San Francisco Examiner • OCTOBER 1995

Asian artists test U.S. waters
David Bonetti, Examiner Art Critic

Cultural blindspots get needed airing in two exhibitions

ASIAN AMERICAN artists and their achievements remain largely unknown, though sculptor Isamu Noguchi and painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi were two of the most widely exhibited and popular artists in the United States during mid-century. But two exhibitions currently in The City attempt to correct that cultural blindspot by featuring artists of Asian backgrounds who work (or worked) in this country.

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“With New Eyes: Toward an Asian American Art History in the West,” at the San Francisco State University Gallery through Oct. 26, is happily a more successful exhibition. Initiated “out of curiosity” about what Asian artists did here on the West Coast, where they lived in greater numbers than anywhere else in America, it answers its question by showing that they did quite a bit.

The show, which includes 100 works from 1865 to 1965, is terribly uneven, but its virtue is its inclusiveness. And it has brought back to attention some real talent. Unlike the current generation, forging a separate cultural identity isn’t so much an issue, although a hard-to-pin-down Asian aesthetic and a definite Asian subject matter are readily apparent.

The two painters that struck me as the most accomplished are Chee Chin S. Cheung Lee (1896-1966) and Chiura Obata (1885-1975). Lee is represented by two canvases, a fanciful landscape and a realist depiction of a Chinese woman sewing that shows the architectonic solidity of the Mexican muralists. Obata is also represented by two works, both of which depict the California landscape in a traditional Japanese style filtered through American modernism.

The wall of Japanese-American pictorialist photographers from Los Angeles is also particularly interesting. Shigemi Uyeda’s circa-1925 print, “Reflections on the Oil Ditch,” in which circles of oil float like orbs in an endless field, marries romanticism with a modernist objectivity. It’s a formalist masterpiece that makes you want to see more of his work.