Girl Power Mystique

Jin-Ya Huang's photos inscribe the feminine in-between

If Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) sounded an early salvo of the feminist movement, the photographs of Jin-Ya Huang dance a worldly jig of the feminine in-between. The masterful blur of Huang's images give form to the shuffle and swing of a woman-girl acting in between East and West, the intimate and the external, childhood and maturity and Old and New Worlds. Replacing the collective rallying cry of "the personal is the political" that followed in the gunsmoke of Friedan's blast, it is the need to "materialize the personal," Huang explains, that fuels her own girl power mystique.

Yet the fuzziness and haze of Huang's photographs now showing at the Mulcahy Modern belie the forceful decisiveness of the work. The out-of-focus appearance of her photographs is no accident. Huang willfully works both subject matter and image, such as in "Circuit" (2004) and "Propel" (2004), in order to create a shadowy luminescence that is abstract and ever as indecipherable as the vague yet fleshy body parts depicted. In keeping with such will and purpose the blur is in fact what gives Huang her full-body voice as an artist. For Huang, "everything has always been in perfect focus for me." Perhaps counterintuitively, the blur reaps poignant clarity because it is a vehicle for a lucid and well-formed idea, namely that of being in-between.

The impeccable sheen of her photographic surfaces belies yet another fact about Huang: She wasn't always a photographer. Huang studied painting while in art school at the University of Texas at Dallas, shifting after graduation to the medium of photography. Although she is absolutely adept with the camera, Huang nevertheless considers herself to be a painter using a camera. The shiny flat surfaces of her large-scale color photographs reveal a skillful fusion of the two media. Like certain of her acknowledged influences--Gerhard Richter and Wolfgang Tillmans, to name two--Huang occupies the hybrid position of painter-cum-photographer. When asked about her shift from painting to photography, Huang explains in a poetic manner: "It wasn't a shift. I see photography as an extension of painting. I paint with my camera."

Technically speaking, they are images that result from a combination of traditional and cutting-edge photographic techniques. Huang explains the process in terms of confrontation and control, the personal and intimate meeting the anonymous and high-tech in a spectrum of ever-waning mastery and command. Over the course of shooting, development, printing and mounting, Huang's hands-on control incrementally subsides. The process begins with Huang making traditional photographs from an old 35mm camera that belonged to her father while he was living in Taiwan. By definition--or lack thereof--the objects of Huang's preoccupation are indecipherable. There's no telling what they are. The bright yellow lights of "Circuit" might be electrified vertebrae or perhaps televisions, hanging as if on tendrils in the fashion of the artist Nam June Paik. Is that someone's nether regions or a flower in "Vortex" (2004)? Artfully not revealing the objects that she shoots, Huang only lets on that a filter of glass is used in the process of capturing an image. After shooting with the heirloom camera, the loss of personal control and luck of printer-house efficiency respectively ensue. Huang sends the images off to be digitally scanned and printed using a high-quality laser inkjet process known as Durst printing. Finally, the images are mounted by adhesive tack onto aluminum panels.

By integrating mass-printing processes into the greater production of images, Huang wills chance as though it were a tool. In turn, chance becomes a perversely intentional force of creativity. Like the overall gauzy appearance of her work, it is willful and intended, meant to offset the intimacy of her subject matter. The process brings to mind the intentionally author-erasing "Telephone Paintings" (1922) by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In an act meant to lessen the presence and power of the proverbial artist-genius, the avant-garde Russian artist dictated by telephone to a factory worker the grid-based designs of five paintings that were then produced in porcelain enamel à la mass production. Whereas Moholy-Nagy's pictorial play ended with the throttle and whir of the machine, Huang's game of painting begins there and moves on to the inaudible photon beam of the digital and electronic. Her work operates in the new frontier of fertile reproducibility given to us by photo-optic technology. It is a space of action that the Dallas-based artist John Pomara has called the "technological sublime."

While Huang's process is remarkable in its marriage of old and new, or perhaps more appropriately new and newer, the crux of her work lies within the careful balance of two vastly different cultures: Taiwanese and American. The gist of Huang's work--the curious yet vibrant feeling of being somehow in-between--comes from having been born in Taiwan and growing up in Dallas. It is through this dichotomy that she infuses herself, making her intimacy everyone's intimacy--transforming the abstracted shots of her own body into surrogates for Everywoman. Giving form to a set of clashing forces, Huang negotiates the subjective elements of her own identity through the powerfully objective and anonymous medium of the camera. This negotiation is most palpable in "Project 1/2/3," a self-portrait done in three shots. Here the artist has rendered herself in a triptych of horizontally hung close-up and blurred shots of her face. Central to the images are Huang's facial womanhood--her apple-red lips and spider-black eyelashes. Heightening the sense of movement initiated by the omnipresent blur, each panel is different, her lips and eyes off-center in the two outer panels and dead center in the panel hung in the middle. In rendering herself as a Kewpie-doll girl fit and ready for visual delectation, Huang transgresses Old World Taiwanese feminine propriety, reframing her subtle and private self in terms of an in-your-face beauty directed at the world writ large.

Other works, such as "Cast" (2004) and "Periphery" (2004), tend to be less overtly about questions of gender and more generally about memory and the process of distilling the mental residue of the past. Huang refers to this as a mental exercise of "re-remembering." The images that result from Huang's re-remembering are gracefully bereft of sentimental elements that might beset any other artist's rendering of memories and the past. Her blurred images capture the physical act of remembering, giving visual form to what it might feel like to actually remember something. They seem like photographs of a restless mind desperately in search of experiences past, gasping as though frantically running through reel upon reel of plastic microfilm.

At 34, Huang is young. It is exciting to ponder how her work will continue to evolve--how she will pursue issues of medium specificity and technological invention and the conceptual realm of being in-between. Yet, perhaps above all, we await from her further contributions to the collective girl power mystique--questions, conundrums and declarations concerning what it might mean to be an artist working in the 21st century, an artist who happens to be a woman.

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