Queering the inquiry of Asian American art





Edited By Laura Kina and Jan Christian Bernabe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017, 296 pp., $90 hardcover; $40 paperback)

This anthology grows out of a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored Summer Institute held at New York University in 2012, co-directed by Margo Machida and Alexandra Chang and entitled, “Re-Envisioning Asian American Art History.” (Full disclosure: I was a participant in the same seminar.) During the institute, a circle of participants formed a caucus/study group dedicated to “Que(e)rying Asian American art.” Their goal was to remake Asian American art criticism by “queering” the study of representations of Asian Americans — that is, to draw from queer theory to challenge normative assumptions and dominant ideas. This means, first, using insights developed by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer Asian artists and writers regarding such issues as alienation and exclusion. It also seems to mean using tools traditionally associated with a queer sensibility, notably camp — performativity, caricature, satire, and exaggeration — to deconstruct social values and practices. For example, the editors point to the work of artist Kristina Wong, who does public performances where she masquerades as “Fannie Wong, Former Miss Chinatown Second Runner Up.” In the process, Wong burlesques objectification of beauty queens and “model minority”-type self-presentations of appropriate conduct.

The anthology consists of a mixture of critical essays, studies of artworks, and interviews with artists in the field. A glossy insert contains a broad selection of images of contemporary artworks that express or point to the different themes. One highlight of the collection is an interview with Tina Takemoto, the San-Francisco artist whose performance piece “Looking for Jiro” features the artist performing in drag (set to a Madonna/ABBA musical mashup) as the gay Issei bachelor Jiro Onuma on a night at the Topaz (Central Utah) camp. In another intriguing chapter, artist/scholar Alpesh Kantilal Patel proposes that because of the absence (or erasure) of a LGBTQI tradition within Asian American art, it is the “Gay Zen” work of the (non-Asian) American artist Cy Twombly that he can best point to as a forebear.

Readers, particularly non-academics, should be warned that it can be difficult to comprehend and interpret some of the book’s more rarified theoretical discussions. Though the anthology explicitly identifies itself as Asian American, its authors pose the question whether we can even approach a subject such as Asian American art, without re-inscribing such basic categories as “Asian American,” even if we accept that they are socially created and not “natural?” More troubling, to the historian at least, is the lack of historical grounding. The authors rightly salute the contribution of Gordon Chang, Mark Johnson and Paul Karlstrom’s comprehensive 2008 study, “Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970,” (though they may regret its lack of discussion of queer themes), but the bibliography is largely barren of groundbreaking works such as Tom Wolf’s and ShiPu Wang’s studies of Yasuo Kuniyoshi or Karin Higa’s work on “internment art” or various works on Isamu Noguchi. It would be nice to consider queer or feminist readings of classic artists (I make bold to cite my and Valerie Matsumoto’s forthcoming discussion of Taro and Mitsu Yashima). Still, there is much of value in the book, and I am glad to welcome its publication.

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