The Boon and Burden Of Uprooting Oneself

Two West Coast exhibitions tackle immigration and issues of cultural identity head on

In Franz Kafka's "Amerika," new arrivals are greeted by a Statue of Liberty brandishing not a torch to light the way, but a sword to bar entrance. Two exhibitions in San Diego, located on the Mexican border, cast light on the double-edged sword of life on the frontier.

Both "Common Ground," at the downtown branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and "Tracing Cultures," which just finished a stop at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, pose questions of cultural identity. Living in limbo between cultures offers an opportunity to mingle inherited and adopted cultures. Yet the price of breaking with the past, according to the artists, is dislocation.

"Common Ground" highlights 17 emerging and established artists from the San Diego area whose work fuses the personal and political. Influenced by proximity to the Mexican border, the artists cast a sharp eye on contemporary Southwest culture.

For David Avalos, danger hides beneath the colorful stereotype of a Mexican-American. "Shards From a Glass House" (1995) is a powerful installation that includes a metal pinata suspended from a gallows. A spotlight casts a shadow to suggest a lynching, while a plaque reads: "He wanted to be their Mr. Fiesta but his pinata was in the shop for repairs getting bullet-proofed."

Wick Alexander examines the tensions and ties between the two countries. Two narrative paintings, done in a flat, Mexican folk-art style, explore the dualism of Southern California, where pleasure sometimes collides with violence. In "Beach Culture," sun worshipers frolic innocently at an amusement park. Yet every peak on a roller-coaster ride precedes a big drop. "Gun Culture" shows the flip side, with a gun show displaying heat-seeking missiles, flame-throwers, and a sign advertising "Muskets to Magnums."

"20th Century" (1995), a monumental painting by Mary Plaisted Austin, attempts to sum up a century of American life. It portrays a rising wave that starts at ground zero. A montage of headlines announces: "Demented Militarism" and "Reports Reveal Nuclear Bomb Builders' Errors." Bright icons like a soda machine represent consumer culture, while a spiral of skeletons under the headline "Genetics: the Future is Now" portrays the artist's sense of modern science's menace. From these dark phantoms, the painting lightens to gold leaf at the top. The Statue of Liberty rises above, like a phoenix from the wasteland.

The "Tracing Cultures" exhibit explicitly deals with issues related to immigration. It is one installment in a three-part series of exhibitions on the subject, jointly organized by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, the Friends of Photography/Ansel Adams Center for Photography in San Francisco, and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz. Photographs by 12 contemporary artists, many of whom are immigrants or first- second- or third-generation Americans, define identity at the nexus of cultures.

I.T.O. (whose given name is Shigeki Ito) combines symbols of Japanese and American culture in an attempt to cross cultural boundaries and reduce conflict. In "Ethnocentrism II - the Revenge of Sushi" (1990-95), trays of sushi encircle vintage photos of Civil War generals. As if on an altar, the artist offers pairs of seafood to placate the gods of ethnic strife.

Komar and Melamid, two Russian expatriates who work as a team, take a lighter approach. In a series of 1990 photo collages based on Bayonne, N.J., they mix images of the old and new worlds to show how America, according to the artists' statement, can "accommodate varied cultures." Behind a night-time Hopperesque street scene of shop facades, an Egyptian sphinx looms majestically.

Dinh Q. Le literally weaves together disparate strands of personal and cultural identity. In "Self-Portrait #15" from the series "Portraying a White God" (1989), he fragments a print of a Renaissance crucifixion with strips of linen tape that outline his own image.

An installation by Kim Yasuda called "She Was Both" (1991) consists of two drawers installed in a wall. When one is opened, the other closes. At the bottom of one drawer is the word "acquired," while the other drawer casts a shadow illuminating the word "innate." The alternating adjectives suggest that acquired cultural traits may seem to erase, but cannot efface, original character.

The nationally known photographer Carrie Mae Weems displays stunning black-and-white images of Goree Island off the coast of West Africa, the staging area from which 100 million Africans were exported as slaves from the 17th through 19th centuries. Only 22 million survived the passage, Weems points out in an accompanying statement.

The photos of elegant architecture, such as a double staircase that curves like embracing arms, contrast, in the artist's words, to "the horror that went on just beneath the surface." An untitled photograph from her 1993 "Africa" series portrays a dark corridor leading to an open door framing the sea. Wall text reads "GRABBING/ SNATCHING/BLINK/ AND YOU/ BE GONE."

Young Kim presents 12 panels in a series called "Distances" (1992) that traces the widening rift between one's past and present, and the void created by such continental drift. Born in Korea and working in San Francisco, Kim combines images of her parents with poignant text. A photograph on one panel shows the ocean that separates her from family and native land. Carved in wood are the words: "Leaving my country was not a simple task. I now realize that I never really left nor really arrived."

Artists on the border reveal a kind of potluck reality behind the myth of the melting pot. On a personal level, they show that assimilation entails loss as well as gain. Uprooted, these immigrants pay homage, through art, to both roots and new growth.

Tour Schedule

"Common Ground" remains at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego until Feb. 11. "Tracing Cultures," part of a three-part immigration series called "Points of Entry," finished at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego on Jan 7. The exhibition now travels to the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Ariz., Jan. 19 to March 10; the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, N.Y., April 12 to Sept. 13; Center for African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Nov. 1 to Dec. 31; Nexus Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, Jan. 17 to March 8, 1997; the Jewish Museum, New York, mid-May to mid-August 1997; and Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, Sept. 15 to Nov. 30, 1997.

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