Gallery Paule Anglim

San Francisco Chronicle

Saturday, August 11, 2023

by Kenneth Baker

Born in the United States and raised here and in Iran by his Iranian parents, Ebtekar finds himself positioned to respond as few American artists can to contemporary geopolitical crises.

His work stages its own confrontations of tradition and postmodernity, reflecting mutely on graver, more literal ones in the world at large.

In "Ascension" (2007), Ebtekar has drawn and painted images in acrylic and ink on the separated pages of a Farsi religious text mounted on canvas. A figure casually based on the winged phoenix seen in ancient Mesopotamian art dominates. Around it, through stylized clouds from Persian or East Asian sources, fall various bombs and missiles.

Perhaps a reader of Farsi could find specific meaning in these dissonances blotting out these specific pages. Most of us will see the piece as evoking doomed dreams of spiritual refuge from high-tech violence.

Ebtekar's manner of working on splayed pages may bring to mind some of the unforgettable collaborative works of Tim Rollins and KOS. In fact, as a teenager, Ebtekar was one of the Kids of Survival and now has found his own uses for their practice of responding to books by imposing images on them.

Ala Ebtekar Interview

Written by Cynthia Houng

Tuesday, 18 December 2022

I met Ala Ebtekar in Berkeley on a crisp October afternoon. Berkeley seemed an appropriate meeting place, since Ala is a "hometown boy" and the Berkeley Art Museum's One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now showcases a piece by Ebtekar, Elemental. A room-sized installation that evokes Tehran's traditional coffeehouses, with white-washed floors and furniture, Elemental carries a bittersweet nostalgia.

We neglected to trade physical descriptions, so I stood outside of the Peet's Coffee & Tea at Walnut Square, quizzing passersby. Ala arrived before me, and had wandered off to see if the Juice Bar was still open. (It was not.) He walked up the street, a slim, serious young man in a dove-grey parka, and we found ourselves chatting beneath heat lamps. We trade bits of autobiography before settling down to talk about more serious matters. After we greet each other, Ala turns to me and says, "Hey, you look familiar!"

It turns out that our paths have crossed repeatedly in the past few years. Born in Berkeley (in the Alta Bates Hospital on Ashby Avenue) to Persian-Iranian parents, Ala grew up in Berkeley and its environs. For the past eight years or so, we've lived and worked within a ten-mile radius of each other. After he graduated from San Francisco Art Institute, Ala went on to Stanford University, where he received an MFA. And I graduated from Stanford the year after Ala finished. As we talk about our backgrounds, we realize that we are both "first-generation" Americans. But more than that, we both came from families that regarded America as a way station. Ala's parents, like mine, dreamed of returning to their native country. We both moved often, as children, and our lives were tinged with a certain kind of instability, a strong belief that the present represented a disjunction from life proper. Our American sojourns were meant to be temporary interludes, yet we settled, here, and though we each have the opportunity to move, we find ourselves rooted in this community.

"I grew up on the notion that we were here on a temporary basis," notes Ala. "My mom would always say, 'we'll go back [to Iran] when the war is over.' We used to jump around from Berkeley to Oakland, and one year we went to Germany, but that didn't work, so we came back." After years of exile, Ala's parents finally settled in the East Bay, and though Ala often visits Iran, his parents seldom return. For them, as for so many reluctant exiles, the past and the present feel completely disjunctive. The return causes as much pain as pleasure.

No newcomer to San Francisco's art scene, Ala has been painting and exhibiting in the Bay Area since his teenage years. Poised and polished, Ala speaks with great passion. A riveting storyteller, Ala moves easily through Persian history and literature. We began the interview by discussing Elemental..

Before we met, I sent Ala a list of potential interview questions. One of the questions asked him to take us through the process of creating a work, and we decided to begin with this piece.

A: Elemental came out of my show at the Intersection for the Arts. Kevin Chen [Intersection's director] had seen my work, contacted me, and asked me if I would like to do a show for Intersection.

At the time, I was working in the same vein to what was at Paule Anglim this summer. [Ala exhibited a series of works on paper, mostly delicate drawings layered over text, or each other.] I was still an undergraduate, but I was beginning to think about working with this coffeehouse idea. When Kevin asked me if I wanted to a solo show, I said, "Yeah, but for the solo show I want to do this coffeehouse thing."

In that space that I created for Elemental, everything has a story. Working in the installation format means that you go outside and make things happen, as opposed to drawing, where for me everything happens in the studio.

Take for example those found photographs of the wrestlers that I worked with in Elemental—I found those in a bazaar in Tehran. Every Friday in Tehran, they hold a bazaar in an underground parking garage. Nine or ten years ago, when I first went there, the bazaar was still undiscovered. Now the bazaar has become a tourist attraction and it has become difficult to find anything. There, I found negatives of these photographs, with old wrestlers featured in them. And each of these pictures has a story. When I bought them, I talked with the dealers, and I learned their stories.

Or take the shoes. One day, wandering around in Tehran's main bazaar, I saw these beautiful textiles in tape format. I looked at them, and I saw that they could be fat laces. So I had an idea.

In Tehran, the central bazaar is almost like a mini city. There are the textile dealers, the people who sell secondhand can find anything. I bought the fabric and I went to the shoemaker quarter and asked different vendors, "Can you make this fabric into shoelaces?" Everyone shook their heads and said no. But the vendors said if there's anyone that can do it, it's Mr. Jourabchi.

So I went and found him. At first, he kept saying no, but then I told him that all the other vendors had told me if there was anyone who could do it, it would be him. Finally he agreed to make a few samples, but he told me that it would cost me. I asked him to name his price, and he said he would do it for a dollar a pair. He didn't know I was from America, and it seemed reasonable. So I said just yes.

He owned a factory outside of the city. I went to the factory to meet him and look at their samples. They worked. So I asked him to make the rest.The day before I was to leave Tehran and return to America, he called me and told me to pick them up from his nephew.The nephew arrived with an enormous bag stuffed full of these beautiful textiles that they had transformed into fat laces. They were perfect. When I asked him how much I owed him, he told me to forget about it. I said, No, no, that's not right, and the nephew said, "Call us when you want to put in an order of more than a thousand. Then we'll take care of you."

This kind of experience just doesn't happen when you work inside of the studio with works on paper.

I had asked Ala how he begins a work.

A: Drawing is always fundamental to my practice. Every piece starts with a drawing. Drawing, for me, is the most basic, most fundamental practice, and there's something very special about taking everyday supplies—something that everyone has at home—and using it to create something that's magical, or powerful, or meaningful.

I started drawing as a really young kid.

Do you remember your first drawing?

A: No, but I remember this scene where I did a squid and six different sharks coming up to get it. No one in my class believed I did it! They all thought I traced it. I actually stopped drawing at around age ten or eleven, and I started really getting into music. I started DJing at a really young age. I would DJ at the junior high parties. That led me to intern, in the summer of '92, at KALX. I went through DJ training. I used to come on after Beni B, a local underground hip-hop celebrity. (Years later he went on to produce Dilated Peoples.) He was finished at 1 am, and then I came on. In high school, I used to spin everything—hip-hop, reggae, house. DJing introduced me to graffiti. I credit graffiti for bringing me back to drawing. One day, I picked up a pencil, and I said, hey, I forgot I'm good at this.

The Bay Area has such a rich history of graffiti. Graf writers in the Bay Area seem to be much more socially and politically conscious, and writers like Dream and Spie worked revolutionary references into their work. I remember Bisaro talking about him and Dug, another great graffiti writer, taking the train over to the East Bay in '84 and being surprised to see so much graf in Berkeley and Oakland. So, all those Bay Area first generation graf writers, like Razer, Dream, Spie, Vogue, Pase, Heist, Nac, Bisaro and Dug, became our heroes in high school.

I had sent Ala a question asking him about his childhood, and how his early experiences may have impacted his current practice.

A:I looked at that question, and I thought, how could my childhood not have influenced my work?

I grew up on the Persian carpet. No, literally. I used to drive my toy cars around on the carpet. The Persian carpet has a border, with those intricate patterns, and those were my freeways and intersections. To this day, I think that's where my love for patterns comes from.

Did your parents keep you connected to Persian language and culture?

A: I also grew up on the Shahn Ameh, an epic written 800 years ago. It is a history of Iran, written in poetry. It begins in the first days of Persia, 5,000 years ago, and continues all the way to the time it was written. Though it was supposed to be written in Arabic [after the Arab invasions of Persia], but it was actually written in Farsi, and it's been credited with saving Farsi, as a language. The piece begins in a mythical manner, and as it moves up in time, it becomes more and more matter-of-fact. I do have an interest in myth, in what makes something "mythical" and heroic.

If you want to draw structural comparisons between the coffeehouse culture and the hip-hop culture, you'll find the hero figure in both. And there's also the element of rebellion. Hip-hop culture, like coffeehouse culture, is a rebel culture. In the early days, hip-hop culture always questioned the mainstream

I asked Ala to describe his artistic influences. Who intrigued him during his student days? Who shaped his eye?

A: lot of the artists that I looked at in high school were the Mexican muralists, especially Siqueiros and Orozco. During that time, in '92, I remember seeing A3's work [A3 was a graffiti crew from New York] in Source, a hip-hop magazine. A3 had tapped into the Mexican mural tradition, but it was also graf, and it was mind-blowing seeing that at age fourteen. Art as a way to move people—that really spoke to me at an earlier age.

Enrique Chagoya became an influence later. When I was in high school, my teacher took us to his studio in Oakland. As an undergraduate, I encountered his work again, and saw it differently, I began to understand how it worked and what made it strong.

[Ala also studied with Chagoya at Stanford.]

À propos of the "One Way or Another" exhibition at BAM, I decided to ask Ala about the "problem" of living within two cultures, or being bilingual.

A: We grew up in a different era than today. That era was very much about multiculturalism. In high school, I encountered Lucy Lippard's Mixed Blessings, and she introduced me to Enrique Chagoya, Carlos Villa, Hung Liu, James Luna.

We enter now into a different era. Now you look at One Way or Another, versus the Asian American Art Show in '94. Now you don't see as much on alienation and on trying to restrain ourselves from assimilation. Now, it's a much more organic look at our dual cultures, much more positive and confident. You see the clash of cultures highlighted in previous generation's work. We may be speaking in a third language, unlike the older generation, which tended to place a hierarchy upon the cultures, and to place them into confrontation with each other.

I asked Ala to talk about the works on paper that were on display at Paule Anglim this summer—how did you begin that project?

A: That project goes back to a few important factors, and those early experiences, such as working with Tim Rollins and KOS, brought me to art as a profession. A woman named Sheila Bergman introduced me to Elissa Perry, back when Zeum was first started, and from there, I got a stipend and got to come in and make art.

They had set up a workshop, with Tim Rollins and KOS. They'd gotten Tim Rollins to come out to SF and do a project for Zeum's opening exhibition. They brought me, and three or four other students from Richmond High, Balboa High, to be this core West Coast KOS group. KOS was my first glimpse into the fine art and gallery scene. Tim pushed me to go to art school, and to think more conceptually about art as well. And it was great, getting to meet Barry McGee at a very young age through graf, and seeing him do that work. And then to see the show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 1994, to see his work in a big museum setting, all over the space, that had a big impact on me.

Do you remember that piece that Barry did? It was just a big overcoat, with custom-sewed pockets stuffed full of spray cans. He hung it on a hanger, it was a bit like Joseph Beuys. There were some papers and sketchbooks at the feet. And McGee called it Folklore. That had a big impact on me. That this uniform that we have, is as much a part of American folklore as white-t-shirt-and-blue-jeans. So if these are both folk, then graffiti is the folklore, the Americana. And I saw that just a simple title can elevate it to another level.

In '97, I went to Iran, the first time since I was one. I wound up staying in Iran for six or seven months and eventually went to art school there. Then, all the Iranian art students were in love with Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. I just couldn't believe it. I wanted to learn some of the traditional arts, but couldn't get that from my school. It wasn't a part of the school's curriculum, so I had go out and find a miniature painter to work with, and I also took calligraphy classes from another ustad [mentor or professor]. After school I went and took classes in their studios. Then I came across another type of painting, which at the time I thought was just another branch of miniature painting. It was very dynamic, very expressive, and large scale. There was a lot of drama, even blood. I thought, This is hot. I took an image to my miniature painting teacher and I said that I wanted to learn how to paint like this. He gave me a rather negative reaction. He said it wasn't miniature painting. It was coffeehouse painting.

Miniature painting was always commissioned through the court. The format is refined, small, delicate, and very controlled. The medium was ink, watercolor, and gouache. Miniature painting has been viewed as an aristocratic form, because it can be described as a more academic tradition, and coffeehouse painting has been viewed as a low art, one that has more in common with what we call the "folkloric" and "outsider" traditions.

Coffeehouse painting works with a lot of the same narratives, but painted in large scale by coffeehouse painters. They're done in oil, directly on the walls or on canvas. Coffeehouse painting itself is only about 200 years old. What replaces the text—that was in the miniature paintings—is an oral narrator. An oral narrator recites—almost freestyles—the story on the coffeehouse stage, telling the stories. I met one of the last living coffeehouse painters and worked with him. He told me that this work is really about telling a story. For my lessons, I just went and watched him painting. I stood behind him, watched, and listened to him tell the stories. Once I saw the coffeehouse paintings in that context, how the paintings interact with that larger community, I realized that I had discovered something amazing.

My works on paper comes from a variety of sources, but the aesthetic references often come from the coffeehouse paintings. The tools and materials often reference the history of miniature technique, which is based on ink and brush, as well as watercolor.

I am drawn to work—like the work of Attar [a 12th century poet] or Nizami, both Persian writers who resemble Gabriel Garcia Marquez in their magical realism. Attar and Nizami interweave fact and fiction, creating complex moments where the boundaries are not clear. My work speaks to the moment when the past and the present meet.

I'm committed to creating works that give a glimpse of a crossroads where present day events meet history or mythology. In a similar way, I prefer not to use the hybrid term, because it implies two pure terms, and who's to say what is pure and what is not? I prefer the word "synthesis." Through these moments, we [here Ala refers to those with dual heritages] can portray or shed light on something that others perhaps cannot. So that experience, along with the conceptual background that I received from working with Tim Rollins and KOS, form the backbone/background for what I make.

At this point, Ala pulls out a catalogue and directs me to the "book page drawings," a series of delicate pencil drawings layered over beautiful Persian script.

I found my first book in that same underground bazaar. The book that caught my eye was this prayer book. I had it for a long time. I couldn't bring myself to touch it. On these pages, you can see the annotations on the text. These pages hold so many marks and interpretations of different people. When you hold these pages, you cross their tracks, you encounter their presence. These encounters, here, are more powerful to me because they happened in a prayer book, in a book that concerns faith. My edition [of the prayer book] is just another encounter with a text, or a source, that has been circulating through the culture. In these encounters, in these moments, you don't know what will happen next.

That's something that I seek in my work, to create that unknown, unfinished moment, when two armies meet head to head in the seam between two pages, but you have no idea where it will go. The next moment—who knows? My works are visual narratives that are a simultaneous deconstruction and reconstruction of time and space - a visual glimpse of a crossroad where present day events meet mythology, creating a "synthetic epic" with many possible interpretations and outcomes.

In the last few years, I have drawn and painted on antique sheets of Farsi and Arabic prayer text. My illustrations both illuminate and provide ironic contrast with the texts' purpose and meaning. For example, in "The Invisible Fold," the drawing that I was talking about, two armies face off at the fold a book, as though fighting over two interpretations of the same text.

Just to return to Elemental—I had to whitewash everything—the furniture, the walls, the floors, even the photographs—because that coffeehouse really represents something close to that magical realism. It's not a replica of a traditional Iranian coffeehouse, it's my image of an Iranian coffeehouse, and it has to be whitewashed because I can't see it clearly. My parents have memories but those aren't mine. I have to go there to discover the real object. Though the framework is there, the details, and the clarity of the texture, is less sharp. What I can see, and what I know, here, is indistinct. I can only see—and feel—the grain of the wood on those benches when I am in Tehran.

You can see more of Ala Ebtekar's work at his website:

Asian-American Art: Insiders Looking Out

Newsweek: International Editions

By Vibhuti Patel

Oct. 2, 2006

The 17 young artists represented in a dazzling new show at New York's Asia Society all have roots in Asia. But all grew up in the United States and display little nostalgia for any abandoned homeland or lost way of life. Indeed, the works on display in "One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now" (through Dec. 10) may reveal traces of ancestral influence, but mostly show a real affection for and intimate grasp of the complex jumble of colors, tastes, textures and landscapes that make up America.

Unlike their Asian-born predecessors, who immigrated to the United States and always considered themselves outsiders looking in, these artists are not obsessed with self, multiculturalism or identity politics. Instead, their choice of subjects and technique is diverse, outward-looking and—as the show's title, taken from a 1978 Blondie hit, makes clear—grounded in pop culture. Iranian-American Ala Ebtekar moved from Berkeley, California, to Tehran at 19 to study miniature paintings. But he ended up preferring "coffeehouse painting"— large oils that illustrate oral narratives instead of the more highbrow classical written texts from which Persian miniatures are usually drawn. His huge whitewashed installation juxtaposes boom boxes and sneakers that hark back to his urban

U.S. childhood with objects from 19th-century Iranian coffeehouses: samovars, cups, hookahs, cushioned sofas and wall paintings of wrestler heroes revered by Iranian working classes. Other artists borrow the technique but not the subject matter of their ancestors. Pakistani-American Saira Wasim returns consciously to the tradition of classical Mughal miniature painting. But instead of the hunting, battles and royal entertainments those works depicted, she chooses as her subjects Bush and Blair, Cheney and Rumsfeld, the Iraq war. By contrast, Indian-American Chitra Ganesh uses everyday objects and materials to create murals that seem to jump off the wall to create images of psychic conflict and pain. Her site-specific work revolves around a multi-limbed, multi-eyed calendar-art goddess, painted in the style of commercial Bollywood posters. The figure is covered in beads, plastic—the ubiquitous furniture covering for new immigrants—fake hair and ethnic kitchen tools, reminiscent of the mythological comic books she grew up on.

Most of the artists represented are under 35 and 70 percent of them—as well as the exhibit's three curators—are women. That makes for a refreshing perspective. One theme explored over and over again is the individual versus the collective; Jean Shin gathered 75 used sweaters from the Asian-American art community for her installation. She deconstructed each sweater by unraveling it, then researched who in the community was connected to whom and mapped their relationships through the intertwining yarn. The result is a work of crisscrossing strands that drape around columns and hang from walls to create a netlike web—a metaphor for community. For performance artist Xavier Cha, the individual is subsumed not into the collective but in the work itself: she fills a giant wicker "Horn of Plenty" with shiny colorful fruits and vegetables—and for the opening, buried herself under the props so only her bare feet stuck out. The artists also poignantly document Asia's influence on American life. Californian Indigo Som photographed

Chinese restaurants in the Deep South states of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee—places with small Asian populations. She found eateries that were, she says, "lonely and mysterious, in the middle of nowhere, that tell how Asians have impacted mainstream U.S. life—we've not been invisible. These mom-and-pop shops serve compromised Chinese food to young people who are looking for something different ... to whom [it] feels like another country."

And as every artist knows, foreignness is hardly necessary to create a sense of alienation. Videographer Laurel Nakadate directs her camera's gaze at herself and the lonely, single, middle-aged men she picks up on the street and invites, literally, to play. "There is something about playing pretend that is secret and sexy and lonely and at times a little dangerous," she says. But if "One Way or Another" is any indication, Asian-American artists certainly don't need to play pretend. They have found the real thing.

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc., © 2006


Defying The Definitive Museums

The New York Sun



September 14, 2023

To what degree does an artist's heritage inform his work? It is a particularly American question, since, no matter how deep our roots in this soil may dig, all of us have, to some degree, a multiple identity. But so what? Shouldn't an American artist be considered an artist foremost, an American as a second thought, and a hyphenated identity as an afterthought?

These are the sorts of questions implicitly — and explicitly — raised by "One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now," which opens today at Asia Society. To their credit, the team of three curators here worry these issues without over heating or spoiling the stew with dogma: In the end, they agreed that, as their wall text reads, "The artists and their work defy a definitive conception of Asian American art."

Viewers will be happy to note that the majority of the 17 contributors are artists first; they don't seem any more concerned with these questions than Irish Americans or Italian Americans or Mexican Americans, which is to say, some are and some aren't. I can't tell you what part of his lineage got Glenn Kaino into the exhibition, but his artistic heritage, evident in "Graft" (2006), includes Damien Hirst. Made specifically for this show, the work consists of a salmon and a pig, sewn together from sharkskin and cowhide respectively, each propped in a vitrine. Conceptually, it lofts broad ideas about hybrid identities as well as our nip-and-tuck culture; visually, the two creatures have an at once cute and Frankensteinian appeal. Only a few of the artists here work in modes that draw directly on ancestral styles — not surprisingly, they tend to be among the minority who were not born in this country. Taking cues from Chinese brush painting, Jiha Moon, who was born in Korea, makes splashily energetic paintings in ink and acrylic, which exploit ambiguous, or surreal, elements — disembodied mouths, rainbows, wispy or gestural brushstrokes-to form semiabstract canvases.

Pakistan-born Saira Wasim is the only included artist speaking in an overtly political voice. Her miniature paintings use the old Mughal style to comment on the present day — a fertile micro- genre now over a decade old. In one gouache, "New World Order" (2006), President Bush sits atop a globe composed of roiling animals, a tiny Pervez Musharraf on his lap, while a much smaller Tony Blair, grinning idiotically, shelters an infant-size Hamid Karzai. Others employ modern techniques while referring to Asian history or culture. Among the most striking examples here is Binh Danh's "One Week's Dead #2" (2006). Originally from Vietnam, Mr. Danh reproduces pages from Life magazine's photo roster of the dead in the Vietnam War on tree leaves, using chlorophyll print and resin. It's a powerful mix of allusions: to the poet Shelley's trope of the dead as fallen leaves, to the tree of life, to the current American war. Mr. Danh wields history like a weapon. Ala Ebtekar freely mixes history with contemporary culture. For the show, he constructed a Persian-style coffeehouse, complete with benches, hookahs, pillows, and boom boxes, all painted white. On the walls hang old photographs of Iranian or Persian wrestlers; on the floor he has parked sets of removed sneakers.

Naturally, the greater proportion of artists here work in idioms that seem as international as the Internet. The ever-resourceful Jean Shin asked members of the Asian American arts community to donate sweaters and woven garments, which she then partly unraveled to create a beautiful, Web-like sculptural installation leading one simultaneously through the museum's architecture and among the connections between individuals (as represented by their clothing).

Chitra Ganesh has also created a site-specific work for this exhibition, a mural collage.Wall-sized, the piece layers tinted washes, colored plastic, and drawings of fantastic, anthropomorphic creatures. Indigo Som serves up three compelling photographs from the series "Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South" (2004–06). And, though they lurk like chameleons in the urban underbrush, Kaz Oshiro's three-dimensional paintings, on acrylic and canvas, mimicking everyday objects — a trash bin, a microwave oven — once seen become instantly recognizable.

So too are Laurel Nakadate's inimitable videos. Disturbing, hilarious, sexy, tender, and brilliant, hers are some of the most accomplished videos currently being made.At 15 minutes, "I Want To Be the One To Walk in the Sun" (2006) links a number of vignettes, in which the music playing is crucial and no other sounds are heard: the artist in a Western convenience store attempting, and failing, to persuade the bearded counter man to strip with her; the artist dancing, in jeans and boots, on the porch of a white neo-Gothic house to Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," as a slight wind shakes the camera; dancing in what looks like a bordello from the old West, dressed like a tart, while a dog humps her leg; she and a notably unattractive middle-aged man stripping to their underwear and then silently directing each other to spin like tops, all to the sounds of "What About Love" by Heart.

Compared to this carnival of genres and emotions, Patty Chang's video "A Chinoiserie Out of the Old West" (no date because it remains a work in progress), wherein two people, a man and a woman, seem to take turns translating from an article by Walter Benjamin about Anna May Wong, is as airless and musty as an old schoolroom.

"One Way or Another" takes its title from a song by Blondie, and it could as easily describe the attitudes of a generation of artists whatever their ethnicity. Which is another way of saying that this show demonstrates that Asian-American art, like contemporary art in general, is, if not a mixing pot, then a cauldron abubble with highly effective potions.

Stripteases, Sheiks, Sneakers Are Today's Asian-American Art


By Carly Berwick

September 12, 2023

A paunchy man with long, stringy hair takes off his shirt, prompting a young, nubile woman opposite him to take off hers. It is a most discomfiting striptease. But the video, part of ``One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now'' at New York's Asia Society, is not documenting the casual exploitation of a defenseless girl by a venal predator. Laurel Nakadate, the artist, is also the performer. In her underwear, she twirls her finger, indicating that the man should turn around; he follows her hand like a marionette. Lithe and pretty, Nakadate has total power over this quivering mess. The 30-year-old, half-Japanese artist travels around the country, looking for single men to seduce on-camera. Her performance is shameless and cruel, yet risky and transfixing.

But what does this have to do with being an American of Asian ancestry? Very little, and that is the primary and most valuable lesson of ``One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now.'' Asian American visual culture today can be almost anything, a sign of the diversity of the more than 12 million people of Asian heritage living in the U.S.

The 17 artists in the exhibition hail from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Pakistan, Vietnam, the Philippines, New York and California. They were all born after 1965 and came of age when the battle lines over identity politics and ethnic visibility had already been drawn and redrawn. Their work has little in common, other than the use of ethnicity, more or less subtly, as subject matter.

Obvious Work

Some of the art is just plain silly, overdetermined by statement-making. Saira Wasim, for instance, combines traditions of Pakistani miniatures and British-American magazine illustration to paint what are essentially translations of ``no blood for oil'' protest signs into narrative paintings.

In one, Bush embraces a Saudi sheik while holding a gas nozzle that pours into a shared wine goblet. The title, in case we didn't get it, is "Blood Brothers'' (2006). Indigo Som's grainy digital photographs of Chinese restaurants in Mississippi reveal that they are lonely, unkempt places located in poor neighborhoods, a fact most discerning travelers already know.

Works by Patty Chang, Mari Eastman, Ala Ebtekar, Glenn Kaino and Anna Sew Hoy are more sophisticated, playing simultaneously with national and art-historical traditions. Eastman's filmy rococo paintings of palaces and songbirds moodily reflect the Western idealization of Chinese and Japanese art.

Wear This Art?

If I could steal one item from the show it would be a navy- blue track jacket embroidered with a scene from a Persian miniature by Ebtekar. His installation, ``Elemental'' (2004), recreates an Iranian coffee shop, painted in white and studded with Adidas sneakers, boom-boxes and hookahs. The sneaker laces have Persian floral motifs and also inspire consumer lust.

In his artist statement, Ebtekar writes that he is looking at links between hip-hop and Iranian coffee-house culture, both of which encourage graffiti. But the installation is just as much about the thirst for beautiful objects and the shared appreciation of nice stuff -- an impulse that transcends just about any cultural boundary.