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‘Japs Keep Moving’: Racist signs of the past point us to the present

‘Japs Keep Moving’: Racist signs of the past point us to the present
Lisa Solomon's show at Walter Maciel Gallery includes painted scenes of racist signs whose lettering has been cut out to review patterned Japanese paper underneath. Here, "Japs Keep Moving This Is a White Man's Neighborhood," 2019. (Lisa Solomon / Walter Maciel Gallery)

I have mixed feelings about Lisa Solomon’s exhibition reflecting on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, now on view at Walter Maciel Gallery. As a child of survivors of the camps, I am moved to see something of their experience on the walls of an art gallery. We don’t generally see our history, let alone such a pivotal moment, come to life. That said, I wish the show made stronger connections between then and now.

Solomon is of Japanese and Jewish descent. Her Japanese mother did not arrive in the U.S. until the 1970s, but even without a familial connection to the internment camps, several of her works are loving memorials.

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“Chawan With Chataku, 25 Camps / 25 Tea Bowls” consists of a row of tiny, white, handmade, Japanese-style teacups, each different, each inscribed in delicate gold lettering with the name, active dates and population count of one of the 25 internment camps or temporary assembly centers. The wobbly, uneven quality of these vessels evokes the ways in which Japanese Americans were able to preserve some of their cultural traditions even under the isolation and harsh, dehumanizing circumstances of camp life.

"Chawan With Chataku, 25 Camps / 25 Tea Bowls," 2019, by Lisa Solomon
"Chawan With Chataku, 25 Camps / 25 Tea Bowls," 2019, by Lisa Solomon (Lisa Solomon / Walter Maciel Gallery)
Detail from "Chawan With Chataku, 25 Camps / 25 Tea Bowls," 2019, by Lisa Solomon
Detail from "Chawan With Chataku, 25 Camps / 25 Tea Bowls," 2019, by Lisa Solomon (Lisa Solomon / Walter Maciel Gallery)

Less successful are small paintings and cut paper works that depict more specific moments: children wearing Santa Claus suits, or dancers dressed in yukata (light summertime kimonos) for Obon (a commemoration of ancestors) juxtaposed with schematic renderings of barracks. Such works attempt to celebrate the resilience of the internees and their desire to maintain some sense of normalcy, but their execution feels timid and simplistic.

More powerful are a series of paintings Solomon made of photographs of racist, anti-Japanese signage from the period. She created watercolor versions of black and white photos and cut out the letters of the hateful words. Each painting is suspended on pins atop a piece of red, patterned Japanese paper. The pattern shows through the letter holes, making them vibrate with color (like a moiré pattern) and anger. The cutout paper letters are piled on a tiny adjacent shelf between two tiny lanterns — like an offering waiting to be burned.

"Down With the Japs You Rats," 2019, by Lisa Solomon
"Down With the Japs You Rats," 2019, by Lisa Solomon (Lisa Solomon / Walter Maciel Gallery)

I wish Solomon had burned them. Although the work pays homage to the Japanese value of gaman, the ability to endure the unbearable with patience and dignity, the show is too decorous. The colorful kimonos and cultural celebrations in the camps were accompanied by mental illness, malnutrition and needless death, and also acts of protest and resistance.

These days, the danger of this history repeating itself in other communities of color is all too real. Solomon’s focus on gaman is a missed opportunity to draw an empowering connection between the past and the present.

Walter Maciel Gallery, 2642 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through April 20. (310) 839-1840, www.waltermacielgallery.com

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