The disappearance of wild tigers in Japan, despite their profound significance in Japanese culture and art, has long captivated people. This invisible tiger mystique finds resonance in the work of Japanese American artist Glenn Kaino. His latest exhibition, “Walking with a Tiger,” at Pace Gallery until February 24, embarks on a deeply personal exploration of his existence as part of the Japanese diaspora in the United States. Drawing inspiration from the Japanese tiger’s symbolic meditation on a romanticized homeland, Kaino pays homage to traditional Japanese art forms while challenging contemporary artistic boundaries.
“Walking with a Tiger” marks a significant milestone for Kaino as one of his first major exhibitions centering on the AAPI community. The collection, comprising eighteen new artworks, spans paintings, embroideries and sculptures, each offering a glimpse into the artist’s personal narrative and identity as a Japanese-American. Renowned for his multidisciplinary and activist-oriented approach to art, Kaino has previously delved into an array of political, social, and environmental issues across various mediums. However, his latest show is a departure from his broader societal focus, as he turns his gaze inward for the first time in his career.
In a recent interview with Observer, the artist revealed his distinctive creation process for the black-and-white portrait series featured in the show. This approach involves a continuous cycle of repainting, replacing and layering, with the thick impasto on clothing symbolizing individuals’ armor—a residue of the characters’ identity buildup.
At the gallery’s entrance, the captivating portrait Daniel (2023) immediately seizes the attention of viewers. A matte black background enhances the subject’s vivid presence. The black-and-white tone, echoing the minimalism of Japanese ink paintings, delicately weaves an intimate narrative. Kaino’s portraiture is a deliberate act of focusing on the subjects’ gaze, inviting a mutual judgment rather than external evaluation. Kaino says that the layering process acts as a time machine, complicating the relationship between foreground and background and introducing a time slippage that enriches the narrative.
Influenced by Black portraiture by artists like Mickalene Thomas and Titus Kuffaar, Kaino’s portraits engage in a profound dialogue with history, employing abstract expressionism and dismantling classical styles of visual representation. The intentional inclusion of prominent Asian American figures like musicians Yuka C. Honda, Mark Ramos Nishita, and skateboarder Daniel Shimizu advocates for broader recognition and appreciation of AAPI identities within the art world.
A notable addition to the exhibition is a series of embroidered works inspired by bunka shishu, a Japanese punch embroidery that is popular in the postwar Japanese-American community. Departing from the conventional instructions of embroidery-by-number kits, Kaino introduces a new open stitch alongside traditional methods. The loose threads extend embroidered images beyond the confines of the picture plane. This technique resonates with kitbashing, a recurring practice in Kaino’s past work, involving creating a new scale model by extracting pieces from kits without following any instructions. Glenn finds this technique inspiring, as it aligns with his constant challenging of social norms through his artwork.
In Don’t Ruffle Feathers (2023), Glenn employs open threads that hang over the frame to showcase the free will of a pair of storks. In Japanese folklore and culture, the storkbird symbolizes longevity, good fortune, and happiness. The white open threads invite viewers to contemplate the positive message of the storks. Notably, Glenn incorporates a peacock’s features into the stork’s, reinforcing his belief that Asian Americans should not conform to stereotypes. In Glenn’s words, “Those of us who participate in art and culture may not follow our parents’ or our histories’ design, but we end up here with different levels of signification.”
Kaino’s recent shift towards a more intimate storytelling approach is inspired by his last exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum, “Glenn Kaino: Aki’s Market,” which focused on his grandfather’s life in East Los Angeles. In his 2024 body of work, Kaino also reflects on connecting with his family members. Before Kaino’s grandmother passed away last winter, he collaborated with her on “The Last Kabuki” (2023), during which she contributed a few stitches. This collaboration allowed Kaino to connect with his childhood memories and the experience of being Asian American. In Warlords (2023), a series of seven embroidered tiger pieces connected by a yellow thread evoke a mysterious atmosphere, as if these tigers were hiding in the woods. The symbolism also emphasizes the importance of being connected to one’s roots.
Despite the artist’s initial concern about potentially being too niche by showcasing numerous Asian faces in a mainstream gallery, it’s needless to say that it is one of the most intimate and touching exhibitions he has created, breaking boundaries of activism, personal experience and art. Pace’s curatorial director Mark Beasley says in an interview, Kaino’s work raises important questions about what we retain, what we discard, what becomes a mistranslation and how these nuances often become sources for new thinking and forms.