For artist Young Kim, the essence of Korean-American identity lies in neither of the two adjectives denoting nationality, but in the hyphen that connects them.
In a statement accompanying her installation in the Market Arcade building, Kim proposes that home is not a physical location but a psychological space that exists between two countries, two languages and two memories.
It's hard to imagine a clearer statement of the premise behind "Uncommon Traits: Re/Locating Asia," CEPA Gallery's ambitious three-part survey of new work by Asian-American and Asian-Canadian visual artists curated by Marilyn Jung, Monica Chau and Margo Machida in collaboration withCEPA's staff. The first part of what will ultimately be a season-long series is on view through Oct. 31.
In her room-size installation "Attachment/Detachment," Young Kim has arranged four rectangular light boxes and a circular table in a pattern that recalls the Korean flag. Projected on the center of the table are a shifting sequence of dictionary definitions of the word "home" in English and Korean, and meditations from philosopher Gaston Bachelard.
The inherent elegance and quiet grace of the work is all the more ironic given its placement: in the Visitors Center on the first floor of the renovated Market Arcade building. Newcomers to Buffalo, many of them caught between languages or countries themselves, come to the center to get their bearings -- only to encounter (if they're observant) art that challenges the very idea of centers and bearings.
Indeed, one of the greatest strengths of "Uncommon Traits" is the imaginative use it makes of its surroundings. CEPA, the newest tenant in a recently restored landmark of late-19th century commerce and architecture, has essentially laid claim to the entire Market Arcade for its exploration of cross-cultural art and identity at the end of the 20th century.
Brenda Joy Lem's banners chronicling family histories hang from the ceiling, just beneath a similar one emblazoned with the Empire State College logo. Osamu James Nakagawa's digital prints fill shop windows scattered throughout the Arcade.
The exhibition even spills out onto Main Street, in the form of Linda Liang's striking display of paper dresses installed in the vacant storefront that once housed George & Co.
There are stories aplenty here, rich with details about the hyphenated lives of first-, second- and third-generation immigrants to North America. Some of the tales are straightforward, such as those Lem has collected of transplanted Chinese laundry workers and restaurant owners (who learned to call their businesses "cafes" so the signs advertising them would cost less). Lem's silk-screened banners, juxtaposing casual oral histories with family photos and found flashcard images, uncover the heroic dimension of everyday lives.
Other stories are told through implication. Liang's dresses are stitched together from Chinese newspapers and, in one case, hundreds of lipstick-stained cocktail napkins. Devoid of human presence (not unlike the magic and costume shop once housed here), they bear the mute testimony of ghosts.
Of all these "public art" aspects of the exhibition (others will soon be installed on city buses, at subway stations and at Campos Photography Center), only Nakagawa's densely layered "screen series" suffers slightly from its placement along narrow corridors and in heavily trafficked areas.
Nakagawa photographs landscapes containing one or more screens (billboards, drive-in movies, Etch-a-Sketch toys) and digitally fills these empty spaces with purposefully jarring, often politicized activities (parades, protests, border crossings).
The flip side of these collages, literally, is Patrick Nagatani's mini-retrospective of various photo series, housed directly behind a wall of Nakagawa's works in CEPA's Passageway Gallery. Nagatani also packs many of his pictures with smaller pictures -- Polaroids floating or flying out of cameras, R. Crumb portraits of bluesmen, Warholian stills of couples kissing -- layered atop each other to suggest that the world itself is one big quilt of processed and reprocessed images.
At other times, however, Nagatani employs relatively straight documentary photography, as in a series presenting Japanese-American internment camps as they appear today, half a century after World War II, overgrown and covered with graffiti.
A third Nagatani series is a bit harder to take at face value. A wall text describes the recent discovery of luxury cars buried at various sites throughout Japan, and the accompanying photographic "evidence" looks convincing enough, until closer examination reveals subtle tricks with scale. Cargo cult or hoax? Keep guessing.
Around the corner from Nagatani's retrospective, Pipo Nguyen-Duy plays a few games of his own. In the silver prints that make up "Assimulation," the Vietnamese refugee dons several guises and props as he embodies a range of mythological beings (Medusa, Mercury, both Adam and Eve) and stock characters (a detective, a businessman, a hit man).
Influenced equally by Kabuki and fashion photography, his prints are both entertaining and enigmatic, though they cover already well-traveled postmodern territory.
On their own, they're intriguing enough. Taken in with the other works in this first glimpse of "Uncommon Traits," they shed light on the ways in which immigrant identity is a pastiche of seemingly arbitrary ingredients: history, divergent cultural traditions and individual experience, to name a few.
Each in his own way, and without sacrificing the specificity of their individual stories, the artists exhibited here reveal what it means to build a home in the hyphens between one world and another.
Uncommon Traits: Re/Locating Asia
Part 1 of a multisite project including gallery exhibitions, installations and public art projects by Asian-American and Asian-Canadian artists.
Through Oct. 31 in CEPA Gallery, Market Arcade, 617 Main St. (856-2717).