Asa Jackson arrives at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond wearing a casual white t-shirt, an oversized denim trucker jacket with fitted black jeans tucked into white socks pulled high. Green and White New Balance 550 sneakers and a fitted cap complete his look. Jackson is an accomplished artist, curator, and serves as Commissioner of the Virginia Commision for the Arts but there is nothing stuffy about him. His youthful candidness carries over into our conversation about Time Machines, the exhibition Jackson is guest-curating at VisArts. He is in Richmond from his homebase in Newport News to meet with VisArts’ four resident artists participating in the show.
Asa Jackson, photos by Clarissa Bannor
Jackson pulls his phone from his jacket to show me the painting by Curtis Newkirk Jr., he was talking about. “Look at this,” Jackson says as he leans over to share his screen. He points out some of the details, “look at the faded graffiti on the subway car. It looks so real. The feel of the whole piece feels like 1980s–90s New York City, when they started trying to clean up the graffiti. His subject looks young but he’s dressed old, like he could be from the past or the present. I’m amazed at how Curtis managed to paint him so he jumps off the canvas and all the people in the background look like they could be from different generations throughout time.”
“Is that why this show is called Time Machines?”
“Yea, the work the artists are showing in the exhibition spans time and culture, that’s how the idea of time machines came up,” Jackson says, “Time Machines will send you on a time trip; to the past, the future, or inward.”
Artist Curtis Newkirk Jr., courtesy of Visual Arts Center
I could see from the glowing phone screen how Curtis’s masterful attention to shading and color made his subject pop in the work. The man in the painting had a faraway look in his eyes as his body extended out of the window away from the people in the crowded train, with a hopeful gaze toward a distant future. Curtis’s use of scale, color and careful highlighting makes for masterful storytelling. I am excited to see the piece in person in the Gallery at VisArts. The powerful details Jackson points at are reminiscent of other pieces I have seen in Newkirk’s studio, which has easily become Curtis’s signature.
Time isn’t the only thing that plays a major role in the theme of Time Machines, culture and ancestry take center stage too. Jackson is just as excited about the works from the other artists in the exhibition: Ayana Zaire Cotton, Emily Okamoto-Green and Hien Kat Nguyen.
Ayana Zaire Cotton is a queer, Black feminist, anti-disciplinary artist based out of Dawn, Virginia who uses science and technology in work that braids language, performance, and craft together. Cotton uses computer code and algorithms as tools for decoding Black women’s stories and the worlds they build for survival. In this exhibition Cotton experiments with scraps of leather as canvases and portals for storytelling.
Emily Okamoto-Green, a half-Japanese essayist and poet originally from Shizuoka-ken, Japan’s green tea capital, is the creative writer in the group. Okamoto-Green will present poetry written in Kanji calligraphy on a giant, 20-meter scroll. The idea is to highlight the juxtaposition of the written image and the actual aesthetic image of her words in an ancient Japanese writing system that was used by only men to depict the Japanese language using adapted Chinese characters. “I’m very proud to be a Japanese-American poet,” says Okamoto-Green when asked about her work, “because women spearheaded Japanese poetry.”
Artist Hien Kat Nguyen, courtesy of Visual Arts Center
Hien Kat Nguyen is a wood and metal artist born and raised in Saigon, Vietnam. Jackson leads me to Kat’s studio on the second floor of the Fan District-based arts center. Kat works with wood to create game-like structures and installations. The studio is in the frenzied-like state of an artist getting ready for a show. The tile floor is covered in sawdust but the waning sunlight shines on a beautiful wooden structure with a red-tinted window in the center of its frame.
“Ooh, Is that the installation, Kat?!” Jackson asks excitedly. He swoops in to inspect the piece closely. Kat’s work during residency at the Visual Arts Center explores Vietnamese folklore. The piece Jackson was admiring is an arcade cabinet for a toy crane machine called, “Thoi Noi” which Kat engineered without the use of any joint fasteners.
“All the pieces are put together by over 50 wood joints without a single wood glue or screw,” Jackson explains admiringly while Kat watches, exuding quiet confidence. A palpable beam of respect flows between the two artists. “Yes, it’s almost done, I just need to put everything together,” Kat says nonchalantly, and moves to put away stray woodshop tools.
“Kat,” I ask, “Asa says a lot of your work pulls from folklore but what does an arcade game have to do with Vietnamese culture?”
“This game references a game that’s played in Vietnam to predict a person’s future. In Vietnam when a child turns one year old they pick something out from a bunch of different items and whatever they pick up is supposed to give some idea of what they’ll become when they grow up.”
The meaning behind Kat’s piece struck a chord. As a child of African immigrants, I recognize the cultural practice of having grand expectations for your life foisted on you from a very young age. I love how the Thoi Noi installation remixes Vietnamese and American culture to playfully illustrate the practice using a large game installation.
“What’s this?” I ask, pointing to a sculpture on a work table that looks like a small volcano made out of layers of bricks.
“That’s a well I made out of wood pieces and textured it to look like bricks. I plan to put a frog at the bottom of it to reference another Vietnamese folktale; a frog that’s stuck at the bottom of a well who can only look up and see part of the sky but thinks it’s the whole sky. The fable is about the war in Vietnam and how people only have one part of the story.”
“That’s deep,” I say turning to Kat, referencing the depth of the well and the story behind it. “How do you make sure that the meaning in your pieces doesn’t get lost in the presentation?”
Silence engulfs the tiny resident studio. Kat looks at Jackson, then glances at the water-well sculpture and with thoughtful consideration says. “That’s not my role as an artist. Culture and meaning and folklore are important to me and my work, but–” Kat stops for a moment, mid-sentence, reaching for words that say just enough, “I can give people an open book but I can’t help them read it.”
Time Machines opens in the True F. Luck Gallery at VisArts on Friday, March 10 at 5:30 p.m. The exhibition of work by the Visual Arts Center of Richmond’s 2022-23 Annual Resident artists Ayana Zaire Cotton, Curtis Newkirk Jr., Emily Okamoto-Green and Hien Kat Nguyen will be on view through April 23rd.
Discover Time Machines: A Journey through Mythologies and Hidden Worlds at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond’s Annual Resident Artists Exhibition: The Visual Arts Center of Richmond is currently showcasing “Time Machines,” an exhibition featuring the new work of the VisArts’ Annual Resident Artists for the 2022-2023 year, namely Ayana Zaire Cotton, Curtis Newkirk Jr., Hien Kat Nguyen, and Emily Okamoto-Green. During their residency at VisArts, these artists were able to utilize the center’s resources to develop their creative practices and experiment with different media. The exhibition is curated by Asa Jackson.
“Time Machines” explores the concept of time, with each artwork embodying whispers of the past and shadows of the future. The exhibition is a tribute to generations past and a contemplation of customs, people, places, and mythologies. Despite their diverse skill sets and approaches, the artists share a common thread of a study of time, an excavation of culture, and a peek into hidden worlds.
Follow Visual Arts Center of Richmond at @visartsrva
Follow Asa Jackson at @asajacksonart
Follow Ayana Zaire Cotton at @ayzaco
Follow Curtis Newkirk Jr. at @cnewkirkjr
Follow Emily Okamoto-Green at @emi.dori
Follow Hien Kat Nguyen at @hieninapril_