Art about identity politics, personal history, and cultural heritage is seen all too rarely in Bushwick galleries, where formal and material concerns tend to dominate. Made in USA / Some Parts Imported, a group show curated by Naomi Reis and Heidi Lau at Tiger Strikes Asteroid New York, remedies this tendency toward cultural placelessness with works by 10 artists who are based in the US but were born or raised in other countries. Though their experiences of mixed heritage and cultural hybridity don’t manifest in one specific aesthetic trend, there are some recurring approaches.
For instance, Daisuke Kiyomiya and Jenny Cho render familiar iconography with very specific cultural associations in unsettling or unconventional ways. Kiyomiya’s contribution is a freestanding marble archway three feet tall. The artist was born in Japan and now makes a living restoring landmark buildings in New York City, hence his interest in isolating architectural features. Divorced of any purpose, this miniature archetype of Greco-Roman architecture has no interior or exterior; it is all threshold — and, given its height, it would make a perfect doghouse doorway for Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Greek mythology. In this context, though, it echoes the condition, familiar to all the artists featured here, of simultaneously belonging to two different cultures but not fully inhabiting either. For her part, Cho, a Korean artist who grew up in suburban Los Angeles and Houston, riffs on the history of European painting in three canvases. The largest, “Suburbia: Cul-de-sac” (2013), presents a disorienting sequence of horizontal, Google Street View-style suburban vistas in a painted, trompe l’oeil circular frame, and with an M.C. Escher-esque (or Koonsian, depending on your frame of reference) mirror ball at its center. At once a parody of landscape painting and, in a way, an earnest portrayal of the US landscape, the painting’s unconventional format and beguiling centerpiece cast the entire image in an ominous light, evoking the threateningly empty streetscapes of Giorgio de Chirico paintings. Like Kiyomiya’s classical doorway to nowhere, Cho’s paintings suggest the critical distance of someone not fully at home in the place he or she inhabits.
A more expected solution to the problem of portraying cultural hybridity is art that features a literal hybridity of forms or materials. A number of artists in Made in the USA employ this tactic, none more potently than Ignacio Gonzalez-Lang. The Puerto Rican artist’s piece “Sweeter than Salt” (2014) is a little girl’s dress made from US military uniforms and accessorized with, among other things, pierced ¢25 coins. Inspired by a Pashtun folk tale about an Afghan princess, the piece’s form is initially disarmingly endearing. Only then do its charged materials and themes of war, exploitation, and sexual violence hit you. The two sculptures by Jamaica-born artist Arthur Simms, on the other hand, perform no such gradual reveal. Their cobbled-together materials are immediately evident: the animal ribs and vertebrae encased in a wire cage and set atop a vintage roller skate in “Skunk” (2011); the feathers, rock, and rugged stick that make up “Beaver Stick” (2010/15), which looks either like an eccentric sorcerer’s staff or a homespun approximation of a palm tree. Both pieces seem imbued with mystical energy, though the answer is less straightforward than the allusion to Afro-Caribbean religions viewers might be tempted to read into the Jamaican-American artist’s work. The animal bones in “Skunk” were sent to Simms by friends in Montana and the large rock with a beaver’s teethmarks in “Beaver Stick,” gifted to him by students at Skowhegan, lend the sculptures an emotional weight. The artist’s dual heritage becomes relevant in how these objects are turned into sculptures, a practice Simms likens to the way Jamaican children craft toys from the materials at their disposal. The sculptures are literal hybrids of his lives in the US and Jamaica, though which elements represent which part of his bicultural identity is not always clear.
Much of the work in Made in USA addresses the awkward or contradictory interaction of two cultures — that of the US and the artists’ origins — but several pieces go further and imagine a kind of endless proliferation and piling up of selves. Co-curator Heidi Lau‘s small ceramic sculptures have a fungal quality to them, one bolstered by her choice of brown and green glazes. Set atop a pedestal and partially wrapped around its base, her two pieces here, with their innumerable tendrils, crevices, and cracks, also evoke barnacles, mussels, and oysters. They resemble, in short, a succession of different creatures, identities, and selves, piled atop one another into an uneasy and precarious whole. And, fittingly, Lau’s own heritage matches her many-faceted sculptures: born in Macau, she lived through the tiny peninsula’s transition (just 16 years ago) from a Portuguese colony to a Chinese province, before moving to the US. Similarly accumulative are Nicole Awai two mixed media wall sculptures. The Trinidad-born artist’s work, though most easily classified as bas relief sculpture, draws on the lineage of landscape painting with sharp diagonal lines that suggest off-kilter horizons. It’s hard not to look at her pieces, with their mix of natural tones, grassy forms, glossy black patches, and flashes of neon color, and not think of the oil and trash floating about in the seas and oceans. But, like Lau’s sculptures, they also evoke an uneasy fusion and coexistence of disparate elements and influences. The artworks suggest objects (and identities) that are still in the process of being made, the relationships between their constituent parts still being negotiated. Perhaps, then, a more accurate title for this rich exhibition would have been “Assembled in USA / Some Parts Imported.”