With artists whose ethnic heritage is not “of” the West, many scholars are at a loss as to what to do. For the most part, artists perceived as belonging to a particular Asian nation-state or ethnicity are summarily classified into one of two related taxonomies: as part of a ghettoised domain where the artists’ primary contribution is configured as their capacity to manifest cultural discrepancy or as a tangential supporting material of a normal, accepted canon of the true movers and shakers of a totalised avant-garde. Under neatly segregated rubrics like "cultural difference," "The Third World," or the mind-bogglingly ambiguous, "Recent Developments," the student in many art history classes is implicitly told that contemporary art never existed anywhere else other than in a few countries in America and Europe before the 1980s. Similarly troubling is the tendency by several instructors of contemporary art surveys to readily group vast and usually highly diverse and discrepant bodies of artmaking practice spanning a plethora of nations, ethnicities, and localities in fourty-five-minute class sessions. One can only imagine the uproar if American art from the 1940s to the 1970s—let alone the entire twentieth century or an entire continent—was compressed into a similar time frame.
Certainly this betrays a faith in the history of contemporary art as a linear teleology propelled by white American and European male figures with the occasional appearance by a white female (and even more rarely, a black, Latin American, Chicano, or Hispanic female) artist. Anything else outside of this constructed legacy is manifestly derivative and therefore not worth discussing, or if it's discussed, it's considered as an elective, as secondary. One may chalk this configuration up to the hold of vanguardist thinking, but could also speculate whether this is not part of a larger enterprise to keep non-Western artists in their place. It seems coincidental that newer courses organised by theme rather than by period still tend to herd non-Western artists (if they are included at all) under rubrics like “cultural difference”, “otherness,” “identity” and anything with the modifier “global” in university syllabi.
Or not. Many critics, curators and art historians that I have encountered within Asia desire the integration of Asian artists into histories of contemporary art taught in Euro America. Accordingly, there have seen a number of exhibitions of Asian art in the art capitals of Europe and the USA in which the established common denominator is the shared nationality of the artists. These kinds of exhibitions may very well please the nationalist sentiments of their funders and temporarily raise the visibility of the art shown. Yet I'm not at all convinced that these projects relying mainly on an ethos of inclusion have successfully and permanently broadened the scope of audience visibility. The viewer "sees" the work made by non-Western artists and/or in non-Western sites at a certain point and place in time, but that kind of momentary seeing (or perhaps "glance") rarely translates into a reflexive willingness to invest true optical commitment via a l ingering examination of the work. Often, the only change in visibility is a heightened awareness of the artist's capacity to describe a particular socio-historical context and a reinforcement of an ours-versus-theirs perception of cultural expression.
There have, for instance, been substantial and numerous efforts to integrate the works of the Gutai Group of Japan in exhibitions such as the 1991 Gutai: Japanese Avant-Garde 1954-1965 at the Mathildenhohe Darmstadt and the 1998 Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles. As a result, such works are now found with some regularity on the course lists of modern and contemporary art history taught in the USA, Europe, and Japan. However, it remains the case that their works are configured around the organising frames of either Jackson Pollock's "action" paintings or Allan Kaprow's "happenings." As an illustrative case, Kazuo Shiraga, who chose to make paintings by applying vigorous strokes of color with his feet, is frequently identified with Pollock on the grounds that Shiraga's committed engagement to full-body physical action as an integral part of the painti ng medium happened to recall Pollock’s gestural application almost immediately subsequent to the exhibition of Pollock’s works in Japan.
A large number of materials discussing this painter tie him to Pollock, but rarely, if ever, do any of these materials both within and outside of Japan include a sustained, critical formal analysis of the paintings themselves. This is a serious omission, for fundamental differences can be located in each artist’s deployed gesture, the configuration of the image field and their respective treatment of the frame. By stating this, I'm not arguing for a reactive kind of critique in which works are pitted against each other. Nor am I interested in pursuing the center-versus-periphery model long dominant in postcolonial framings of visual art. Instead, I'd like to see a nuanced treatment of works neither wholly dependent on calibrations of iconography to perceptions of a specific culture nor on the artist’s self-articulated intent. If one were to adhere only to the former, for instance, one can easily imagine sliding down a very slippery slope whereby the wor k becomes reduced to an anthropological novelty or a cultural condition. Unimpeded by the presence of critical distance, the other tendency demonstrated by some writers to overly depend on artist intent promises an equally fast ride down a similar slope whereby the writer becomes the artist’s de facto publicity agent.
An argument with visual accountability, whereby the contentions offered can be supported by formal analysis is needed. To return to the Shiraga-Pollock comparison, the flaw lies in the tendency of those doing the comparing to mistake passing morphological resemblance for form. This collapses all questions into Harold Rosenberg's conception of “action painting,” at least in the evaluations are attributable to some critics who deny certain formal aspects to maintain the credibility of particular readings. A comparison of formal elements seems regressive in light of the interpretative methodologies popularly applied to works made in the past few decades. In these readings, theories and suppositions external to the formal components of the painting are admitted as dominant, or even absolute influences in determining the work's production. Yet a formal comparison merits consideration given the high degree of formal consistency in Shiraga’s and Pollock’s execution. On examining the two artists' treatment of the image, the viewer can see that paintings made by both share in common a definition of the image is a capacitated entity possessing dual capabilities. The image can enact an extremely self-referential description that describes only its literal pictorial form (a line describes only the form of the line) or its physical material existence (the line as a finite application of pigment). Free from any indebtedness to an external system of meaning, this self-referentiality differs from an indexical description in that the context in which the image is placed is not important; the signification potential of the image is strictly limited. But the image can also enact a metaphorical description whereby it acts as a reference to something external and beyond its literal or physical form.
On the other hand, there is a difference in how the image in the works of these artists performs these capabilities. In Shiraga's paintings, while a two-dimensional image generates and sustains the appearance of psychological space, there are also raised lumps protruding into the physical space outside of the canvas. These raised lumps and flourishes of concentrated pigment rupture the delicately constructed suggestion of illusory space within the canvas by reintroducing the external space of the material and physical world. This consequently alters the viewer’s perception of the painting from an object enabling the pictorial expression of a psychological world within the canvas to an object existing in the physical world of the viewer. At this point, the calligraphic mark once again becomes a line, the psychological space becomes the physical ground supporting the paint. What can no longer be taken for granted is the image's capacity to represent something it is not; the certainty of its ability to enact metaphorical description is erased.
Vigorous gestural fluctuation between self-referential and metaphorical descriptions is not as readily evident in Pollock's paintings. As documented by Hans Namuth’s iconic photographs, the creation of all of Pollock's “poured” paintings begins with the delineation of lines made by throwing or pouring paint across the canvas surface. At the moment the paint makes its impact, the image describes nothing but itself. The physicality of the gesture eventually lends itself to ready mythologisation as might also be said of the Gutai Group in general. Pollock's deceptively nonchalant gestures result in lines that combine together and the cumulative effect is that of a palpable rhythm. Most discussions of the rhythmic aspect of Pollock’s “poured” paintings are derived from an understanding of the lines as a single image. This makes it easier for the viewer to instantly comprehend the image as part of an order or system external to, and d ivorced from, the realm of the literal. Accordingly the possibility of the image enacting a self-referential description free from the assignation of a specific meaning external to its literal form or physical material existence is lessened. This does not do away with the fluctuation of the image but the ease and immediacy with which the eye perceives the lines as a result of a mythologised gesture makes it difficult for that eye to return to the image's more prosaic self-referentiality.
Formal comparison, of course, is not without its problems. By its nature, the act of comparison tends to highlight the most visible differences and neglect those that might posit a troubling contradiction, or, to devolve into an unwieldy catalogue of polarities that do not account for intermediate gradations. This is a risk that is particularly relevant to the Shiraga-Pollock comparison which, despite the most careful argument, might be too easily construed as a confirmation of the binary separating “East” and “West." But despite these shortcomings, sustained formal analysis predicated on an consideration of the image offers a supplementary, and a more engaging strategy with which to normalise the presently abnormal ways in which contemporary art history is taught. For, if anything else, it concretely refuses the misguided notion that only individuals of a certain nationality can "correctly" interpret art of a certain nation. More crucially, a consciousness of the need for accountability to the work returns the focus of art historical analysis to the act of sustained looking.