Exhibit gives Asian ink artists their "Moment"

You don't have to look very far to find an important part of American art history, says SF State's Mark Johnson.

The professor of art and the director of the Fine Arts gallery is co-curating a bi-continental, months-long exhibit that will feature ink painting work from more than two dozen Asian American artists and others who worked in the Asian style, many of whom were based locally.

An image of Chao-Chung Hsiang's painting

Chao-Chung Hsiang's "Mothers Birthday," Life ripening with fullness No. 7 (1975) is one of many ink paintings that will be on display in the SF State Fine Arts Gallery. Credit: Private collection.

"The Moment for Ink" will open in February in several locations across the Bay Area, including SF State, and travel to China this summer. Johnson hopes the exhibit raises awareness about the impact Asian American artists have had on culture in the United States and beyond. About 150 works by nearly 50 historical and contemporary artists spanning 120 years will be featured.

"People always want to know what's the most important contribution to American art that happened in your own backyard, and this is it," Johnson said. "What we can be proud of in the San Francisco Bay Area and in California are our contributions to the international cultural landscape."

Many of the American ink painting movement's artists were based in Northern California and the Bay Area, said Johnson, an expert in both Asian American and California art history. They include former Carmel resident Chang Dai-chien, who is the highest-grossing artist in the world, and Kai-yu Hsu, a former SF State professor who helped three other Chinese artists emigrate to the United States. Both will have their art featured as part of the exhibit.

The SF State Fine Arts Gallery's portion of the exhibit will include several of Chang's splashed-ink representations of lotus flowers, Chiura Obata's silk painting of a storm in the high Sierras and the first-ever public display of the studies of Tseng Yuho's large-scale 1964 mural "Western Frontier."

"There's a weird divide called 'East-West' in the culture of the world, and in the Bay Area we live on that fence," Johnson said. "We bridge the divide, and we should be proud of it."

The Bay Area became fertile ground for the ink painting movement because, similar to many European immigrants, war and unrest led many Asian artists to leave their home countries and come to America. Many of those artists landed in San Francisco because of its proximity to Asia. Those artists are often less well-known, he added, because American art history typically weaves its narratives through Europe, not Asia.

"Why is it that everybody can name 10 artists from Europe but likely none from East Asia?" Johnson said. "Is that because the culture of Europe is so much better? No. We just don’t teach the Asian art tradition in schools as much. At SF State, however, that's our job."

The show will be open in the Fine Arts Gallery at SF State from Feb. 23 through March 23. The exhibit will also open Feb. 23 at the San Francisco Chinese Culture Foundation, Feb. 24 at the Silicon Valley Asian Art Center and Feb. 26 at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Each location will feature the work of different artists. Later this year, the full show will travel to the Zhejiang Art Museum in Hangzhou, China.

"The collaboration between four institutions to each present a different piece of the puzzle but also to make sure the exhibition is cohesive is, to me, unprecedented," Johnson said.

For more information about the Fine Arts Gallery, visit http://gallery.sfsu.edu.

-- Jonathan Morales