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Contemporary Art

Proximities: A Three-Part Exhibition

May 24, 2013 – Feb 23, 2014

Some of the Bay Area’s most exciting contemporary artists respond to the question: What is Asia?


Some of the Bay Area’s most exciting contemporary artists respond to the question: What is Asia?

Asian influences are pervasive in U.S. culture, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Bay Area. But we each encounter Asia differently — some have the intimacy of lineage, while others might have little awareness. In Proximities, a three-part exhibition, a multiplicity of perspectives comes together at the museum, with works that stimulate dialogue around individual ideas about Asia. Proximities 1: What Time Is It There? (May 24–July 21) presents themes related to landscape, imagined and real. Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You examines Asia as seen through family and community (Oct 11–Dec 8). Proximities 3: Import/Export considers trade and commerce (Dec 20, 2013­–Feb 23, 2014).

This exhibition is curated by Glen Helfand, an independent writer, critic, curator, and educator.

Glen Helfand: Curator

Glen Helfand is an independent writer, critic, curator, and educator.

His writing has appeared in Artforum and at, and he’s contributed to the San Francisco Bay Guardian,, and many other periodicals and exhibition catalogs. He’s a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he teaches courses on contemporary art. He also teaches in the graduate and undergraduate art programs at Mills College,and at the San Francisco Art Institute where he organizes the Visiting Artists and Scholars Lecture Series. He has curated exhibitions for the de Young Museum, San Francisco; the San Jose Museum of Art; the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena; Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco; Dust Gallery, Las Vegas; and the Mills College Art Museum, Oakland. His most recent curatorial projects include Temporary Structures, at the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute; and Fabricators, a collaboration with Creativity Explored, at Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco.

Proximities 1: What Time Is It There?

The scope of Asian art is not monolithic: it’s geographically vast and difficult to parse, yet its influence is visible everywhere.

Asia, you could say, exists in us all. In the Bay Area, and California in general, this is a particularly visible idea, with a vibrant and diverse mixture of cultures that represent the near, far and middle East. Proximities is a trilogy of exhibitions featuring the diverse perspectives of Bay Area–based artists whose work expresses unique connections, conceptions, and interpretations of Asia. Operating from various proximities to the region — from direct heritage to imagined journeys — the artists offer viewers points of departure to contemplate the role of place in contemporary art.

The first show, What Time is it There? (titled after a 2001 film by the Taiwanese director Tsai-Ming Liang), focuses on place, in particular dream-like visions of distant landscapes and the sway of Asia’s creative influence. With rich color, varied materials, literary and historical references, the works evoke ideas of travel, escape, celebration, and nostalgia for places we may or may not have actually been. Subsequent exhibitions will focus on the key thematic elements of human interaction and global trade. Proximities is an invitation to bring us all closer to Asia through an array of aesthetic approaches and viewpoints.

Meet the artists of Proximities 1: What Time Is It There?

Elisheva Biernoff

The year after graduating from college, I moved to a town of rice paddies and cypress forests in rural Japan to teach English.

I made a habit of walking alone in the evenings, past acres of buoyant green rice with unseen chorusing frogs, past stone Shinto deities with offerings of oranges and sake. This is how I encountered nature in Japan, not as something freewheeling and wild, but as something touched by humans, and sometimes gods. In Japan, the experience of nature seems ritualized; groves, mountains, and forests are cultural and religious sites, with clear access points and planned routes.

In this series, I consider this role of wilderness as something sacred and integrated in daily life, but also controlled, and often degraded. Sonzai shinai (Extinct) depicts three endangered Japanese animals on trompe-l’oeil painted postcards. Postcards serve to commemorate cultural highlights, and link home and abroad, nature and culture. By adopting this format, I honor the spiritual and cultural value of animals and habitats that will soon exist only in memory.

Sonzai shinai (Extinct) is a series of three miniature paintings depicting endangered animals from Japan. The two-sided acrylic paintings on thin, 1/32” plywood resemble vintage postcards. Loosely based on Art Nouveau postcards from the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Sonzai shinai incongruously combines cheerful decorative borders with somber content—in this case, portraits of animals that will soon exist only in memory.

Each of the painted postcards features a different endangered animal: the Tsushima leopard cat (found only on Tsushima island, between the central Japanese islands and Korea), the Amami rabbit (found on Amami Oshima, halfway between the islands of Okinawa and Kyüshü), and Pryer’s woodpecker (on Okinawa). These isolated and declining populations are all threatened by continued habitat loss due to logging, agriculture, dams, and the construction of military and resort facilities.

For more information, visit Elisheva Biernoff’s website or Eli Ridgway Gallery, or download her CV.

Lisa K. Blatt

I stay for their darkness, complexity, and secrets. For years, I have investigated desert light and landscape, including South America’s Atacama, the world’s driest desert, and the Antarctic, the world’s largest. Simultaneously, I began exploring night light in cities including Shanghai, one of the fastest-changing cities. Using darkness, I create a visual history of place defined by light.

Ala Ebtekar

I grew up in California but was always aware of this other place, where my parents came from, and where I was going to live one day. I was emotionally pulled to this other country, this imaginary Iran.

The author Edward Said often discussed the impact of exile on the imagination, while the poet Joseph Brodsky explored communities in exile as an “altogether elsewhere.” I am interested in furthering this dialogue to explore the ongoing synthesis of cultural narrative and popular myths, particularly in response to the initial 1979 Iranian exile to America, and specifically to California. I am interested in the nostalgias for a lost Iran and a mythical Persia, as much as I am intrigued by the concept of a future Iran. What type of future does hybrid nostalgia produce?

The works here explore concepts of alternate realities, space, and utopia against the backdrop of a photograph of the famous tomb of the poet Hafez in Shiraz, Iran, and a found science-fiction movie poster. The philosophy permeating much of Persian literature focuses on the now. But what about tomorrow?

James Gobel

I imagine the journey to a new place. Reflecting on national flags, on their colors and patterns, is often the starting point for these compositions. In You’re Gone Away But, You’ll Come Back Some Day I began by thinking of a voyage to Manila. My curiosity about the Philippines began when I was ten years old, when my brother-in-law, who is from Manila, entered the family. He shared stories, traditions, and food with our very American clan, and I was captivated. I have never been to Manila, but the painting is a reflection of my daydreams, a celebratory vision that captures the excitement of this possible voyage.

Tucker Nichols

This is partly due to the fact that my mother is a florist and an antique dealer, so I grew up in a house filled with these kinds of objects. It’s also in part because I studied the history of Chinese painting for many years, and I worked as the chief preparator at Asia Society in New York, spending countless hours handling exquisite ceramics in the storage rooms there. I found the forms to be good for thinking about all kinds of bigger topics like people’s relationship with nature, the changing value of things, and how we think about the past. Recently I’ve been arranging groups of these drawings onto fake two-dimensional shelves that I screw directly to the wall. I like the idea of building an improbable storage shelf where objects from a thrift store and the Asian Art Museum’s collection are all mixed together.

For more information visit Tucker Nichols’ website or download his CV.

Larry Sultan

Home is a place that we inhabit, yet as we move through life, home can seem like a mythical place, over there. This photograph comes from the artist’s last series, in which he cast day laborers in staged photograph. While rooted in the California landscape and its particular dynamics of terrain and labor, this image suggests a dreamlike place, with the abundantly blossoming cherry tree borrowing motifs from Asian art.

—Glen Helfand, Guest Curator

From Larry Sultan’s statement about the project:

I’m not sure if there is a specific term for these places. They are deeply reminiscent of the terrain I sought out as a child: the empty fields behind malls and scruffy borderlands of the LA river that ran behind my house in the San Fernando Valley. These places represented a small and vanishing patch of paradise that existed just outside the boundaries of property and ownership; a free zone that eased my (adolescent) uncertainty and provided a safe place away from the judgment of others. . . . [This scene alludes] to the poignancy of displacement and the longing for home.

Learn more about Larry Sultan by downloading his CV.

Andrew Witrak

I am drawn to the idea of a warm tropical luxury holiday, but can’t help but question that desire. I approach my work with the awareness that this desire is double edged by combining the alluring and troubling aspects of escape. There is always that literal and figurative baggage. The video appropriates stock images of leisure and relaxation that don’t represent anywhere in particular. I’ve never been to Asia, but I have seen an endless array of clichéd images of tropical resorts there. What strikes me is the way they contain all the deluxe Western amenities, and very little evidence of indigenous culture.

Trouble in Paradise #2 is a swimming pool float studded with cocktail umbrellas, the standard garnish for a Mai Tai. The object is pretty and colorful, but fragile and dangerous if it were to be used. It’s meant as an emblem for the illusion of carefree escape.

For more information, download Andrew Witrak’s CV.

Proximities 2: Knowing Me, Knowing You

“Asia” covers a lot of territory, both geographically and culturally. To situate our relationship with it is a complex and fascinating process.

In countless ways, Asia influences us all. In the Bay Area, and California in general, its influence is particularly visible, thanks to the vibrant range of cultures in this region. Proximities is a trilogy of exhibitions featuring the diverse perspectives of Bay Area-based artists whose work expresses connections, conceptions and interpretations of Asia. Working from various personal proximities to the region — from family heritage to imagined journeys — the artists offer points of departure for contemplating the role of place in contemporary art.

The first exhibition, What Time Is It There?, raised questions about how Asia is seen from afar. This second show, Knowing Me, Knowing You (titled after a 1976 hit song by the pop sensation ABBA), focuses on actual and imagined relationships across generations. With an eye on intersections of East and West, and a warm sense of nostalgia, the artists depict connections to Asia through bloodlines, as well as affinities with well-known and ordinary people outside the artists’ families. The works raise questions about what is recognizable in a face, a name or the moment of interaction when a meal is shared and a conversation started with new friends. With curiosity and wit, each artist explores the central question posed by the Proximities series: how well do objects and ideas convey an accurate sense of Asia?

—Glen Helfand, Guest Curator

Kota Ezawa

Kota Ezawa explores his relationship to iconic photographs and videos by reworking images in a low-fi, cartoon-like style.

Mik Gaspay

Mik Gaspay’s work explores complex intersections of technology and identity.

For more information, visit his website.

Michael Jang

Michael Jang’s photographs of his family’s journey provide a nuanced view of American life in the early 1970s.

The images in the slideshow are examples of Jang’s other work. For more information, visit his website.

Pawel Kruk

Pawek Kruk lip-synchs an interview featuring martial artist Bruce Lee as a fascinating expression of cross-cultural impersonation.

The images in the slideshow are examples of Kruk’s other work. For more information, visit his Vimeo channel.

Barry McGee

Barry McGee’s installation of painted signs celebrates how personal identities, real and imaged, exist within the urban landscape.

The slideshow includes examples of McGee’s other work. For more information visit his website.

Anne McGuire

Anne McGuire’s video preserves her memory of a meal shared with strangers in Taiwan.

The slideshow includes examples of McGuire’s other work.

Charlene Tan

Charlene Tan’s work pays homage to two female role models, her mother and the artist Yayoi Kusama.

The slideshow includes examples of Tan’s other work. For more information, visit her website.

Proximities 3: Import/Export

“Asia” covers a lot of territory, both geographically and culturally. In countless ways, Asia influences us all.

In the Bay Area, and California in general, its influence is particularly visible, thanks to the vibrant range of cultures in this region. Proximities is a trilogy of exhibitions featuring diverse perspectives of Bay Area-based artists whose work expresses connections, conceptions and interpretations of Asia. Working from various personal proximities to the region — from family heritage to commercial transactions—the artists offer points of departure for contemplating the role of place in contemporary art.

The first exhibition, What Time Is It There?, raised questions about how Asia is seen from afar. This second show, Knowing Me, Knowing You, focused on actual, imagined and virtual relationships across generations.

The concept that almost everyone on the planet touches something that is conceived, mined, manufactured, routed or outsourced in Asia informs this third and final show in the Proximities series. Import/Export features artworks that trace cycles of commerce, manufacturing and shifting values, from commodities to ideas. Trade routes have connected Asia and the West since ancient times, and trade locations and transactions have long been subjects of art. The increasing scale and speed of current economic relationships with and within the Asian region have brought new inspirations for contemporary artists. The process of exchange may bring us into direct contact with materials and ideas from Asia, but when exports become commodities, our proximity to their origins grows more elusive and abstract.

Leslie Shows taps the raw materials that pass through the Bay Area en route to Asia and possibly back, while Rebeca Bollinger explores the manufactured commercial objects imported into the United States with the imprint of personal connection. Imin Yeh points to the skill and labor required to craft objects that many of us take for granted or undervalue — such as the shopping bags that sell for ten cents in San Francisco. Byron Peters explores the market of technology, labor and data exchange and how we value immaterial commodities. Jeffrey Augustine Songco considers the import and wholesale acceptance of Asian relaxation techniques, while Amanda Curreri deals with covert signals of commerce and economies of military strength and power. Like the other exhibitions in the series, Import/Export offers artistic perspectives on the roles of objects and ideas in conveying a sense of Asia, and the ways our proximity to a region colors our answers to complex questions about place.

Amanda Curreri

Based in her complicit and complicated relationship with Korea, Curreri’s work is part instigation, part exorcism, and part love-letter to Korea.

Curreri builds upon the time she spent on Yongsan Military Base in Seoul several years ago and presents an investigation of the use of twin barbershop poles surrounding the base. The poles, when in pairs, signal that sexual services are on offer — services heavily steeped in economies of military and power. In her installation, which was first exhibited as part of the 2011 Incheon Women’s Biennale in Korea, the artist distills the notions and implications of this visual icon to capture the shifting of her own identity.

The image of the barbershop poles give way to a series of undisclosed performances throughout the run of the exhibition. Acts such as these, driven by exposure and intimacy, are at the core of the artist’s practice alongside the duality of identity and sexuality.

For more information about the artist, visit her website.

Byron Peters

Byron Peters employs the ways in which labor is outsourced and fractured into strangely dematerialized states.

Rather than adding consumable material objects into the marketplace, his work takes the form of digital images, video, and conversations, in processes that often involve commissioning other workers towards unexpected results and collaborations. This untitled projection in Proximities 3: Import/Export is the result of such an interaction.

He contracted with an architectural firm in Shenzhen, China, to produce a rendering of the sky above their workplace. The firm specializes in the visualization of luxury homes to be constructed in North America and Europe. The artist asked the company to render a subject without a blueprint: the sky itself.

For payment, the firm agreed to complete this task for the price of fifty Facebook “likes.” Use of the omnipresent social media network in lieu of monetary exchange compounds the implications of this dematerialized transaction. The images of clouds and other atmospheric elements could be almost anywhere, pointing to the illusory nature of the product and payment, and a di”use idea of geographical representation.

The slideshow depicts other works by Byron Peters. Learn more about the artist on his website.

Imin Yeh

Imin Yeh’s work explores how much unacknowledged invisible labor is actually invested in objects.

The project is a wall installation of seemingly simple white paper shopping bags. Each bag is entirely handmade, from cut up rags to rag paper, and then hand cut, screen printed with a subtle design and embossed, creased and constructed. The final bag will be fitted with a hand weaved rope.

Yeh’s project is directly inspired by a visit to a paper factory in Sanganeer, India, that employed hundreds of workers to make shopping bags by the thousands in the exact same process.

Yeh is interested in how much invisible labor is actually invested objects that we do not consider. Bags in the Bay Area now are actually given a value $.10 and are outlawed as useless wasteful. When we think of a handmade object from India, beautiful textiles and jewelry may come to mind, but not the bag that we received in the downtown Macy’s. At the same time, “handmade” is prioritized in American culture and is tied with premium products. We pay good money to learn crafts such as papermaking, screen printing, letterpress as leisure enrichment activities.

For more information about Yeh, visit her website.

Jeffrey Augustine Songco

What does the compromise between Western capitalism and Eastern spiritual practices look like?

How does an American negotiate between a cultural emphasis on Western materialistic comfort and a Buddhist philosophy of suffering? Blissed Out, Songco’s work in Proximities 3:Import/Export, becomes the icon for the liminal space between the production of advertising and the consumption of spirituality — a sexy new Buddha for this contemporary moment.

In the work, a young muscular white man performs the simple act of a single deep breath while wearing athletic wear from iconic American fashion brands: Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle. By using the ubiquitous technology of looping short video (as made popular by Vine, the breakout mobile application of 2013), the solitary breath becomes an endless practice of meditation.

For more information on Songco, visit his website.

Leslie Shows

Leslie Shows’s work explores the properties of geological elements, the landscapes from which they originate, and the visual facets of minerals.

The artist’s geological interests focus on a fascination with the yellow of sulfur, and on a recent interest in the sculptural and metaphorical implications of molds used in industrial manufacturing.

Sulfur is a key material of industrial production and trade. The variety used by the artist is a petroleum by-product. She obtained it from a plant in Stockton, California, where it is processed into pellets and shipped to Asia, doubtlessly to be transformed into goods that will make a return trip west. The material is priced at just $30 per ton.

For more information on Shows, visit her website.

Rebeca Bollinger

Rebeca Bollinger’s installation of abstract porcelain sculptures and photographs recreates objects imported from Asia to California by her father.

Tracing a route of trade imbued with personal nostalgia, Bollinger explores the sentiment that crafted, manufactured, and purchased objects can produce, particularly when they evoke the sites from which they originate.

Bollinger’s objects mash up her memories of American and Asian cultures and nod to specific traditions and exports of each — from time-honored crafts to mass-produced trinkets — and the globally distributed cinematic dreams produced in Hollywood.

Main image: Untitled, 2013, by Byron Peters (Canadian, b. 1985). Single-image projection, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

Organizers & Sponsors

This exhibition was organized by the Asian Art Museum. Presentation at the Asian Art Museum is made possible with the generous support of Graue Family Foundation, Columbia Foundation, and an anonymous donor.