The Buffalo News
Date: Friday, April 12, 2002
By: BY BRUCE ADAMS/News Contributing Reviewer
Illustration: Tanaka is the central subject of her own series of richly layered metaphorical works, which although traveling some well-worn territory thematically and artistically, succeed in addressing universal realities that resonate across cultures.
With cultural boundaries blurred today to the point where hyphenated nationalities are the norm and the U.S. census is embracing do-it-yourself ethnic categories, it’s safe to say that once sharply defined cultural identities have grown ambiguous at best.
For a person of color raised in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood, the trick is hanging on to your cultural heritage in the face of popular associations derived from ethnic appearances while simultaneously maintaining a unique inner sense of self. This cultural balancing act is the premise of “Gayle Tanaka: Personal Effects,” currently on view in El Museo Oller Y Diego Rivera.
Tanaka, an Asian-American artist of Japanese descent, is the central subject of her own series of richly layered metaphorical works, which although traveling some well-worn territory thematically and artistically, succeed in addressing universal realities that resonate across cultures.
Several works are in the form of flow charts in which lines connect symmetrically arranged symbolic images to centrally positioned self-portraits. Tanaka seems to be using this structure to bring order to the often-conflicting components of her existence. In “Flow Chart III” for instance, an Asian horse and plow is seen at the top, while an oversized tractor — a symbol of Western industrial might — extends below. A picture of sandaled feet on the left contrasts with an image of feet in Western shoes on the right. Much other imagery is more evocative or personal and not as readily discernible.
Throughout the work, images and text reveal multiple layers of symbolism and word play. In the “White Shirt” series, for instance, four large neck-to-waist self-portraits show the artist clad in dress shirts — a signal of cultural banality — and set against clapboard backgrounds that serve as a reference to “home” (a concept that appears throughout the work).
Each self-portrait is paired with a phrase with pointed cultural implications. “Bleached white. Bleached right,” reads one. Another text states in part, “A white shirt is always correct. White is the absence of all color.” In yet another, the artist holds a fan while text nearby states ironically, “I have never been to Japan.”
Another group of small sculptural works is comprised of three screened insect cages, each holding a lighted cube of transparent portraits superimposed by an Eastern mystical symbol. One, called “Boxing Memories/Buddhist Wheel of Darma” contains portraits of Tanaka’s grandparents, invoking disturbing thoughts of the Japanese-American internment during World War II.
There is no resolution here, only metaphorical ponderings that tap into a universal human desire to define our place in the community in which we live and, parenthetically, our place in the larger world.
WHAT: “Gayle Tanaka: Personal Effects,” narrative photography with text and found objects by this Asian-American artist
WHEN: Through April 26
WHERE: El Museo Oller Y Diego Rivera, 91 Allen St.
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