Not Your Typical Chinatown Photos in Group Show

Ellison Walcott
December 24, 2002

Over the last century, ethnic neighborhoods in Manhattan have vanished in a matter of years. Time was when E. 86th St. was known as Yorkville, a concentration of German stores with German clientele. The slow and often unstoppable march of gentrification and homogenization is indeed difficult to stop however. Yet Chinatown is one of the last bastions of cultural and identity preservation. Nuzzled in the veritable heart of Chinatown lies the Asian American Arts Centre with a mission to promote and nurture the cultural vitality of its community through performance, exhibitions and education. Currently the Centre is featuring an exhibition of eight photographers from both fine art and journalism backgrounds. The exhibition is titled, with not a little tongue in cheek, “Not Your Chop Suey Chinatown.” The range of prints on display evokes the panoply of Asian-American existence. Street photography, still lives and formal portraiture capture the proud soul and tenacious backbone of a community itself a victim of the post-9/11 financial aftershocks. The tone of the show emanates from a core of humanism.

Finding the balance between the tradition of the past and the lure of American “New” is a delicate undertaking for any immigrant. Julia Cowing’s photographs address the high-wire act in a witty and often touching way. “Harmony” (2001) has, among other items, two pairs of shoes neatly arranged side by side. One pair is an iconic back cloth sandal, the other a stylish pair of designer high heels favored by Carrie on “Sex in the City.” They coexist but one can read tension in their proximity.

Chee Wang Ng addresses cultural coexistence by adopting the genre of high still life in his own artistic imperative. Inspired by Dutch and Flemish painters, the photographer places an assortment of fruits and vegetables with a bowl of rice and chopsticks. Bathed in rich light, these arrangements are enlarged to an impressive four-foot-square print, which rockets the sedate composition into the contemporary. The persimmons, mushrooms and grains of rice invite a culinary inspection and the manipulation of light accentuates mood and emotion. The two prints in the exhibition are head and shoulders the most dramatic and arresting images in the show. Naturally, Ng is batting with the big leaguers in the genre of still life, from the venerated, like Irving Penn, to the iconoclast, like Douglas Mellor, but he holds his own admirably.

The exhibit was curated by Corky Lee, who is currently serving as the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Artist-In-Residence at New York University. Lee, a distinguished photographer with a 30-year career under his belt, was born and raised in Queens to second-generation Chinese-American parents, so the subject is near to his heart and aesthetic spirit. This is his maiden voyage as a curator and with it, he makes a fine debut in the selection, arrangement and rhythms of creating a cohesive group exhibition.

Rhythms is as appropriate a description as one could hope for when describing the street photography of Chen-hui Hsu. Shooting from a variety of angles, Hsu captures the best of the street with humor and compassion. In “Summer” (2000), a potbellied worker rests against an ornate architectural column as he looks out at a parade of well-heeled looking women passing in front of him. The grid of the city forms the framework behind the action and one can almost hear a car horn wailing in the background.

Much in the same way that Spike Lee made the salient case for being the only choice to direct the Malcolm X film biography, so too is the authenticity on display in this exhibition. Emerging artists and journalists alike understand their own community in a way unlike any outsider. The contemplative composition, the shoot-from-the-hip snapshot and the right moment/right place good fortune all are graced by an empathetic understanding, which is handsomely shared through the ever powerful medium of photography.

The exhibition runs through Jan. 17. At times parts of the exhibition are unavailable for viewing as there are Tai Chi classes held, which only further reinforces the vibrancy of the Centre’s diverse agenda. Gallery hours are Mon. through Fri., 12:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Thurs., 12:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. An artist’s talk will be held Fri., Jan. 6 from 6-8 p.m. For more information, call 212-233-2154.

Copyright © 2002 The Villager