UC Merced researcher uncovers works of overlooked artists

May 27, 2014 

For several years, art history professor ShiPu Wang has been a detective on a mission to find every work produced by a group of overlooked artists from the early 20th century.

Wang has reviewed copious primary source documents, pursued private collectors and family estates, and visited museums and galleries in Japan and the United States, all to rediscover the artists’ work for his research project: “The Other American Moderns.”

“It’s long and arduous, but it’s quite rewarding,” Wang said.

Wang’s project recently received a boost from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. He was awarded a Terra Foundation Fellowship in American Art, which gives him time to focus on writing what will likely be the go-to book on five artists:

• Frank S. Matsura

•  Eitaro Ishigaki

•  Hideo Benjamin Noda

•  Miki McCrossen Hayakawa

•  Chiura Obata

The artists Wang is researching produced work that is inherently American, but because of their Asian American status and the difficulty of locating their works, most of them have been overlooked in American art history books, Wang said. Though the styles and mediums vary, Wang said they were commenting on the socio-political aspects of American life.

“It’s not productive to look at a painting and simply label it as Japanese or American,” Wang said. “With those terms, what we’re doing is putting the artwork in boxes. What the artists were doing was breaking boundaries.”

Wang will study the artists in context with non-Asian American friends and communities that included Native Americans, African Americans, Jewish Americans and Caucasians.

For example, Matsura incorporated himself into photos of American Indians in Okanogan County, Washington, and Ishigaki and Noda created paintings featuring African Americans fighting for equality and justice.

Although the works were produced in the United States, Wang said many of them are in Japan because Japanese art collectors purchased them from American collections in the 1970s and 1980s.

His book will include color reproductions of many of the works, which will be published for the first time in the United States. With an advance contract from a university press publisher, Wang plans to complete his manuscript next spring.

It’s important for scholars to study artists beyond those with instant name recognition, Wang said. “Our cultural heritage is more complex than looking at a few artists,” he said.

Cognitive science program rises in conference status

UC Merced’s cognitive science group will again be among the best-represented universities at the annual Cognitive Science Society conference, according to data collected by the group’s graduate chairman.

Faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduate students will deliver 21 presentations in Quebec City, placing the group as the fourth most represented at the conference. Last year, the group delivered the most presentations of any university at the meeting.

The conference has a special presentation category referred to as “full paper,” which is more competitive – about a third of all submissions from all universities are rejected. UC Merced’s cognitive science group won 15 of these competitions and now ranks third among hundreds of institutions. Last year, the group ranked fifth.

This is the discipline’s premiere conference and typically draws scholars from more than 300 institutions and almost 1,000 presentations. The conference is in late July.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.

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