Visual Arts - East Meets West

Fusion is the name of the game in Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice: Asian Artists in the New South

Viewers who enter Red Beans and Rice: Asian Artists in the New South expecting to see Chinese artists pondering NASCAR culture or video documentation of Japanese grannies cooking up bushels of mustard greens and other postmodern smashups of the serene East and the wild, wild South may be disappointed by this exhibition.

The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center exhibition boasts one Southern curator, Craig Bunting, and one Asian one, Koan-Jeff Baysa, to ensure representation of both parties, but two cooks stirring the stew pot may best explain the muddled quality of the exhibition and its disappointing lack of specificity when dealing with the South.

The show features a diverse array of artists with ties to Japan, Taiwan, China, the Philippines and elsewhere. Several were born in the South, some migrated here, and some just found themselves spending a portion of their art education down Dixie-way. Some explicitly treat the South in their work, while others seem to avoid it entirely.

Red Beans and Rice is not the expected riff on the polyglot nature of the New South, though it does feature some hardly New South evocations of old world cliches in Japanese artist ON/Megumi Akiyoshi's decorative wall plaque figures of a geisha and a Southern belle to suggest the narrow, antiquated role offered to women by both cultural ideals.

Artworks in Red Beans and Rice that do explicitly reference the South can often be woefully condescending and media-defined in the way they treat the region. In a photographic series from the early '90s, which already feels somewhat dated, artist Osamu James Nakagawa takes images of drive-in movie screens and billboards and transposes onto them images of big-haired beauty queens, Klansmen, trailer parks, evangelist Billy Graham and other reductive visions of the region that again, seem more tied into an already well-traveled vision of the South than a more current and relevant one.

Some may also question whether the Miss America pageant can be blamed entirely on the South, but a video work by Edie Tsong called "Endless Dream (Miss America)" nevertheless dissects that archetypal American institution with good humor and some pathos, too. The 58-minute video features the artist in a Miss America sash and platinum wig promenading through an American landscape of town and country, unnoticed by drivers and passersby for much of her epic runway walk. Her invisibility seems to be a metaphor for the larger experience of people who migrate from other places and find their identities erased in their new home.

But it is harder to detect how the South relates to much of the other artwork in the exhibition. Viewers looking for a collision of two worlds will have to be content with evocations of a distinctly Eastern voice in works like the ethereal, feminine fabric pieces incorporating Buddhist spirituality by Jan Ru-Wan. Her works continue an idea repeated in the show in which the world is envisioned as a vast, complex cosmos of interconnectivity rather than the self- and individual-driven place it so often is in the West.

Equally subtle, but more thematically relevant, are Kazuko Matsumoto's photographs documenting site specific work that show delicate fences of yellow thread and bamboo winding through the landscape. The work evokes the ever-present survey lines that increasingly define the Southern landscape, asserting a more fragile human presence in these barren places.

Arthur Liou's intense, heart-stopping video work continues many of these ideas of humanity asserted in a vast cosmos and echoes the ethereal, haunting qualities of Matsumoto and Ru-Wan's work.

In three video pieces, Liou creates sci-fi landscapes that appear visceral and fleshy in some cases and at other times cosmic. As the videos progress, tiny babies appear like bees swarming in a rich red hive or humorously popping into being like overheated corn. Space is soon subsumed by the infinity of human population.

You don't have to read the wall text to pick up on a sense of doom and wonder, a collision of dread and the miraculous circulating in Liou's "Bloodworks."

And when you learn that the melding of life and death in the work was inspired by the artist's 5-month-old daughter's battle with leukemia, everything, as they say, is illuminated.

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