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Home / Arts / ‘Off Kilter: Power and Pathos’ exhibit on view at USC Pacific Asia Museum

‘Off Kilter: Power and Pathos’ exhibit on view at USC Pacific Asia Museum

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“Off Kilter: Power and Pathos,” on view from July 22 to Sept. 4 at the USC Pacific Asia Museum (USC PAM), features the works of Sandra Low, Keiko Fukazawa, and Kim-Trang Tran. The exhibition is the latest installation in the museum’s effort to provide a place where, through their work, diasporic Asian American artists can examine and address present-day concerns that affect our community.          

In her introduction to the exhibition, USC PAM Curator Rebecca Hall states, “How might contemporary artists guide us through this current moment of increasingly entrenched attitudes, distrust, and ongoing uncertainty? Perhaps it requires the point of view of someone positioned on the margins observing events as they unfold. In these turbulent times, the artworks that connect us require honesty and depth of conviction from their makers.

“The three artists featured in this exhibition share adventurous and experimental attitudes towards their chosen mediums and the uncanny ability to address socio-political issues with immediacy, power, and pathos. Sandra Low, Keiko Fukazawa, and T. Kim-Trang Tran understand that art draws from personal experience made manifest in explorations of the vital role that history, family, and politics play in our lives. 

‘Off Kilter: Power and Pathos’ installation entrance | Photo by May S. Ruiz / Beacon Media News

“Masters of their different mediums, these artists’ work provides social commentary on the influences and power structures that guide our memories and identities. Each artist incorporates familiar imagery into their creations, reminding viewers of our connections to each other and to history’s continued relevance. Using satire and critical commentary, they underscore the power of women of color in shaping social change.”

Hall explains during a press preview of the exhibition, “Those of you who are familiar with what I’ve been doing here as curator know that my ongoing work with contemporary Asian diasporic artists stems from my desire to focus on a very specific part in Asia, to bring it into L.A. and in the current moment – which has changed in the last couple of years – and to engage with the community (read about two previous exhibitions ‘We Are Here: Contemporary Art and Asian Voices in Los Angeles’ and ‘Intervention: Fresh Perspectives After 50 Years’). This started with an exhibition called ‘We Are Here’ which opened to great fanfare on March 13, 2020 only to be shut down because of the pandemic. We reopened it last year, aptly, during AAPI Heritage month.

“That exhibition highlighted seven Asian American female artists who lived and worked in Los Angeles. It was at that time that I met both Sandra and Kim-Trang but I wasn’t able to include their work on that show because of our limited space. I was so impressed with both that I wanted to make sure I brought them into the galleries. In fact, Kim-Trang was supposed to exhibit in 2020 the piece that we now have in our galleries, so I’m thrilled to find a way to make that happen. It was a bit later that I met Keiko after she displayed a piece in our sister museum The Fisher Museum of Art.”

“As a curator working with contemporary artists, my interest is ‘How are we moving in this worldview now and how are they capturing this moment that we’re in,” Hall continues. “And I think these three artists are doing it differently – using assorted media and with various perspectives – and you’ll see that as you walk through their work.”

For the exhibition, Hall created wall labels that give background information on the artists and their works on display. The large canvases from Sandra Low’s ‘Cheesy Paintings’ series focus on the representation of kitschy subjects set within romantic landscapes. The central objects nearly disappear in a layer of oozing, dripping American cheese. With great attention to detail and a painterly eye, Low creates these paintings to call attention to the contrasting components of American life. On each canvas, viewers can relate to the seduction and illusion of prosperity; the desire to consume and the dangers of gluttony; and the way something familiar can seem completely novel when presented in an unexpected way.

Low’s unique ability to merge the familiar with the unfamiliar while finding profound humor and warmth shines throughout her work. Her ‘Ma Stories’ chronicle cultural and generational differences through the illustration of her mother’s unique perspective of her daily world. Her ‘Pandemic Prints’ draw from a similarly uncanny ability to balance the personal with the poignant. Through all of these artworks, she reminds us that we can find humor and the absurd in even the darkest of moments, cutting through the drama of life and finding a sense of balance.

Sandra Low, Ma Stories | Photo by Brianna Chu / Beacon Media News

Hall reveals as we approach the artist’s displays, “I find Sandra’s work very compelling, but I also find it the most difficult to talk about because it’s so much about being a diasporic Chinese American woman. And I get it, but it’s not my place to talk about that and it’s not my voice that I should be using. But I can take on the role of sharing her work with everyone – and PAM has the space for that.  

“In my mind, Sandra is a stand-up comedian in a parallel world because of her way of using humor to talk about things. Two of her series have been ongoing for several years – ‘Ma Stories’ and ‘Cheesy Paintings’ – while ‘Pandemic Prints’ center on a specific period. Her ‘Ma Stories’ came from the disconnect she felt as an Asian American growing up in the San Gabriel Valley. She still lives with her mother, who has dementia, and that’s how she copes with it; she processes things through drawing, painting, and humor. This series records her day-to-day interaction with her mom. In fact, these pieces aren’t so much about art than they are about her relationship with her mother.”    

Indeed, when you look at the drawings and read the verbiage, you can imagine the artist reacting to what her mother did or said. The series – however absurd and comical the illustrations and captions are – is a child’s homage to a beloved mother. With the additional layer of her mother’s dementia, you sense that Low wants to preserve all the memories which her parent has lost. Each display is at once hilarious and heartbreaking.  

Sandra Low, Cheesy Paintings | Photo by Brianna Chu / Beacon Media News

About the next set of Low’s works, Hall says, “‘Cheesy Paintings’ pulls from the same experience  we see in her ‘Ma Stories.’ Cheese takes on different meanings to Sandra and she plays with the contrast of cheese dripping on the landscape.”

Anyone who has emigrated from Southeast Asia will tell you that several decades ago, dairy products like milk, butter, and cheese – daily staples in the U.S. and easily obtainable here – were rare commodities except for a privileged few. What a treat it must have been for Low’s mother who, until then perhaps, had only eaten Cheez Whiz and Velveeta – processed food which passed for cheese – to see so many varieties in the grocery store. Her mother’s reaction to the abundance of cheese made a huge impression and she memorialized that in a fantastically funny way.                                             

Sandra Low, Pandemic Prints | Photo by Brianna Chu / Beacon Media News

In ‘Pandemic Prints,’ Low uses household items. Hall relates, “We were all housebound during the pandemic so she used whatever objects were available, like doilies, to create these images and process what was going on; each print takes you to that moment. This one stands out for me – September 21, 2020: over 200,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S., over 950,000 worldwide. She recorded what happened that day; they are universal and personal at the same time.”

The wall label for Keiko Fukazawa’s displays reads: Keiko Fukazawa believes that art “should define its era, reflect what we are living through, and challenge us to think and act with more awareness as we each shape the current and future world we live in.” Born and raised in Japan, Fukazawa has lived in the U.S. for nearly forty years. Her love of clay is evident in all of the work she creates. Fukazawa sees clay as a forceful medium that allows for boundary-breaking detail and artistry. She completed a multi-year artist residency in Jingdezhen, China from 2013 until 2015, an experience that further contextualized her longstanding interest in porcelain as a medium tied to Chinese culture and history. Her time in China also provided further insight into the unique connections between consumerism and control as they manifest in contemporary Chinese society, a theme seen in several of the works exhibited here.

As an artist raised in Japan now living in Southern California, Fukazawa has honed her perspective to question the role of perception and power in the world around us. By creating familiar objects in the exquisite and historically significant medium of porcelain, Fukazawa asks viewers to question the very systems in which we participate, pulling us into the detailed surfaces of her work and encouraging dialogue about our need to find common ground.

Keiko Fukazawa, Peacemaker Series | Photo by Brianna Chu / Beacon Media News

Hall describes as we reach the artist’s gallery, “This is Keiko’s ‘Peacemaker’ series. In ‘Seven Days,’ she selected seven days that had gun deaths – which includes suicide – and stacked guns which have the name and age of the person who died and where it occurred. Because I’m a curator, I think context is everything. And I think this is an important series in the way she visualizes gun violence so that there’s no way we can remain neutral on this issue. It’s new work for her and I’m excited that we could show it.”

The other part of Fukazawa’s ‘Peacemaker’ series shows the guns used in mass shootings with the state flower wrapped around the gun. The flower is a symbol of beauty, hope, and life while the gun represents violence, death, and sorrow.

Keiko Fukazawa, Circle of Friends | Photo by Brianna Chu / Beacon Media News

One display area is devoted to Fukazawa’s work with clay and ceramics, and her time in China. When one thinks of China, the image of Mao Zedong inevitably comes to mind and so she produced a piece called ‘Hello, Mao.’ She also made ‘Perception Plates’ and five of these pieces are in the exhibition. Another set of artworks is called ‘Circle of Friends’ – porcelain underglaze with profile images of reviled world leaders past and present – that Hall says was shown at Fisher Museum last fall, to which Fukazawa has since added The Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

According to the display label for the third artist in this exhibition, Kim-Trang Tran creates multimedia artworks that question the way we perceive the world through our unique experiences and the ongoing influence of history and conflict on our lives. Tran’s experiences as a Vietnamese War refugee who immigrated to the United States at age 9 have been central to her body of work. ‘Movements: Battles and Solidarity’ is a large-scale three-channel video installation projected on handmade screens bearing images that explore the connections between women of color and their shared socio-political and physical “movements.” This installation links fashion, race, and class through intersecting images highlighting women as they challenge power structures and create autonomy.

The fashion industry’s roots in hegemony and both capitalist and cultural exploitation are like tendrils reaching through history and across the globe. Tran’s research into the subject of the global trade of cotton and its connections to colonization and war led her to focus on significant events between 1972–74 when the Civil Rights movement collided with high fashion, labor unrest in the garment industry, and the Vietnam War. The work explores shared political and physical “movements” made manifest in the catwalk, the run, and the march. Tran’s installation ‘Movements: Battles and Solidarity’ lays bare the interrelationship between women, diversity, production, and power and the continuing urgency of these subjects today.

Kim-Trang Tran, Movements: Battles and Solidarity | Photo by Brianna Chu / Beacon Media News

Hall informs that Tran’s inspiration for this was a book she read about a fashion show in Versailles in 1972 when the American prêt-à-porter competed against the French haute couture collection, “The Americans ran away with it because they had multi-ethnic models, disco music, and they were having great fun. This multi-media display captures that period from 1972 to 1974 – what was going on at that time and what fashion meant – but she makes it very relevant. And so she thought about the protest movement in textile factories in three different locations in the U.S. and all involved women.

“I feel it’s so empowering and so poignant in the way she portrayed labor, women, representation, and power. There are several layers to this artwork: the image on the left on the screen is embroidered and was made in Vietnam; then there’s a visual on how people treat women’s bodies. I also studied textiles and when I saw this for the first time, I had goosebumps on my arms and tears streaming down my face. I knew we had to have this.”

How fortuitous it is that Hall has made it her creed to advance the accomplishments of diasporic Asian Americans – ensuring that they are seen and heard. At a time when the population in Pasadena and Los Angeles is becoming ever more diverse, USC Pacific Asia Museum is leading the charge to connect us all.         

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