa.

In the hours that followed, my inbox blew up with comments on mixed race (see the Critical Mixed Race Studies Facebook wall and the comments on the NY Times article). I kept thinking that what was missing here (both in the article and the online commentary) was a discussion of the artwork itself in terms of form and aesthetics and the different ways the various art forms (literature, film, spoken word, performance, visual arts etc.) change the terms of discussion on mixed race and how we might see (or read, or hear, or feel and experience) color.

Danzy Senna's You Are Free, a collection of short stories is a great summer read that let's you get lost in a world full of fascinatingly dysfunctional and complicated relationships. The female protagonists of these short stories are either biracial or in interracial relationships and, refreshingly, most of them are a bit older. These aren't the stories of a 20-somethings coming of age and searching for their individual identity. These are lives weathered by racial misreading and the messiness of desire and longing and they are defined against and beside their lovers, husbands, kids, parents, and friends.

Towards the end of the book, I tripped up and was knocked out of my "lost" state of summer fun reading with her story "Tryptich" in which Senna tells the same story (Cherries in Winter, Peaches in Winter, and Plums in Winter) of searching for fruit out of season/region set on a winter day in New Haven, CT the day after the main character's mother dies. At first I didn't like this suite. I resented it. It was disruptive and repetitive....the narrative arc and sentence structure stayed exactly the same in each story but what was switched out were the mix of racial and class details (the girls' music poster, the type of family dog, the type of car, where she shops, the profession of her father). Just as you think you know who is black, white, or biracial, the clues mess with you again. It wasn't until I was done with the book and few days passed that I kept thinking about these stories and how her use of structure made me think critically about the narratives rather than voyeuristically consuming them wholesale. This is what form can do. I think these stories also resonated for me, as a painter, because of the attentiveness to seeing in color.

"The fruit is piled neatly, identical apples and identical pears, not a mark on their waxy skins. There are plums too, imported from Ecuador at $3.99 a point. They are mostly hard, gold still showing under the purple. She fills a bag with six of the ripest she can find."

I could imagine that cool plum color and how it must look just as the sky begins to brighten on a winter morning. I was aware of the uncertainty of color, of its shifting nature, and how much our experience of seeing color relies on context and expectations.

I read the NY Time's and facebook wall posts while walking through the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago with a fellow mixed race Japanese American friend to see the Mark Bradford Project and Pandora's Box: Joseph Cornell Unlock's the MCA Collection. The MCA had a few Paul Thek's up in their Cornell exhibition and this reminded me of the Paul Thek retrospective I saw last month at UCLA's Hammer Museum where I found myself unexpectedly blown away by his intentionally underwhelming low-craft paintings. I couldn't photograph in the gallery but there was this big sloppy pink painting of the Loch Ness monster. The monster was emerging from the water in some far away land and it was sketched out urgently in turquoise paint that reminded me of the 1940s. I went back three times to look at it. Color can leave you with out words and fill you with emotion and shock you into different places and times. I got an idea there that hopefully I'll be able to execute in the studio this week.
Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective currently at the UCLA Hammer Museum through August 28, 2011

Another work that caught my attention at the Hammer that brings color into focus is Sam Durrant's lightbox - End of White Supremacy.

Look at this work and then read Steven F. Riley's opening remarks on white supremacy for a panel at the Mixed Roots festival - Don’t Pass on Context: The Importance of Academic Discourses in Contemporary Discussions on the Multiracial Experience.
Sam Durant. End White Supremacy, 2008. Electric sign with vinyl text, 96 x 136 in. Hammer Museum.

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