PST, A to Z: 'Drawing the Line' at JANM
Pacific Standard Time will explore the origins of the Los Angeles art world through museum exhibitions throughout Southern California over the next six months. Times art reviewer Sharon Mizota has set the goal of seeing all of them. This is her latest report.
The wall text at the beginning of “Drawing the Line: Japanese American Art, Design & Activism in Post-War Los Angeles” at the Japanese American National Museum describes how California’s reputation as the land of endless possibility and optimism was experienced a bit differently by Japanese Americans returning from World War II internment camps. Most of the works by the show’s 10 featured artists, designers, and performers reflect a certain dissatisfaction with mainstream modes of representation and attempt to counter them with images of their own, both so-called “positive” ones and others that are more ambivalent and questioning.
For a show with only 10 artists, “Drawing the Line” covers a lot of ground, from Matsumi Kanemitsu’s blend of Japanese brush painting techniques, Abstract Expressionist flourishes and Pop art content, to Qris Yamashita’s whimsical repurposing of Japanese woodblock print motifs in posters and T-shirts for community events, to artifacts from the career of dancer turned activist and folksinger Nobuko Miyamoto. There’s also a fascinating selection of cover art and full issues of Gidra, a progressive Asian American monthly published by a collective of UCLA students from 1969 to 1974. The magazine was remarkable not only for the radical, Asian American politics it espoused, but for the connections it made with Black Power, Chicano, Native American and global empowerment movements. It’s startling (in a nice way) to see how race relations in L.A. — particularly those between African and Asian Americans — were more harmonious before the rise of the model minority phenomenon and the 1992 riots.
The only artist who feels like an outlier in this bunch is sports car designer Larry Shinoda, whose work includes the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray (of which, a pristine example is on view in the museum’s lobby). Shinoda’s aerodynamic, futuristic forms are worthy of Speed Racer and then some, but they would play better across town amid the unmitigated optimism of LACMA’s “California Design.” Here, their unquestioning allegiance to the imperatives of high-end consumerism feel out of step with the grass-roots concerns expressed in the rest of the show. Curator Kris Kuramitsu seems to have known this, and Shinoda’s work has a room all to itself at the back of the galleries. It's like a separate mini-show.
The rest of the exhibition is an occasion to reassess some figures who are better known in the realm of art. Linda Nishio’s work as a performance artist is given more dimension with the inclusion of some text and image pieces from the early 1980s. They explore the intricacies and missteps of communication as an act of translation, from Japanese to English to — when she went to art school — “intellectualism.”
Ben Sakoguchi is best known for his orange crate label paintings — an especially idiosyncratic form of Pop art — that use the iconic language of fruit packaging to comment on social, economic and cultural ills. “W.W. II Brand” oranges are from “Oildale, Cal,” and feature the soldiers from the famous Iwo Jima Memorial erecting an oil derrick instead of a flag. Likewise, “Atomic Brand” oranges are “Deformed but delicious.” There’s also “Pachuco Brand,” and “Jonestown Kool-Aid Brand.” While some of these choices may seem in poor taste, when seen all together they remind us how the logic of commercial branding has acted as a lens through which we package reality.
Speaking of which, brothers Bruce and Norman Yonemoto are best known for video works that manipulate and expose the vocabulary of soap operas and Hollywood productions. But their contributions here give these works a more solid underpinning in radical politics and Japanese American identity. Bruce is represented by a series of early drawings from the late 1970s that use the language and imagery of comic books to explore — often hilariously — issues of ethnic and artistic identity. Norman’s contribution is a surprisingly straightforward 1969 film he made with Nicolai Ursin documenting the People’s Park protest in Berkeley.
Also in a documentary vein are Robert A. Nakamura’s beautiful photographs of community and commemoration, documenting a pilgrimage to the World War II internment camp at Manzanar and other cultural events. There’s also a touching series of portraits of his father, who worked, as many Japanese Americans did, as a gardener. They remind us how the demographics of working class life in L.A. have shifted: Now the muscled, suntanned men working in the front yard are more likely to be Latino than Japanese.
In 1970, Nakamura also devised, with Duane Kubo, Alan Ohashi and Eddie Wong, a traveling exhibition called “The Camp Cubes Photo Display.” A set of modular boxes, each about a foot square, they bear photographs and text having to do with Japanese American history and the internment camps, a topic many camp survivors were reluctant to discuss. The cubes were designed to be shipped to different locations — community centers, schools, etc. — and could be configured to fit the space, creating an ingenious, pop-up exhibition. They’re simple and clear and aesthetically pleasing — a perfect combination of art, design and activism.
-- Sharon Mizota
Japanese American National Museum, 369 First St., (213) 625-0414, through February 19. Closed Mondays. www.janm.org
Photos, from top: Ben Sakoguchi, "Orange Crate Label Series 1974-81: WWIII Brand," 1974-81. Credit: © Ben Sakoguchi. Collection of Marcia and Ed Nunnery.
Larry Shinoda, Untitled drawing (Stingray). Pencil on paper. Credit: Collection of Japanese American National Museum, Gift of the Shinoda Family, Japanese American National Museum
Robert A. Nakamura, "Cemetery Monument at Manzanar, California, One of Ten Concentration Camps in the U.S. That Incarcerated Over 120,000 Americans of Japanese Descent During WWII," 2009. Credit: Courtesy of Robert A. Nakamura. © Robert A. Nakamura