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The intimacy of drawing: Occhiogrosso’s I’m OK #2.

I Like I Like I Like

 By Nadine Wasserman

Someday: Drawings by Gina Occhiogrosso

Amrose Sable Gallery, through Jan. 27

Someday is an optimistic word. “Someday,” as opposed to “perhaps” or “never,” indicates that at an indefinite future time something will certainly happen. Picture that same word in the rosy glow of pink neon. Perfect for this time of year, Gina Occhiogrosso’s neon sign Someday dangles in the shop window of the gallery and beckons us inside. Like the little match girl, we stand out in the cold staring at the bright, optimistic light, dreaming of love, warmth, and joy.

Despite her rose-colored reference, Occhiogrosso is no Pollyanna. Her optimism emerges as an antidote to her inner struggle with life’s everyday failures and rejections. She earnestly attempts to convert her melancholy into something positive, and she does so with a dollop of humor. Those familiar with her work will remember her cross-stitch drawings and embroidery using the phrase “I Try” and her manipulations of Disneyfied fairy tales. In this exhibition, Occhiogrosso continues her quest for perfection with the phrase “I’m ok.” She uses repetitive phrases like a mantra as a way to control her obsessive thoughts. While she strives for calm and healing, she claims that her phrases are part mantra, part hysteria. Instead of serenity, the making of her work often elicits more anxiety. Like a repetitive stress injury, the phrases sometimes burn into her consciousness, making it hard to relax. Even so, she returns to the studio and strives for what remains elusive: fortune, pleasure, true love, a masterpiece. Her personal struggles here become public spectacle and her vulnerabilities are exposed.

Occhiogrosso’s graphite-and-colored-pencil drawings here come in two sizes and depict lace doilies and cross-stitch patterns. The three largest works appear like mandalas. They each magnify a different doily, turning what otherwise would seem precious and delicate into something iconic. Ordinarily, doilies are placed underneath more important objects. But when Occhiogrosso looks at them, she thinks about who made them and the craft, attention, focus, and effort it took. The best of the three larger drawings is almost completely frayed and unraveled. It is a reflection of the wear and tear of everyday life. Like Dickens’ Miss Haversham, it glories in its own defeat, wearing its scars like a badge of honor.

In this particular show, Occhiogrosso focuses on drawing as a way to transition back to painting. Drawing helps her work through ideas, images, and space. And there is an intimacy to making a drawing that is not the same in painting. The artist Matthew Ritchie, in a 2005 interview in the PBS series Art:21, explained that “a painting becomes a very static fixed thing, but a drawing, you can make it three- dimensional, you can make it flat, you can turn it into a sphere, you can just keep pushing it, and pushing it, and pushing it, because all it is is information, it’s just a bunch of marks.” Occhiogrosso also pushes her drawings. Some are symmetrical, others off kilter; some are black-and-white, others in color; some flat, others sculptural. On one wall of the gallery she has placed 133 small works in adjoining rows. She uses ordinary 8 1/2 x 11 paper. These small drawings reflect her usual themes but in a way that is more playful. Often made in one sitting, they are more gestural and experimental and less controlled. They are full of possibility. For Occhiogrosso, they show moments of joy and moments of failure, but most of all they are suggestive of what might happen next, someday soon . . .

 The Hapa Project: Portraits by Kip Fulbeck

Mandeville Gallery, Nott Memorial, Union College, through Feb. 3

In the process of weeding out some old files recently, I happened upon a July 1994 issue of Cinevue, a publication of Asian CineVision. It was opened to an essay by Kip Fulbeck. Since I had just seen The Hapa Project: Portraits by Kip Fulbeck, this discovery was rather fortuitous. It’s not clear to me now why I kept this particular essay, but I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that it was the ’90s, when identity politics were in vogue. It was written a year after the notorious 1993 Whitney Biennial and was indicative of what people in the art world were exploring and debating at the end of the millennium.

In the essay, titled “Thought Flights of a Hapa Artist: An Essay of Anger and Frustration,” Fulbeck vents about his irritation with labels. Being of mixed heritage, he begins by vehemently refusing to explain what hapa means and carries on a diatribe about prejudice, xenophobia, and tokenism. It is refreshing to see that 13 years later Fulbeck’s ideas have flourished into a mature body of work. The Hapa Project is about not being able to fit into nice, neat ethnic categories. Beginning in 2001, Fulbeck photographed 1,200 volunteers and asked them to self-designate their ethnic heritage as a portrait of 21st-century America. Each piece shows a person from the shoulders up without any extraneous identifiers such as clothing or jewelry. Below the image, the person has written a response to the question: “What are you?” And below that is printed the different ethnicities that comprise the person’s particular genealogy.

For the record, the word Hapa is derived from the Hawaiian word for “half.” It is slang for someone who is half Hawaiian and half haole, or someone who is mixed with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry.

While Fulbeck’s method of combining image with text is reminiscent of artists doing similar work in the politically correct ’90s, his ideas are, alas, no less relevant today. Despite the fact that a person of mixed heritage is running for U.S. president, there is no shortage of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia in American culture at present. The Hapa Project reminds us that the multicultural mix that is America is one of its singular accomplishments.

—Nadine Wasserman

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