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Soul Mining exhibition at Vincent Price Art Museum

The Vincent Price Art Museum’s Soul Mining show takes on a difficult subject: Asian assimilation in Latino communities and countries. The pain and isolation of it should make you feel like an outsider upon entry.

Your first pan around the gallery includes all the right geography to get you wandering: right through the front door, there’s a blown up green card for a woman named, “Cookie, Fortune.” Then, to your left, there’s a giant scroll over a tiny record player which plays a queered, Spanish version of Iggy Pop’s China Girl (and it’s infinitely superior to the Igg’s track). On the floor, stacks and stacks of sloganeering fliers for the “Happy Guangdong” anti-suicide program in China are arranged into the word “F E L I Z”. And in the corner, an orange neon sign reads, “This is not in Spanish.” It’s in Mandarin. Made in Tijuana.

Many of the pieces in Soul Mining bear the context of forced migration, and forced identities, at the intersection of an othered group being othered by an othered group. The show’s press statement says it aims to point out structural causes and the “‘body and soul’ of the stories.” These things are best exemplified by the quieter, little pieces of Suwon Lee and Mimian Hsu, self-portraits with lonesome and defiant gestures accompanied by physical objects elsewhere in the room.

Suwon Lee’s San Ruperto is a dreary, point-and-shoot self-portrait. Lee is the lone Asian person in the red bucket seats of an antiquated bus in her native Venezuela. She is the focal point, sitting in the middle of eight or nine other contemplative Venezuelans, using the window as her key light, perhaps watching for her reflection in passing surroundings, or maybe just trying to blend in. Companion to that is The Garden of My Exile, a little archipelago of black clay casts with little Hershey’s Egg-sized indentations in them from the condensed ash and clay stones Lee forced into the surface, and removed. Some of the resulting holes are adorned with gold foil. The ashes were gathered from a mountain fire in Caracas before Lee fled Venezuela during the 2016 economic crisis, a forced exit and a forced rebirth. Of course, forest ashes eventually become fertilizer, and it would seem whatever solitary experiences we might glean from San Ruperto have become the seeds of Lee’s renewal.

By contrast, Mimian Hsu’s works in Soul Mining assert her place as a second generation Taiwanese-Costa Rican. Wearing a country girl’s jibarita, she kneels in front of La Gran China, a hole-in-the-wall Chinese joint (also the work’s title). If you know spanish slang, this is a pretty ballsy move, because not only is China (with the long “e” sound) an ethnic term, it’s often a racist term. It almost looks like a Coke ad at first, but she’s glaring at you; you might expect a cigarette in her hand. On the opposite side of the gallery are the ephemera from Hsu’s performance piece Hsu Zheng – Breathing: a projection of her grandfather’s headshot, a set of clothes much like the ones he’s wearing in his photo, and a disfigured print of a young woman’s face that appears slashed and worn. Hsu’s grandfather was a teacher who disappeared at the beginning of Taiwan’s White Terror in 1947, a suppression of political dissidents that lasted nearly four decades. In the original performance, Hsu wore the set of clothes and stood with her grandfather’s face superimposed onto hers, allowing the viewer to see how Hsu wears the haunted presence of her missing patriarch.

The rest of the show is not entirely gloomy, and well worth checking out because the variety of perspectives from other Latinos, Asians, and biracial people really round out an evolving social conscience about the show’s theme. You might still feel out of place when you walk back into the Monterey Park sun, though; it’s a lot to take in.

The exhibit runs through July 14, 2018.

Originally published in Bermudez Projects June 2018

Installation views courtesy of the Vincent Price Art Museum. Photo credit: Monica Orozco:

'Border Door' provided a poetic welcome to immigrants 30 years ago. An art show brings back its message


Detail from Jim Elliott's documentary photography of artist Richard Lou's "Border Door." Photos of that installation are part of a new immigration-themed exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College. (Jim Elliott / Vincent Price Art Museum)

An otherwise modest group exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College is striking — and timely — if only because it commemorates the 30th anniversary of one short-lived, poetically potent art installation.

Richard Lou’s site-specific 1988 “Border Door,” erected at the perennially charged U.S.-Mexico boundary, is a landmark sculpture created during the artist’s affiliation with San Diego’s famed Border Art Workshop. Today, as a caravan of Central American refugees fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries has finished crossing the Tijuana border seeking asylum, the memory of Lou’s long-lost portal has new life.

The border walls and other barriers we see today didn’t start being vigorously erected until the 1990s. Before then, an occasional fence delineated sections along the 1,989 miles of international border. At a breach in a tumble-down barbed-wire fence at windswept Otay Mesa, not far from Tijuana International Airport, Lou erected a wooden door on a hinged metal frame.

Richard Lou, "Border Door," 1988, mixed media Jim Elliott / Vincent Price Art Museum

Row upon row of keys, 134 in all, hung from nails hammered into the door on the Mexican side. The door opened only one way — into the United States. Lou’s sculpture was a symbolic gesture of migratory welcome in a harshly contested landscape.

The artist’s choice of that specific, hardscrabble Otay Mesa site endowed the open door’s functionality with a wryly absurdist twist: To cross over the border from Mexico to the United States, a person could just as easily walk around the sculpture, key or no key.

For that matter, with enough money, a migrant could just get a flight from the nearby Tijuana airport and then overstay their visa. (For more than the past decade, that has been the preferred method for undocumented immigrants to the U.S. from any country.) Poverty and xenophobia thrum within the site-specific sculpture’s social mix.

One source of its power is that the work is simplicity itself. Or, rather, was: The sculpture lasted just two days, recorded in Jim Elliott’s widely shown black-and-white documentary photographs, before the Border Patrol tore it down.

Lou’s work was initiated as part of an annual Border Art Workshop exhibition at Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Necessary permits had been obtained for the off-site installation. The fact that the Border Patrol hauled it away anyhow spoke mostly of the power that an artistic symbol can have.

It’s worth looking at those photographs again at the Vincent Price Art Museum. The path around the sculpture, side-stepping derelict razor-wire battered by weather or trampled by unseen animals, is bleakly demeaning. Beneath cloud-filled skies, the “Border Door” framed human passage with humble dignity.

Lou self-identifies as Chicano, but the traveling VPAM show, organized by the Arizona State University Art Museum in Tempe, puts him into a slightly different context. “Soul Mining,” as the small show is titled, considers Chinese immigration to the Americas, highlighting a different aspect of the artist’s own Chinese Mexican heritage.

Hung Liu, "Resident Alien," 1988, oil on canvas, from the exhibition "Soul Mining." Vincent Price Art Museum

Sergio de la Torre, "This Is Not Spanish," 2007, mixed media Vincent Price Art Museum

During an earlier authoritarian era, Congress in 1882 passed a law forbidding immigrants from China to enter the United States and hounding thousands of those already here to leave. The California Gold Rush was over, the Golden Spike completing the transcontinental railroad had been driven and the era that Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded Age was in full swing. Chinese labor was instrumental to all of them.

All that gold and gilding put a viewer of Lou’s “Border Crossing” in mind of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Emma Lazarus’ sonnet, “The New Colossus,” with its imagery of a lifted lamp lighting immigration’s “golden door” to America, was written a year after the racist law passed. Washington had decided that it was time to officially marginalize Chinese laborers, whose back-breaking work made possible much of the Gilded Age’s obscene wealth gap between rich and poor. The Chinese Exclusion Act banned all immigration from China for a period of 10 years — the first federal law to forbid U.S. entry to an ethnic group.

“Soul Mining” is too small — just 15 works by 12 artists made over three decades — to rise to the ambitious occasion. But, in addition to “Border Door,” it does include some provocative examples.

Among them is Hung Liu’s well-known 1988 painting of her U.S. immigration card, subtly fused with a birth announcement that corresponds to the date of the card’s issuance. An immigrant is metaphorically born-again, in a civic rather than religious sense. As self-portraiture about the fluidity of identity, the layers of “Resident Alien” deepen.

Also notable is Sergio de la Torre’s “This Is Not Spanish,” red-neon Chinese characters recalling an ordinary sign for a restaurant or dry-cleaning store, accompanied by three short videos. Backed by the hum of a droning soundtrack, reminiscences of long-ago communal life in a large house in China bump up against images of a Tijuana apartment building and young men and women moving furniture around inside a shop in Tijuana’s primary Chinese Mexican neighborhood. Eventually the furniture piles up against the windows, a barricade against the outside world that also opens a controlled space within.

A wall text at the exhibition entry suggests that the Chinese Exclusion Act was part of the impetus to create a border fence with Mexico in the first place, so that Chinese deportees who fled the U.S. to Latin America would be deterred from returning. That was news to me (although no details or citations are given). “Soul Mining,” if not fully satisfying, is still the kind of show that makes a visitor want to know more.

"Soul Mining" looks at art about Chinese immigrant experiences in the Americas. Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times

‘Soul Mining’

Curated by Xiaoyu Weng and Julio Cesar Morales

March 17 - July 14, 2018

Vincent Price Art Museum, East Los Angeles College, 1301 Avenida Cesar Chavez, Monterey Park, CA 91754

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