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East meets west in Margaret Kasahara's work, but that's just the beginning 

Cowgirls and kokeshi dolls

The tricky thing about Margaret Kasahara's artwork is that just when you think you've got a handle on it, your theories unravel. And while that may be an idea applicable to most elevated forms of expression, Kasahara's is unique in that it feels at first so deceptively simple. It's minimal and charming, friendly and fun.

Have you ever seen Pikachu at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center? Not a lost toy from a junior patron — the little Pokemon critter himself, painted perfectly on canvas, next to a toothy Totoro and a blank Hello Kitty. It's so perfect as to look digital, but each face is painstakingly created with what Kasahara calls obsessive squiggles.

Wander in her new exhibit Between the Lines and you'll find familiar Asian imagery, demure dolls with helmet hair, a Noh mask, origami cranes, and Chinese takeout boxes, hundreds of them, circling in a monumental enso ring on the gallery wall. It's like all the usual Asian ideas as seen through American eyes have come out to play.

Time spent reveals pointed details. A painting of a slanted eye called "Observer/Observed;" that enso ring, "What Kind of Asian Are You?" Something accusatory starts to surface, and that's when you realize that Kasahara's experience — growing up in Boulder with parents who came to the U.S. from Japan in the 1950s — had its consequences.

"It's something I don't really think about consciously, until I get these little reminders," the 51-year-old local says. "Something I hear, or the way somebody looks at me. I think, 'Oh that's right.'

"Is that just coincidence when I walk by, they have to say, 'Kung Fu chop!' you know? Or is that something that's sort of said regardless?"

Her heritage earned her the nickname "Flatface" as a kid. For role models, she recalls how Asian women were for a long time absent, at best nameless victims, beautiful and demure.

Kasahara refuses to be bothered by it. She admits it's tiresome, but her art isn't a lesson, nor is it her exorcising anger at the otherness forced upon her. "It's just the way it is," she says with a smile.

OK, so there are definitely issues of East-West identity at play (that Noh mask sits atop a quilt made from bandanas); but as assistant curator Joy Armstrong points out, Kasahara is extending these notions of generalization to the viewer as well. In "Umbrella Field," a lovely school of parasols suspended in the middle of the gallery, each colored umbrella represents an ethnicity. The green ones are Caucasian; the purples, African American; and so on. Only one blue umbrella exists in the team, to signify "other," or two or more of the other categories. So many of us, Armstrong says, identify in basic "umbrella" terms, and pigeonhole our identities.

But there's even more at play. "Kasahara" is literally translated as "umbrella field." Plus, as executive museum director and chief curator Blake Milteer says, "There's shape to the whole thing, yet it's levitated in a way, and there's a simultaneous substance and lack thereof, in a sense."

"Levity," Armstrong adds.

How much of a person is ethnicity, as distinct from culture? And how should that affect us? Kasahara is similarly perplexed, by the worlds she finds herself caught between — a mix of cowgirls and the kokeshi dolls that serve as symbols of her childhood. She chooses the high road, and the message discreetly delivered.

"There's a catalog I got in the mail yesterday called Eastern Serenity, and I thought, 'There's a painting in there somewhere.'"

edie@csindy.com

  • Cowgirls and kokeshi dolls

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