Heavy Impact

Collide, works by Rokko Aoyama, Polly Chang, Albert Chong and others.

To be Asian-American is to be in a constant state of diffusion. It's a perspective distorted by opposing cultures, all falling under one identity-flattening aegis. For the average non-Asian-American, the banner carries a quality of exoticism, stoicism and mystery, but for those who walk in its shoes, it's life -- a state of being that's as different as night and day for, say, a Japanese-American born in this country and a Taiwanese immigrant who's had to learn the language and culture from scratch. For artist and educator Ken Iwamasa, it seemed like an interesting starting point for a group exhibition, and the finished product, Collide, featuring works by eight artists from the region, opens this week at the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria campus.

"I wondered if there's anything like an Asian consciousness in the minds of Asian artists of Colorado," Iwamasa says of the show's genesis. The first step was to find some, and he notes that his search for quality artists falling within the show's thematic strictures wasn't exactly daunting: "It was both minimal and frustrating -- the number of artists we found whose work could be called contemporary turned out to be our friends."

Though it seems like the theme of cultural identity comes loaded with major political and sociological implications to act out on canvas or in stone, this show shakes out as more personal in nature. Or, as Iwamasa puts it, the theme's "embedded in the work -- implicit rather than explicit. It's not in your face." What is in your face is a diverse collection of quality two- and three-dimensional works expressing eight fascinating points of view. "We all expressed in our work the whole question of, 'Where does this all come from? What's indigenous? What's changed? How do we look at ourselves as an ethnic community existing within the American structure?'"

The content of tables: See how it all stacks up for Asian-American sculptor Rokko Aoyama.
The content of tables: See how it all stacks up for Asian-American sculptor Rokko Aoyama.

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That's a wide-open starting point, and the solutions, as expected, are diverse. Iwamasa's own contribution is a series of chaotic assemblages combining pictures and words with some accoutrements of fly fishing, though the artist notes that they're not really about fish. "It's more of a personal autobiographical- fictional piece about the origins of fly fishing -- according to me," Iwamasa explains. It's immediately obvious that there has to be more to the story -- and there is: Iwamasa spent some of his earliest years with his family in a Japanese relocation camp in California, where his father was sometimes allowed to go out and fish in a nearby stream. After their ordeal in the camp, the family often returned to the site. "As a kid, the only thing I remember was waiting for summer, when my family would take two weeks off to go fly fishing in the High Sierras," he says. "My father took us up to the deserted campground as a pilgrimage. And whenever my parents talked about the camp, they kept the conversations in a positive mode. To this day, they refuse to talk about the humiliation they went through."

Taiwan-born artist Polly Chang tackles totally different issues. She calls the first, a quilt-like hanging scrawled with drawings and words in both English and Chinese, "a metaphor about my broken English." Composed of swatches that have been sewn together, ripped apart and sewn together again, the work is about her own culture collisions: Though she's lived in this country for twenty years, she's spoken English for only ten. And in the interim, she's earned her art degree and become an instructor. "Now that I have to teach, both languages have become part of my everyday life," she says. "And though I know I'm not perfect in English, now I find out I'm not perfect in Chinese, either." Bad grammar and all, Chang poignantly shares her culture-driven communication breakdown with viewers. But her second piece for Collide, she says, is about "two generations colliding with two cultures in one family." Conceived as a high school graduation gift for her American-born son, "18 Envelopes for My Son" addresses the cultural differences in how Chinese and American mothers are expected to react to their children's accomplishments. Originally in book form, the work has evolved into a graduation gown pinned with eighteen compliments more typical of American-style praise. It's her hopeful way of wishing her son well, expressed in his own, Western-honed terms.

In contrast, Rokko Aoyama's near-minimalist sculpture, a layered work of wood, stone and paraffin, explores -- in less raw and endlessly elegant terms -- how her thirty years in this country have resulted in a tiered perspective combining formal traditions of her native Japan with the effects of Western thought. Created as a tribute to her father on the twentieth anniversary of his death, "Glean" is ultimately about being the product of opposing cultures.

These and other artists' works will serve, hopes gallery director Mark Masuoka, to embody the meaning of Collide. "The name is like the work," he says. "Simple. Powerful." New in his role as gallery curator, Masuoka inherited the already-percolating show. He's a Japanese-American himself, but when people tell him it's an appropriate show for him to mount, he smiles: He had nothing to do with it. But, committed to shaping the Emmanuel as an educational tool befitting its role as a campus institution, Masuoka says Collide serves his guiding purpose well. Its combination of superb technique and unique messages can't be beat for providing the campus with an educational experience of merit. He'll only have to go as far as the opening reception to see those results: "Openings have a life all their own," Masuoka says. "What's good is when you see the artists talking to people. Here, you see students asking questions, you see interaction."

 
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