Galleries

Asian-American Portraiture Between Personal and Political

by Abe Ahn on February 20, 2014

Ho Tam, "Salary Men" (1995), oil on masonite (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ho Tam, “Salary Men” (1995), oil on masonite (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — Vancouver-based artist Ho Tam has catalogued many iterations of multiples throughout his career, ranging from commercial imagery to Asian male bodies. These catalogues do more than just point out similarities between objects and people but also examine how differentiation can be a bellwether for imagined communities. In his latest exhibition at Commonwealth & Council, Tam revisits some old friends and paintings to survey possible changes and stasis within these communities over the past two decades.

“Salary Men” is a series of oil portraits depicting middle-aged Asian businessmen. The images are culled from local community newspapers advertising the services of realtors, insurance agents, and car salesmen. Each salaryman invariably wears a black suit and tie with a white shirt, all of them bespectacled with large-framed glasses that have wavered in and out of fashion over time. The original series was completed in 1995, but the artist has reproduced seven panels for the show — the same stark, orange-yellow faces against a grey background.

Produced at the height of the art world’s infatuation with identity politics, Tam’s paintings portray the uniformity of a given group, in this case the business professionals of a local Asian community. They intimate the model minority myth of Asian Americans as upstanding, industrious members of the middle class. In spite of this, the salarymen, when examined closely, are not exactly the same. The range of phenotypical differences and varying postures resists the uniform color palette and cross-racial gaze.

Ho Tam, “Matinee Idols” (2014), oil on masonite

Ho Tam, “Matinee Idols” (2014), oil on masonite

There is an extent to which the salarymen are self-imposing a respectable image or brand. Uniformity here is positively valenced, although a viewer’s response to the paintings is contingent upon her set of presumptions about who belongs and doesn’t belong to this particular group. The catalog of portraits here capture a small segment of a larger community, but it runs the risk of defining that community in its entirety. It is this tension between the individual and collective that points out the imbalances of visibility within a group.

Reproduced from an older series from 1994, “Matinee Idols” is composed of 13 portraits of Asian male celebrities in multiple poses, some of which, when paired with the shirtless subject, are sexually suggestive. This is in contrast with the staid, sexless salarymen, although the series share the same color palette and graphic style. The series was reproduced for the exhibit due to damage incurred by the original paintings, but the new renditions are not paired with the painted names of famous brands (e.g., “Calvin” for Calvin Klein or “Ray” for Ray Ban) which worked to emphasize the paintings’ campiness. Stripped of these markers of consumer culture, the celebrity portraits alone represent a nexus between racialized sexual fantasy and pop culture.

Ho Tam, “Victoria” (2014), acrylic on canvas

Ho Tam, “Victoria” (2014), acrylic on canvas

More recent work by Tam includes “Lynda” and “Victoria,” a set of paintings composed of six individual portraits representing the different stages (and physical appearance) of the artist’s friends. Unlike the older work, the paintings’ subjects here are not anonymous, and the emphasis is not so much on the similarities between images but rather the differentiation that is performed or acquired across an individual life. The six multiples for each series are the same person, although each portrait, made distinct by age and appearance, depicts a distinct individual captured at a particular juncture. In “Victoria,” the subject manifests the process of aging and changing fashions. The roundness of a child’s face narrows over time, while hair styles shift from pigtails to asymmetrical bangs to a mid-length cut.

The two recent series of portraits humanize their subjects in ways that “Salary Men” and “Matinee Idols,” do not. They also avoid the essentialist depictions of the older work which are positioned to affirm or upset our expectations regarding a particular group. Painting is the medium emphasized by the artist in this latest exhibit, but Ho Tam’s work extends across film, photography, and bookmaking. Recent editions of his POSER and hotam zines further explore the multiplicities and duplication of people, objects, and experiences. While contemporary society likes to emphasize the primacy of the self as imagined through commodities and popular culture, the multiplicities inherent within all of our experiences remind us that we belong not to ourselves but greater communities composed of other individuals.

Ho Tam, various zines and art books

Ho Tam, various zines and art books

Friends of My Youth continues at Commonwealth & Council (3006 West 7th Street #220, Los Angeles) until March 1.

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