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Bland Ambition

Few Works In Asian Arts Gallery Debut Show Really Thrill

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/7/2005

The inaugural show at Towson University’s Asian Arts Gallery, recently re-opened in its new location, misses more than it hits, but those few strong points are worth the visit. The seven artists gathered span the Asian and Asian-American spectrum, giving the show a whiff of inoffensive United Nations bean counting, and the majority of the work continues such an interest in the benign.

Most innocuous are Komelia Hongja Okim’s jewelry-inspired, wall-hanging metal sculptures. Intersections of metal lines form angles and shapes inside rectangular quasi-abstractions of natural scenes; these large-scale pieces feel more like headboards than decorative art even. Working small—specific figurines, tight wall hangings—spotlights her fine manufacturing of these alternately shiny, alternately matte metal surfaces, but the large, eye-grabbing pieces merely amplify the lack of ideas inhabiting Okim’s exquisite craftsmanship.

Slightly better are Mansoora Hassan’s labor-intensive series of prints made from her pulp papermaking process—part pigment mixing, part painting, part chine collé color transfer, part etching. (See the show’s accompanying catalog for a full discussion of the process.) What Hassan creates are beautifully amorphous sheets of swirling colors, etched lines, and recurring motifs with the weathered finish of old books.

The finished works feel like medium and vocabulary experiments in search of a subject, though; the imagery itself is lovely, albeit in a way that doesn’t ask anything of you. Any of the large works, lovingly framed mixed-media abstractions, could perfectly complement any lobby, the sort of image that covers blank walls without drawing attention to itself.

Hassan’s lack of something to say is painfully obvious in her “The Burqa Project 9/11” video, which features a burqa-clad woman roaming around a large American city (presumably New York, considering the images of the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center used) intercut with (assumedly) the same burqa-clad woman roaming around a desert city (presumably in the Middle East). Honestly the less said about the piece the better, but if Hassan is going to dabble in this sort of charged territory and not look like a child with a machine gun, she needs to spend considerable time with the astonishing video works of Shirin Neshat and try again.

Three of the artists succeed in at least communicating something, even if it’s fleeting. Yuriko Yamaguchi’s two mixed-media sculptures are modestly alluring feats of serene juxtaposition; hanging sculpture “Web #4” offers a vibe of porous density. Jyung Mee Park’s witty “The Last Conversation” points out the obvious: A series of trite, polite expressions (“I love you,” “forgive me,” “I will miss you”) are mounted on the wall in clear glass cut into a script, which literalizes their transparency. And University of Maryland art professor Foon Sham’s wood sculptures get more interesting the bigger they get; these modest assemblies are meticulous, but the concluding work is aesthetically and emotionally inert.

Luckily the obsessive work of two artists offers enough blood, sweat, and whimsy to compensate for the other works. Hsin-Hsi Chen’s graphite-on-paper pieces look like Escher landscapes after a really killer hit of nitrous. These landscaped designs of slightly irregular shapes are elusively distorted, imbuing the work with a sense of humor the rest of the show sorely lacks.

And Anil Revri’s drawings are achievements in focused endurance. Using metallic markers and graphite on paper, Revri creates fascinatingly detailed tributes to spiritual mediation as an exercise of both mental and physical faculties. Like the fire-burnt paintings of Andrew Bennett, the tedium of creating these pieces feels integral to the imagery itself. Using a muted palette of silvery and bronzed earth tones, Revri’s intersections of many straight lines, dots and dashes, and repeated motifs form shapes, smooth curves, and interlocking designs that almost appear to emerge like remnants at an excavation from the paper itself. And while they’re a tad samey, the works exude a hypnotic pull that keeps the eyes occupied while under their spell and coming back for more. Revri’s accomplishments here are closely related to the psychedelic whorls of op art—if not intellectually and only in effect—and they may not strike such a chord in other eyes’ minds. Do know, though, that enjoying their surfaces’ chambers of secrets isn’t merely the parlor trick of trying to find a pirate ship in the sea of colorful fractals.

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