Cultural Diversity

I recently made my way to the fifth floor of the Denver Art Museum, and once again, I was struck by its spare and stunning beauty. The galleries on that floor, home to the Asian art collection, are bathed in golden light and filled with exquisite paintings, prints, sculptures, pottery, lacquer-work and furniture, all of it perfectly installed. Credit for both the collection's high quality and its tremendously elegant installation goes almost entirely to one person: Ron Otsuka, the museum's curator of Asian art.

Otsuka was born in an Arkansas internment camp for Japanese-Americans in 1944; his father was fighting with the U.S. Army in Italy, a member of the famous Nisei troop. After the war, the Otsukas returned to their former home state of California, where Ron grew up. In 1973, while a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, he visited Colorado and met, among others, Emma Bunker, a noted scholar, collector and art donor. At the time, Otsuka was a student of legendary Asian-art historian Alexander Soper, with whom Bunker also had studied. A few months later, Bunker asked Otsuka to apply for the Asian-art curator's job that had just opened up at the DAM. And that fall, renowned director Otto Bach hired Otsuka.

Although Otsuka's stock in trade is traditional Asian art, he's been drafted into doing contemporary duty because of a recent gift by Vicki and Kent Logan that includes more than a score of contemporary pieces by Asian and Asian-American artists. This newly acquired booty gave Otsuka the opportunity to explore new Asian art within shouting distance of older material, which is what he's done with Full Frontal: Contemporary Asian Art from the Logan Collection.

The show, in the William Sharpless Jackson Jr. Gallery, definitely makes its presence known among the more subtle beauties that surround it. As you approach the gallery from the elevator lobby, you can do a little comparative analysis. To the right, there's a serene space filled with old Chinese decorative art. To the left, there's Full Frontal -- which is anything but serene.

Flanking the show's entryway are a pair of goofy-looking sculptures of men, in acrylic on resin. The sculptures, part of the Logan Collection but not part of the gift, are by Yue Minjun, a Chinese artist who's clearly been influenced by Japanese animation, which itself comes straight out of American pop culture. In fact, virtually everything in this show has some intimate relationship to American or Americanized pop culture and, as a result, to pop art. Conversely, the pieces have little to do with Asian art traditions, as a quick glance back at all that stunning Chinese furniture will firmly attest.

It's no surprise that most of the standouts in Full Frontal are neo-pop, but few make the case as cogently as Yu Youhan's "Mao Decorated" -- based not on the famous traditional portrait, but on Andy Warhol's version of it. Also in the pop mode are two light boxes by Hung Tung-lu, "Evangelion" and "Street Fighter," which are absolute showstoppers. In both, Japanese-style cartoons of women in full figure are seen in Duratrans prints, lighted from behind.

The front-runner in the current generation of Chinese artists is Zhang Huan, a conceptualist. In Full Frontal, he's represented by a photo, "Dream of the Dragon (#5)," documenting a performance in which he coated his nude body with a mixture of ground hot dogs and then had actual canine-type dogs lick it off him. No, really.

Full Frontal is small, but as Huan's work indicates, it's also bold. After thirty years at the DAM, Asian-art curator Otsuka is still at the top of his form.

Also in top form is Metro State College's Center for the Visual Arts, which is hosting a magnificent traveling show, Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography. Big as this show is -- and it's very big -- it's actually a small part of a much larger exhibition that surveys African-American photography from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The larger show was organized by Deborah Willis for the Anacostia Museum and Center for African-American History and Culture, and it was presented in 2000 at the Smithsonian. In the CVA's abbreviated version, the focus is on photography from the past twenty years.

Nearly everything Willis selected for this show references the African-American experience in some way, so that most works were not only created by black artists but are also about being black. Even if most address the same broad topic of racial identity, however, they take divergent routes to get there. Only a few artists in the show, most notably Clarissa Sligh, employ straight documentary photography. The majority use photography as a tool for carrying out their ideas, not as an end in itself.