Lotus
Mixed media, 32" x 32"
© Bernice Bing, 1990

Essay 1 · Essay 2

6 Artists "Complete the Circle"
by Keiko Ohnuma © October 12, 1990

In the West, "Eastern" or "Oriental" art has always meant traditional works from the root country: Chinese vases, Japanese scrolls, Persian rugs. But thanks to the work of local art organizers, the term "Asian Art" is evolving to include contemporary work done by artists of color in the United States.

In "Completing the Circle," an exhibit of Chinese American art at Southern Exposure Gallery through November 8, the term "Chinese American" describes artists born in China who have immigrated to the United States as well as those born here. Each of the six artists in the show "uses symbols from Chinese culture to create work that is distinctly American," says project director Florence Wong, thus completing a circle or link to their homeland.

What makes the exhibit different from other examples of contemporary Asian art is that it represents an organizing effort on the part of the Asian American community itself, according to Wong.

"In the past it was exclusively institutional. This is grassroots: coming from us. We‰re so impressed with the civil rights movement, the women‰s movement, stories by Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan," says Wong. "We‰re starting to tell our own story."

Bernice Bing is one of the painters featured in "Completing the Circle." A second-generation Chinese American, Bing attended the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1950s, where she was highly influenced by American abstract expressionism.

"It's only in the last eight years that I began to associate with my Chinese background," said Bing, who is in her 50s. Attracted to Chinese calligraphy, she began to incorporate ideograms into her paintings in an abstract expressionist mode.

"Out of a kind of naiveté, I was doing the gestures [of calligraphy]," she said of her earlier work. "Take Jackson Pollock - his was a very calligraphic technique, but using drips - he wasn‰t necessarily aware that this was part of the evolution of Chinese calligraphy. Franz Kline was doing huge structures in black and white, and he used space and form in a way that‰s calligraphic."

Bing says she had very little exposure to Eastern art in school, with the exception of one Zen brush master - Zen being a popular source of inspiration in San Francisco at the time. "He was a contemporary of the abstract expressionists, and he did beautiful calligraphy," she recalls excitedly. "That to me was very touching - this Eastern man had a real mystery about him."

Wong points out that for most artists, "a lot of our education comes from art school and is very European - which is valid. But we‰re saying art is from around the world. And it‰s not necessarily always comfortable and not always beautiful, but there‰s a place for that too. I‰ve taken great risk in doing the art that I do," she adds. "If I do florals, I don‰t have to explain what I do to anyone."

Painters make up the bulk of the exhibit, including Bing, of Philo; Mimi Chen-Ting of San Jose; Steven J. Pon of Oakland; and Michael Tang of Berkeley. Hilda Chen of San Francisco uses pastels on paper; Hilda Shum of San Francisco incorporates photography, sculpture and other media in her installations. Tang also uses multimedia in his work.

Before the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the Asian Heritage Council, one of the sponsors of the show, had plans to bring the exhibit to Shanghai, Wong says. Now the Chinese government is not so receptive.

"What we wanted to show is that we are Americans, but we do have that spiritual and emotional bridge to who we are and what our parents brought to us," says Wong. "We‰re people without a country. We‰re neither here nor there - but we've been here 150 years."

Bing traveled to China in 1984 and brought along slides of modern Western painting. "The students in Beijing were so interested, so moved, so excited about it," she said. "This was the first time they were able to see American abstract painting - and they really related to it; they understood!"

Another important first for the community is the publication of a bilingual Chinese-English catalog featuring the work of the six artists plus original research and essays in art history. Wong says it‰s the first bilingual catalog done by Americans of Chinese descent, as such efforts have usually come from Taiwan or mainland China. Ted Fang, publisher of the San Francisco Independent, has donated printing costs.

All text is © Keiko Ohnuma, Completing the Circle: Six Artists.
Exhibition Catalogue. Asian Heritage Council.
Triton Museum of Art, San Jose, 1990.
All artwork is © Bernice Bing.


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