'Tracing Cultures':

By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 25, 1996

Fine Arts

Only a particularly ambitious photography show would choose to address the sensitive topic of immigration; it is doubly ambitious for that show to challenge the very precepts of photography in the process. In the third installment of the Center for Creati ve Photography's Points of Entry series, titled Tracing Cultures, a group of artists gathered from all over the nation and the world set out to explore and expand both the immigrant experience, and the role of photography as an art.

Using unique, innovative, and even playful means, the group of artists selected for this exhibit dug into the subject matter, immigration, with the same gusto as they stretched the accepted limits of their medium. A few slashed and cut into the photograph s, others framed them with words and layered meanings, and one artist discarded the photograph altogether, and kept the light that makes the image.

Photography itself has been severely degraded as a medium for delivering truth over the last decade. The emergence of the digitally altered image and the exploitative use of the medium by paparrazi and pornographers has turned the viewing public into cyni cs, who no longer believe what they see. In turn, artists have become frustrated because they can no longer predict or control the interpretation of a photograph, even when politics are not the issue.

There is a whiff of that frustration present in this exhibit. Very few of the photographers shown were satisfied with merely mounting an image on the wall. In what seems to be an attempt to rescue artistic photography from standard journalism, the artists took aggressive steps to personalize their works, and in turn the curator selected artists who displayed this ambition.

Andy Grundberg, director of the Friends of Photography museum in San Francisco, curated the Tracing Cultures exhibit. "I wanted this [show] to be embodied and based in personal experience," Grundberg said. Enjoying what he called the "mixed and mingled" v ariety of the artists' compositions, Grundberg set out to create a show that "destabilized accepted notions of immigration, and accepted notions of photography."

In what is perhaps the most dramatic example of a "personalized" series, Dinh Q. Le's large-format photographs are literally cut into strips and then woven into elaborate mats. Using skills learned from his Vietnamese parents and the advantages of modern printing techniques, he interwove self-portraits with classical images of both Eastern and Western society. Expressing the struggle of a person caught between two cultures, his dramatic pieces embody the difficulty of adapting between traditions, while s hattering and remaking both himself and the predominant Western culture in the process.

In another stunning example of aggressive technique, Maria Martinez-Canas took inspiration from a series of Cuban stamps and her own heritage to create her compositions. Using a material called Rubylith, she created elaborate, geometric designs from abstr act shapes and negatives, then projected the result onto textured photopaper. The compositions literally mirror the stamps, yet augment them by layering the simple, stylized designs with deeply personal meanings and ambiguous passions.

Young Kim's series reduces the photographs to mere snippets, yet somehow increases their power. In an affecting series, personal statements are painted on the slablike frames of the photographs, telling a chronological story of one woman's struggle to rec oncile her past with her present. Small, almost vestigial photographs accompany affecting statements: "As my English gets better, my Korean gets worse." The stark pictures have a haunted look which resonates with the power of her simple dialog, and when t he final piece is reached one gets a real sense of what it means to abandon a country, a language, and a past.

There are also some playful approaches to the topic. Ruben Ortiz Torrez' photographs are literally bursting with color, and his compositions are rich with irony and humor. Documenting the intermixing of popular culture on both sides of the American-Mexica n border, he explores the cultural penetration of Mickey Mouse into Mexican life, while parodying American interpretations of Mestizo cultures.

The enigmatic postmodernist I. T. O. created a series of sculptural works (one called "The Revenge of Sushi") that have to be seen to be appreciated- describing them would ruin the joke, which made many viewers laugh aloud. And a series by Russian immigran ts Komar and Melamid entitled "Miracles in Bayonne" used huge, hand-cut mattes to contrast Bayonne, New Jersey with postcard pictures of famous monuments from all over the globe. These artists managed to simultaneously inspire humor and generate new persp ectives about an often-belabored subject.

Far from being belated attempts to prop-up mediocre photographs, the use of alternate materials and dialog serves to focus and drive these compositions. Carrie Mae Weems' series of breathtaking, almost painfully stark landscapes are arranged on the wall i nto eye-teasing compositions that give them a degree of movement and lyricism. Albert Chong's photographs, mesmerizing shrines to his Jamaican/Rastafarian culture, are surrounded by beautiful copper frames inscribed with songs, poems, and stories. Gavin L ee's photos are layered with newspaper clippings and other details as he explores a story from his past.

Bringing the unique and powerful Points of Entry series full circle, the Tracing Cultures installment turns the camera inward. By no means an end, these photographs set a course for the deeper exploration of all of our immigrant pasts. An extraordinary sh ow with an extraordinary mission, the Points of Entry series is a historical event that challenges our concept of history; that asks us to look through the eyes of American immigrants, and recognize ourselves.