“‘Round the Clock: Chinese American Artists Working in Los Angeles,” at East Los Angeles College’s Vincent Price Art Museum, is a “Pacific Standard Time” show surveying five relatively unheralded modernists. Four of the five were born in China. All draw on Chinese art history, Chinese-American pop culture, and L.A.’s nascent art scene in fascinating ways. The show is no less about the crazy economics of being an artist. All five juggled a fine art career with one in so-called commercial art. Both phases turn out to be interesting.
Take Jake Lee’s Chinatown Alley (left). On the one hand, it’s nostalgia-drenched illustration. Look closer, and those splotchy gray clouds in a yellow sky leave you dumbfounded. A very American Chinese building raises the stars and stripes. Lee’s name appears doubly, as an artist’s signature and as a commerical shop sign. That is more or less the show’s theme.
Lee turned American entrepreneur, promoting art classes and videos (“Jake Lee’s Wonderful World of Watercolor.”) He also worked for the most bougie of illustration markets, the Auto Club of Southern California’s Westways magazine. Other day-job employers ranged from Disney animation (Tyrus Wong worked on Bambi, and Milton Quon on Fantasia and Dumbo) to Bullocks and I. Magnin department stores (John Kwok did window displays and signs).
By conventional standards, George Chann and John Kwok are the most compelling artists, as they were the most abstract. At right is a Chann self-portrait, lent by the now-bankrupt Crystal Cathedral Ministries. Chann became a Christian and donated a set of 250 Chagall-like biblical paintings to the Orange County church. He also did Mark Tobey-inflected abstractions that, on minute inspection, resolve into calligraphy or the most coded figuration. Below is Chann’s Abstract in a Green Field (early 1960s). The modestly scaled L.A. Riots (1992) is a Rodney King counterpart to Matta‘s Watts-era Burn Baby Burn.
The unexpected common denominator here is Christmas cards. Most of the artists did them for quick cash at one time or another. Milton Quon, who worked for ad agency BBDO, is said to have been the first Chinese-American Mad Man. Below is Quon’s c. 1960 card for the L.A. office. We are all strangers in a strange land.