On Saturday, March 25, 2023, I participated in artist Angie Eng’s performance of Right On!, a “social justice art walk” conceived in response to the history of systemic racism and the rise of hate crimes against Asian American/Pacific Islanders in the United States.1

There were about 170 performers, all AAPIs, split into five groups, each with traditional Asian drummers/percussionists at the tail end. All were dressed in black, and the group traversed sixteen blocks through downtown Sacramento in a slow, deliberate, single file procession from the Robert T. Matsui Courthouse to Capitol Mall and back. Everyone wore a black T-shirt with one of seventeen dates printed on the front. The shirt design references Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara’s Today series of paintings,2 and each date corresponds to an Act passed by Congress, a Supreme Court decision, or an Executive Order which targeted AAPIs in the US. The back of each shirt has a QR code which contains a short summary of what happened on the date.

I consider myself part of an Asian community, as I do attend cultural events related to my heritage. However, outside of my family, I really don’t have much contact with many Asians in my everyday life. As far as I know, I am acquainted with just one other person who participated as a Right On! walker. At the onset of the performance, I felt I was only sharing the experience with her. However, a sense of unity and purpose quickly became palpable to me, and that feeling escalated through the 1 1/2 hours of the walk.

By recognizing inequities that AAPIs have endured over the course of our nation’s history, the Right On! walk bridged the past with the present – the oldest date cited was April 16, 1850,3 the most recent, October 17, 2022.4 Perhaps obviously, the date with the greatest emotional impact for me was February 19, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forced over 125,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans – including both sets of my grandparents, my parents, my aunts, uncles, and other relatives – from their homes and from their lives and into relocation camps5 in inhospitable wastelands away from the West Coast.

I have spoken with two people who viewed the walk from more of a spectator perspective, and both said it was a powerful display of solidarity. In addition to the emotional resonance the performance had for me, Right On! was an educational experience, as well – I had been familiar with only a few of the seventeen decisions referred to on the shirts.

Right On! was first performed in Boulder, CO on October 8, 2022. Sacramento hosted the second performance of the piece, and the first which incorporated the traditional musicians, who I believe added to the gravitas of the work. It was satisfying for me to have been able, in a small way, to assist in bringing Angie Eng’s empowering artistic vision to fruition.

 

1 Anti-Asian American/Pacific Islander hate crimes nationwide increased, compared to the previous year, in 2020 by 124% and in 2021 by 339%.

2 Kawara started his Today series in 1966 and continued it for over forty-five years. He completed nearly 3000 pieces, each of which consists of a monochromatic canvas of red, blue, or gray with the date on which it was made painted in a simple, sans-serif, white face. He did not make a painting every day, but sometimes did more than one in a single day. If a painting was not finished by midnight, it was destroyed.

3 The 14th section of the Act of April 16th, 1850, regulating Criminal Proceedings, provides that “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.” While the text seems to be inapplicable to Asians, in People v. Hall in 1854, the California Supreme Court held that the term “black person” “must be taken as contradistinguished from white,” and included all races other than Caucasian.

4 The US Supreme Court declined to hear Fitisemanu v. United States, which sought to challenge the lack of citizenship for those born in American Samoa, a US territory.

5 “Relocation camps.” As if horseback riding and singing songs around the campfire were on the agenda.

In my mid-twenties when I started showing my work in galleries, Gustav Klimt was perhaps my favorite painter and almost certainly my main influence. My introduction to him was Charles Wentinck’s book The Art Treasures of Europe,1 which I received as a gift well over ten years prior. His painting reproduced therein was a revelation to me – at that young age, I was not familiar with the story of Salomé and John the Baptist, nor had I ever seen a painting so sultry, provocative, and unnerving. I’d seen a lot of nudes – there are plenty in Wentinck’s book alone – but Salomé doesn’t depict a woman simply bathing or lounging on a divan; she’s grasping a man’s decapitated head by the hair. Both the image of Salomé and the painting itself are dynamic and aggressive, and played a major role in the development of my painting aesthetic.

Forty-five years later, I’ve seen actual examples of Klimt’s work on only one occasion, at the Klimt & Rodin show at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in early 2018. One of the paintings exhibited was Nuda Veritas (“naked truth”), which depicts a life-size, full-length standing nude. Veritas, the Roman Goddess of Truth, was traditionally portrayed in a classically idealized manner, but Klimt painted her as a contemporary woman. This immediacy prompted many critics to proclaim the piece pornographic, but Klimt had truth on his side.

I would like more opportunities to see Klimt’s work, and want as much of it as possible to be available for viewing by the public now and in the future, so I obviously don’t want anything to befall any more of his paintings.2 Unfortunately, something recently did happen to a Klimt piece – two members of Last Generation, the “environmental protest group,” attacked his Death and Life at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. The painting and the frame are protected by glass, on which Halfwit 1 threw an unidentified black substance and to which Halfwit 2 glued himself. This was not an isolated incident; there have been similar “protests” by other groups in England, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Canada. Other artists whose work has been targeted include Raphael, Johannes Vermeer, Francisco Goya, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Emily Carr, and Pablo Picasso. If these “protests” continue, they will almost inevitably escalate, and it’s only a matter of time before a painting is destroyed. If that happens, individuals may be reluctant to lend artwork they own to museums, and institutions may refrain from letting their work out of their possession for extended periods for traveling exhibitions.

I’m all for saving and protecting the environment – I find Greta Thunberg an articulate, inspiring young woman. She knows that intelligent discourse, peaceful protest, and education are the means to get people who may be sympathetic to her cause to think about these issues. She knows the urgency of the environmental crisis the world is in but realizes the situation cannot be rectified overnight. She is a nuanced thinker and knows solutions are not simple. She is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect, and she has truth on her side.

On the other hand, I’m not sure which side groups like Last Generation are on, or what they think they’re accomplishing with these acts of vandalism, which often involve the throwing of food; it’s as if their demonstrations are conceived and organized by John Blutarsky. Greta Thunberg they are not. Gustav Klimt they are not.

 

1 Simon & Schuster (1974).

2 Klimt’s “Faculty Paintings,” PhilosophyMedicine, and Jurisprudence, were destroyed in a fire set by retreating SS cretins in 1945.

What is the relationship between activism and art? I believe it is the responsibility of everyone to be socially engaged; for an artist, that may or may not include creating work which addresses the issues of the day. Either way, one can be pushed to the point where action is required – where one is compelled to say something using any available forum. Art is another platform in which to make one’s voice heard.

Barbara Kruger is an artist with something to say and the ability to make captivating art to say it. Her work is as quotable as it is visually arresting; the phrases “Your body is a battleground” and “I shop therefore I am” are familiar to people who wouldn’t recognize her name and have never set foot in an art gallery. In 1999, I twice saw a retrospective, titled simply Barbara Kruger, of her work at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art; it was one of the most aggressive and audacious shows I’ve ever seen.

Kruger arranges a relationship between her work and the viewer with phrases regarding different power structures: sexual/gender-based, political, economic. The words come from different “narrators” and are by turns accusatory (“You substantiate our horror”), questioning (“Who dies first?”), exclamatory (“Hate like us”), aphoristic (“Doubt tempers belief with sanity”). These terse, confrontational phrases, along with her visual acuity, combine to make some of the most provocative art of the last forty years.

Barbara Kruger show leaflet (1999). LAMOCA.

In addition to the silkscreens, the show also featured photographs, engravings, lenticular works, sculpture, video, and, perhaps most notably, an installation. One wall was covered, floor to ceiling, with two black and white photos of a screaming face, mirror images of each other, and the words “All violence is the illustration of a pathetic stereotype” in white type on a large black rectangular ground. In a red strip between the photos was a long list of epithets – racial, sexual, religious – which evoked the violence cited in the main text. The other walls, floor, and ceiling were all covered with images and text. Being surrounded by, to be immersed in the piece, had a very visceral impact. Kruger’s work is emotionally hard-hitting, but also invites an intellectual examination of beliefs and behaviors. Incidentally, she can also be very funny.

If you believe in science, civil rights, saving the environment, a woman’s right to choose, taxes for the 1%, healthcare for everyone, if you believe we have the right to peaceful assembly, brownshirts don’t belong in the oval room, Black Lives Matter, immigrants don’t belong in camps – the list goes on and on – please make your voice heard. Please vote.

In November 2014, I had plans to go to San Francisco to see a show of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences. As an afterthought, I checked other SF museums for shows I might also want to see while I was there, and found a retrospective called Keith Haring: The Political Line had just opened at the de Young. I bought a ticket, thinking it would be a nice diversion, a fun show.

When Keith Haring came to prominence in the early 1980s, I really didn’t pay too much attention. I was aware of him, of course, and thought his baby, dog, flying saucer, and batman imagery was playful and amusing, but lightweight. I think the fact that it reproduces so well – I had certainly seen enough of it on buttons, t-shirts, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, et al. – made me think I knew, and contributed to my reading of, his work. The day I saw The Political Line, I realized how wrong I had been.

The show was startling; I was taken aback by how powerful it was. Reproductions of Haring’s art, like those of Roy Lichtenstein’s, look great but can’t convey the formal aspects which give the works much of their strength. Seeing the actual paintings made me realize how important scale is in Haring’s work, and allowed me to see them as not just cartoons – to recognize their abstract qualities. His bold, confident stroke frequently possesses as much visual weight as the object it delineates. He also often utilized an all-over compositional style and created tension by minimizing the distinction between the figure and the ground until they became almost interchangeable. The push/pull results of these components contribute to his work’s signature pulsating energy.

The Political Line’s focus also made clear the gravitas of Haring’s oeuvre, which I had previously not considered. His unwavering dedication to his sociopolitical concerns continues to inspire. Drug addiction, nuclear proliferation, children’s issues, apartheid, and AIDS (another public health crisis exacerbated by presidential ignorance, ineptitude, and inaction) were some of the causes he took on in his work. If his “radiant child” image symbolizes hope, we could use Keith Haring now. We could use his hope and his activism and his drive, and we could use his anger.

Keith Haring would have turned sixty-two today; he died on February 16, 1990 of AIDS-related complications. He was thirty-one years old.

 

All artwork © The Keith Haring Foundation.