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Hard-Boiled Wonderland*

by Julie Joyce, Gallery Director, Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Cal State L.A.


Recently accredited as the main point of entry in the country for immigration was the state of California, with Southern California, especially Los Angeles, as the preferred point of destination.[1] It is in no small part due to this that the breadth of the Los Angeles region has become a microcosm of what's been widely referred to for the past few years in the mainstream media as "globalism."[2] Such a condition may be perceived by some as grounds for cultural homogeneity (whereby cultural difference no longer exists). Yet the amorphous assimilation and intermix of identities and their byproducts that occurs in this same "elimination" of cultural distinction also results in a generation of fresh, relatively unburdened, and unparalleled forms.

One marked example of this phenomenon has risen from the geographic, aesthetic, and ideological proximity of Asia and the Los Angeles region. Southern Californians' absorption of elements of Eastern invention has risen just as much from the area's flourishing Asian and Asian American communities as from its ideological and physical distances from the East Coast. Although the history for this interchange generates from an even deeper and more removed source--Europe's introduction of goods from China through 18th Century trade routes--it is manifest throughout the past, present and future of Los Angeles in many captivating ways. Imagine, for instance, how uninteresting life in Los Angeles would be without, say, Buddhism, Japanese cars or Thai food! It is these things and more that make up the basis of Angelino identity.

What has traditionally defined the word group East and West for the rest of the world is something more specific, highly familiar, and quite unique in Los Angeles. Of course, on the dark side, there have been a variety of misconceptions about Asians and Asian culture that became prevalent in fads progressing (or rather digressing) from Chinoiserie to Japonisme to Orientalism.[3] Injustices surrounding such modes of thought vary by degree and must still be addressed. There are many strong indications, however, that point to a deep kinship between Los Angeles and Asia, borne perhaps by nothing more than the intimacy of prolonged experience.

Taking into consideration the visual dialogue among Eastern convention and local contemporary art, Hard-Boiled Wonderland is an exhibition that focuses on five Los Angeles-based artists whose works utilize traditional Asian art and culture in new, diverse, and engaging ways. Spurred by the trade, assimilation and regeneration of culture that pervades their own lives, the artists in this exhibition hybridize elements of traditional Eastern iconography with those of their own contemporary urban milieu. Works represented here may lay claim to a type of manifest identity, but more implicitly insist that, symptomatic of our postmodern condition, their use of traditional icons and conventions are strategies common to a society that unconditionally culls from the global media stream. Whatever their approach, the participants herein belong to a set of emerging and established artists who play freely and provocatively with conventional representation, and reflect a growing interest in cross cultural circumstance.

Perhaps most prominent in the cultural exchange between Southern California and Asia is the former's relationship with Japan. Several young artists from there have recently gained local as well as global attention by reworking low brow culture into high art form (such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, who make oversize sculptures from Manga inspired imagery). Gajin Fujita, born in Japan but raised in Los Angeles, does something similar but in a direction which is to the contrary by maneuvering a type of high art form into the utter dregs of the low with enthralling effect. His striking color and gold leaf panels depict the same distinguished, mythological figures that may be found in the venerated Japanese tradition of tattoo art as well as ukiyo-e prints--images distributed to the masses in the Edo period yet which resonate today with amazing magnificence. Though these exalted shogun warriors, dragons, and tigers are also boldly emblazoned with spray painted tags that speak of a more personal and politicized iconography. Such a gesture simultaneously describes the figure represented, yet, in a contemporary irreverence, revokes its historical aura by cutting across it (both visibly and metaphorically) with 21st century slang. In his conflating vernaculars--of the "floating world" of yore and contemporary East Los Angeles--Fujita creates spectacle through the inordinate interaction of polarities, like the age old marvel of beauty meeting beast. (left above: Gajin Fujita, Fire Birds, 2000, acrylic spray paint gold, silver and leaf on wood panels, 17 x 66 inches)

Ancient Chinese landscape painting, from the majestic Sung Dynasty to the more unorthodox masters of the late Yuan and later Ming Dynasties, are the inspiration for Jacci Den Hartog's plaster and polyurethane sculptures. Realizing in three dimensional form her recollections of Chinese art, decoration, and gardens (she traveled to China twice in the past five years), the artist has developed, like the most famous of the Literati painters, an idiosyncratic vocabulary of image and form that speaks to both the personal and universal. In Den Hartog's wall sculpture Traveling with my Heart Above My Head (1997), rocky crags geologically accumulated over centuries float serenely above a sinuous stream and intricately stylized, turbulent wave crests that also read as heavenly clouds. The overall effect is much like the apparition of vistas and peaks through dense valley mist in the grandest of hanging scrolls. Den Hartog's recent Pavilion series--plaster pedestal works actualizing fantastic, focus-defying and energy infused imagery--recall landscapes by the Late Yuan painter Wang Meng (c. 1309-1385) and yet also the much later German Surrealist painter Max Earnst (1891-1976). While her work takes its cue from such stimulating histories, it more importantly points to weighty contemporary issues, such as the relationship between the natural and unnatural;[4] as well as the role we and our imaginations play in the classification and preservation of each.

Employing movie posters, event fliers and product ads for his canvases, Joseph Lee overlays these predetermined arrangements of text and photographic image with the particulars of his own idiomatic language. Intricate swirls, clusters and geometries of painted marks and dabs much like the colorful decorative motifs found in art and design of Southeast Asia are methodically overlaid on familiar American retail icons. Whimsical and ornate, Lee's hand rendered patterns also fuse into dense patches, in some works transforming into super-sized pixilated text. Like his delicate designs, the artist's encroaching words add deeper yet at the same time more obscure layers of meaning to the original commodity peaking through. Here Lee provides an updated and distinctively West Coast type of Pop. Yet appropriating elements of his Thai heritage just as freely as he does the kitschy ephemera of B movies and designer ad campaigns, Lee endeavors to coincidentally enhance and challenge the wonderful frivolity of it all. (right: Joseph Lee, Amor II, 1999, acrylic and collage on poster, 71 x 48 inches)

A highly ethereal embellishment characterizes the work of Sandeep Mukherjee. On vast and striking planes of sherbet colored paper, the faintest traces of line, pattern and image appear in exquisitely hand wrought pinholes and faint, methodically placed specks of colored pencil or graphite. Just as fleeting as the imagery in ones eye (for these works may not be fully realized without close inspection) are the works' likeness with early Indian painting on paper. Refined and opulent colored paintings after the 14th century in India often began with a collection of sketches from a master painter's workshop that were pierced with tiny holes so that they could be traced and placed into an overall composition. Just as nebulous are the slight and mesmerizing images in Mukherjee's works. Bodies--various perspectives of the artist's own corpus--tumbling and hovering weightlessly in space, evoke the cornucopia of figures in ancient Buddhist temple reliefs, illustrating without literalizing a sort of experience much closer to nirvana than physicality. (left: Sandeep Mukherjee, Untitled, 2000, color pencil, needle on vellum, acrylic on board, 39 3/4 x 28 inches)

Tom Knechtel's paintings from the past several years summon the enchanted manifestations of Hindu mythology. My Lingam (1995) represents one of the first in a series of paintings produced after the artist's initial trip to India. This disputable and partial self-portrait posits the artist beneath a whirling atmosphere of opposites. Emanating from lips miming a yogic exhale, the breath that keeps these objects in motion surrounds the most prominent lingam: the non-anthropomorphic form of Shiva, the god of many avatars, and, most significantly, of both creation and destruction.

For Knechtel's already meticulous and chaotic oeuvre of drawings and paintings, such additional, multifarious layers of mythology come as no surprise, yet also forge deeper the layers of allure already extant in his work. Animals, a subject the artist has been exploring for many years, adapt eminently into the representations of higher beings that are so prevalent and potent in the numerous mystical and epic texts of East Asia's spiritual history. Yet Knechtel's renditions of monkeys, snakes, water buffaloes, elephants, and other creatures are infused with qualities that perhaps suggest dimensions more copious than those of gods.

Taking into consideration these artists of very different histories, ideas and techniques, Hard-Boiled Wonderland contemplates a particular moment in time in a particular place. Like the style and subjects in the novel by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, after which this exhibition is titled, the work in this exhibition converges upon the notion of an old order merging with that of a new. Blending imperial and traditional pre-war with westernized, post-war (and overtly American infatuated) Japan, the author's novels, much like the works in this exhibition, yield determinedly composite and wonderfully strange results. Never predictable, these things always twist and turn to wind up where least expected. Los Angeles, and to some extent the entire North American Pacific Rim, may take pleasure in this similar marvel. For a culture that is constantly shifting, rising and ebbing is always far more preferable than the status quo.


*The title of this exhibition and essay derives from Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a novel by Haruki Murakami (1993: Vintage Books). The "hard-boiled" protagonist of this novel gets caught up in an exploration of an alternative reality that eventually merges with that of his own.


1. For specifics, see Melissa Healy and Robert Rosenblatt, "State Leads as Home to Immigrants," Los Angeles Times, Thursday, October 5, 2000, Section A, p. A-3.

2. This point was also recently expressed in Jan Tumlir, "Baldessari's Urn: '90s Art in Los Angeles," artext No. 71, November 2000-January 2001, pp. 42-51.

3. For a very brief history of Japonisme and Chinoiserie, see Jeff Yang; Dina Gan; and Terry Hong (Eds), Eastern Standard Time, A Guide to Asian Influence on American Culture. New York, 1997: Houghton Mifflin Company. For a broad discussion of Orientalism, see Edward W. Said, Orientalism, New York, 1979: (publisher).

4. The convergence of nature and artifice in Den Hartog's work is discussed in several articles by David Pagel, exemplified perhaps best in "Entering a New Dimension," Los Angeles Times, Sunday, August 25, 1996.

The exhibition Hard-Boiled Wonderland will show through July 7, 2001 at the Luckman Fine Arts Gallery.

rev. 6/14/01

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