Arts and Entertainment

Not Your Mother’s Tiger

Glenn Kaino’s Walking With a Tiger grapples with the complicatedness of Asian American identity.

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By Emile Lee-Suk

Making its debut in January, the Pace Gallery currently houses Walking with a Tiger, a collection of Los Angeles-based artist Glenn Kaino’s most recent work. Though Kaino’s art traditionally tackles large-scale sociopolitical issues, Walking with a Tiger brings his work to a more personal level. Using stylistic influences from his Japanese heritage, Kaino explores the complexities of Asian-American identity produced by the Asian diaspora. His art is evocative of how the melting pot of America has affected Japanese-Americans, displaying heavy influence from both the worlds of contemporary America and traditional Japan. 

The exhibition begins with Daniel (2023), a painting of a mustached Japanese man in a baseball cap and wired earbuds holding a cigarette. Daniel is the first of a series of monochrome, oil-painted portraits spread throughout the exhibition on large stretched canvases. The portraits are snapshots of Japanese-Americans whom Kaino had encountered in L.A., friends and strangers alike. Those portrayed are from a mix of generations: Daniel is a young man, with long, messy hair and fingers adorned with tattoos, while Yuka (2023) is of an elderly woman with short hair and defined wrinkles. The paintings are stylistically similar, using aggressive, messy paint strokes to create detail that appears glitchy and distorted. Wads of paint travel in different directions, varying in size from powerful thickness to thin lines resembling scratches on the canvas. Tiny strokes of shadow escape the border of each figure’s form, leaving them to appear engulfed by the background, an abstract void of black, white, and gray paint. However, the figures themselves are still discernible: Daniel’s skin and hair are painted with soft, broad strokes to create naturalistic light and shadow, resembling the conventions of traditional Western portraiture. The range of techniques Kaino utilizes to distort his characters evokes a sense of ambiguity for each of their personalities, continuing the exhibit’s theme of the nuances of individual identity. Kaino reinforces that identity is abstract, just like the disorder in each figure’s physical form. Even Kaino’s Western influences make this apparent: in the mainstream art world, Asian-Americans are typically not associated with the style of painted Western naturalistic portraits. Through his primary choice of subject matter, Kaino subverts that stereotype. 

Displayed in the middle of the gallery is Warlords (2023), one of several works in the exhibition utilizing bunka shishu embroidery. Bunka shishu uses punch needles to thread imagery with vibrant colors resembling that of a painting. The Japanese-based technique is personally significant to Kaino, practiced by his family through commercially available color-by-number hobby kits. Warlords is an arrangement of framed blocks connected by thread, each portraying a tiger in a different pose (occasionally amidst the backdrop of a bamboo forest). The embroideries are unfinished; for each tiger, only the orange and black of its head is needled on. As a result, the color-by-number outline of the rest of the image is visible. With no thread to cover it, the lining becomes central to defining the image’s ambiance. Each frame is evocative of old Japanese woodblock prints: the landscape is a two-dimensional space, and water appears in the recognizable stylization of swirling curls layered over each other. Warlords is clearly inspired by Eastern aesthetics: a contrast with the conventional Western paintings that adorn parallel walls. However, this juxtaposition is intentionally deceiving: Kaino’s use of the tiger as a subject refers to the fact that despite the animal’s cultural significance and association with Japan, tigers are not native to the area. With that additional context, the tigers change the artwork’s atmosphere, questioning the authenticity of the embroidery’s stylistic connection to Japan. Warlords satirizes the expectations associated with its style, using its imagery to create a romanticized portrayal of Eastern culture. In doing so, Kaino assesses the extent of the cultural separation that occurs during the Asian diaspora—whether acculturation in America could distort and exoticize the memory of an Asian homeland.

Following painting and embroidery, the third primary medium Kaino utilizes is bronze molds of Kabutos, Japanese Samurai helmets. Despite their Japanese origin, each helmet is constructed with molds of everyday objects from contemporary America corresponding to different parts of the helmet. Kaino’s portrayal of the Kabutos in this manner represents the cultural assimilation of Japanese-Americans in the United States. In Kabuto (It’s Time) (2023), the Hachi (the central dome of the helmet) is a baseball cap with a hip-hop record spliced through its back. While Kaino’s embroidery works are reminiscent of art from Japanese history, the Kabutos are a look into the future of Japanese art under the context of its continuation in America. Kabuto (It’s Time) embodies New York City: the baseball cap bears the Yankees logo, and the record is Al-Naafiysh (The Soul) (1983), a popular dance beat produced by New York-based DJ Hashim. In infusing the helmet with elements of New York pop culture, Kaino highlights the cultural amalgamation that already exists in America. He celebrates how Asian-Americans have taken influence from a diverse range of cultures, from their origins in the East to American musical influences such as hip-hop. Kaino’s helmets are sculptural manifestations of the abstraction of identity communicated through his paintings, using bronze to turn the multitude of sources that shape one’s identity into something tangible. 

Walking With a Tiger demonstrates Kaino’s pride in all aspects of his identity. He honors the Japanese traditions that permeate his family history while underscoring the current American pop culture that has become so definitive for himself, among many other Asian-Americans. Kaino’s multicultural mashup reflects the disconnection and inconsistencies one undertakes in the never-ending search for a coherent Asian-American identity.