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The Cantor Arts Center opens 'East of the Pacific: Making Histories of Asian American Art'
George Matsusaburo Hibi (1886–1947), Three Muses, 1930. Oil on canvas. Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University. The Michael Donald Brown Collection, made possible by the William Alden Campbell and Martha Campbell Art Acquisition Fund and the Asian American Art Initiative Acquisitions Fund.

STANFORD, CA.- The Cantor Arts Center is presenting East of the Pacific: Making Histories of Asian American Art, a survey showcasing 96 objects created between 1860 and 2021 that provides a rare opportunity to engage with historic Asian American material. As the largest of three inaugural exhibitions of the Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI)—a cross-disciplinary, institutional commitment at Stanford University dedicated to the study of artists and makers of Asian descent—East of the Pacific foregrounds Asian American artists that have long been overlooked by mainstream art institutions, and yet have helped shape and advance the course of American art, serving as vanguards, teachers, and activists within their communities and beyond.

Curated by Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, AAAI Co-Founder and Assistant Curator of American Art, East of the Pacific is organized in six sections that highlight the Cantor’s ever-growing collection of Asian American art—the majority of which was acquired since 2018. The exhibition argues that the continental United States’ western coast was—and continues to be—fundamentally shaped by its interactions with Asia, which is especially evident in its artistic production.

Director Veronica Roberts says: “East of the Pacific perfectly encapsulates the primary goals of the Asian American Art Initiative, as Aleesa has brought to the forefront important histories that have been neglected and overlooked for far too long. Drawn from the Cantor and its vast collection of Asian American art, the artists and works that she’s included in the exhibition teach us a great deal about the communities from which they’re born but also about the power of telling stories through art.”

The exhibition begins in the nineteenth century, when two significant geopolitical changes impacted the relationship between Japan, China, and the United States. Commodore Matthew Perry’s 1853 expedition to forge a trade agreement with Japan led to artists, such as Toshio Aoki (1854–1912), traveling across the Pacific Ocean in both directions, and creating a unique period of cultural and artistic exchange. The second shift was the arrival in the 1850s of the first major wave of Chinese immigrants to the United States to work in the gold mines and on the railroads. Titled “Points of Contact,” this first section foregrounds works that represent the mutual but powerfully imbalanced fascinations between artists working across cultural lines during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The following section, “The East West Art Society” focuses on the early twentieth century and the rise of many Asian American art associations and societies in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Among the most prominent and ideologically distinct was the interethnic collective East West Art Society (EWAS) of San Francisco, which promoted the idea that art could forge connections that transcend barriers of nationalism, racism, and difference. This section highlights Asian American members of the EWAS, and its co-founder Chiura Obata (1885–1975), featuring work that demonstrates their interest in engaging with forms of image-making that blend various influences.

As the site of many Asian American art associations, San Francisco is also home to the oldest Chinatown in North America. Established in 1848, this has been a place of artistic exploration and occupation for many. In a section titled, “Visions of Chinatown,” work by members of the Chinatown community and other artists of Chinese descent, such Martin Wong (1946-1999) and Jade Fon Woo (1911–1983), showcase a spectrum of Chinatown’s representational possibilities.

East of the Pacific then transitions to focus on work created by Japanese Americans in detention centers and concentration camps after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced evacuation of more than 120,000 individuals. For the duration of World War II, the incarcerated—more than two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens—lived in deficient conditions with few personal belongings. So while many created objects to enhance their interior surroundings, like paper flowers, furniture, and tools; others turned their eyes toward the environment around them, creating valuable and haunting representations of life during this time. Such historic works, exemplified by a 1944 watercolor by Koho Yamamoto (b. 1922) are paired in this section, “After Executive Order 9066,” with more contemporary works created by Japanese American artists including Roger Shimomura (b. 1939) and Hisako Hibi (1886–1947), who reflect upon and grapple with the aftereffects of their experiences in the camps.

Counter to prevailing art historical narratives about mid-twentieth-century American abstraction, Asian Americans were significant creators of nonrepresentational art during this time. “Histories of Abstraction” showcases varying approaches to abstraction across the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by artists of Asian descent, including several artists who began their careers working representationally, such as James Leong (1929–2011), and others who work in ceramics, such as Toshiko Takaezu (1922–2011) and Shuji Ikeda (1950–2020), a medium too often forgotten in conversations about abstraction. While critically regarded artists like Franz Kline and Ad Reinhardt alluded to Asian aesthetic traditions or philosophies in their practices, Asian American artists of similar milieu were often seen as making work that was too culturally specific—if they were seen at all. Taken together, the work presented here broadens our historical, geographical, and cultural understanding of nonrepresentational modes of making.

The exhibition concludes with “Revisiting Other Sources: An American Essay,” which looks back on a 1976 exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute organized by Carlos Villa (1936–2013). At the time, Other Sources: An American Essay was a radical rejoinder to the celebrations surrounding the American bicentennial that featured a sprawling selection of work by a diverse array of makers, whom Villa called “Third World artists.” This exhibition served as an example of what would later be commonly known as multiculturalism—as it featured artists whose primary influences were not the Western artistic canon–long before discussions of decolonizing museum spaces and diversifying the art historical canon became part of public discourse. In the spirit of Villa’s expansive vision, this last section of East of the Pacific highlights the work of artists who were first included in Other Sources—including Bernice Bing (1936–1998), Raymond Saunders (b. 1934), and Arthur Okamura (b. 1932-2009)—and ends with a question: How might we work together to create a more equitable, imaginative, and sustainable art world for everyone?

Curator Aleesa Pitcharman Alexander says: “This exhibition is a testament to the power of community and collaboration. It is dedicated to the artists represented and their families, as well as important foundational figures to the history of Asian American art, like scholars Mark Dean Johnson and Gordon Chang. Without their support, Marci Kwon and I would not be able to do the work of the Asian American Art Initiative. East of the Pacific just scratches the surface of Asian American art history. Not all Asian diasporas are equitably represented. There is much to celebrate here, but working on this exhibition has made clear to me just how much more there is to do.”

Accompanying the exhibition are a series of original audio tours commissioned by the Cantor, the Stanford Arts Incubator Pilot Program, and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts from the Asian American artist performance collective For You. For You’s members are Erika Chong Shuch, Ryan Tacata, and Werd Pace. As a group, they create original, participatory performances that bring strangers together for intimate encounters.

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