Art in Review; "7 lb. 9 oz.: The Reintegration of Tradition in Contemporary Art"

Holland Cotter
April 30, 1999

Asian American Arts Centre
26 Bowery (below Canal Street)
Lower Manhattan
Through May 8

The Asian American Arts Center in Chinatown, which is observing its 25th anniversary this year, was founded long before multiculturalism was so much as a glint in the mainstream art world's eye.

Under the direction of Eleanor S. Yung and Robert Lee, the center offers exhibitions and performances as well as community education programs, maintains a multi-generational slide archive of more than 700 artists and, until financing got rocky in the mid-90's, published a very smart tabloid-format magazine, Artspiral. (The center is trying to revive the magazine and has a 40-page issue ready if money is found to print it.)

Mr. Lee organized the current low-key show of works by four artists who ended up in the United States. He based its title on the weight of a newborn baby, a symbol of the rebirth and continuation of Asian traditions in art produced outside of Asia itself.

The big, vivid, computer-generated photographs by Chee Wang Ng, for example, show still life arrangements that embody Chinese folk sayings. Osami Tanaka, born in Japan, makes wood, steel and paraffin sculptures that are visually abstract in ways that suggest the heavy-light quality of Japanese architecture and based on the body weights of the artist, his family and friends. The paintings of Korean-born Yeong Gill Kim consist of quick brush strokes on a ground of muslin washed in ink; the marks resemble calligraphy and figures in misty landscapes but are also abstract.

Of particular interest are three small paintings by the Japanese-born Hisako Hibi (1907-1991). Ms. Hibi came to the United States at 13 and studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute. She and her family were placed in internment camps for three years in World War II. After her release she was a dressmaker and continued to paint.

Although much of her work was figurative, the three pieces in this show are abstract. Patches of semi-transparent color, smudges, stains and tiny black forms -- some like pictographs, others just dots -- flicker across luminous backgrounds. In "Garden" (1971), which seems to be an aerial view of yellow-green fields with birds visible here and there, Western-style gestural abstraction and the notational approach to nature in Zen painting effortlessly join hands.

Copyright © 1999 The New York Times