New York

Ken Lum

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Ken Lum’s five large diptychs clone boisterous sign painting and on-location photographs of dubious folk heroes; each begs the question, “What’s wrong with this picture?” A local businessman ready to make a deal, a quartet of wannabe Jon Bon Jovis, a chainsaw-toting, cigarette-smoking redneck couple, prosperous Oriental real estate agents taking time for a quick snapshot, proud racially mixed parents and their darling daughter greeting a fuzzy pink pig promoting pizza—Lum draws us into these everyday fictions gone strange and slaps on captions that augment the slice-of-contemporary-life vignettes.

In Nancy Nishi, Joe Ping Chau, Real Estate (all works 1990), the two young Orientals pose proudly on a balcony overlooking an urban boomtown. Taking time from their busy schedule to oblige the photographer, Nancy and Joe exude (humbly, of course) the ethics of hard work and pride of ownership before their concrete empire; the photo is emblematically captioned in towering chiseled stone blocks that spell out the words “Real Estate.” The subtext is that of entrepreneurial conquerors who have grown secure enough to become tourists.“ A Woodcutter and his Wife,” spelled out with cute little logs and broken slats of wood against an acid-green monochrome surface entitles a short fable about consumption and preservation. The gothic story begins and ends at the base of a giant hemlock before the simple folk (stuck-in-the-’60s hippie-types) set about their daily labor of razing a tree large enough to be a national treasure. “We Are Sacred Blade”—scripted in stylized daggers against a flashy hot-pink ground—seems geared to attract fashion-conscious teenage devil-worshippers. Opposite is a shot of the band, not nearly satanic enough to transcend the suburban rec-room aura of polished linoleum floors and wood-veneer paneling.

The viewer who dismisses Lum’s witty combos of lettrism and flat photography simply as humorous kitsch or making fun of the middle class deserves a starring role in a future Lum diptych: a slightly bored, know-it-all gallery goer dressed from head to toe in black with a caption set up like a slick exhibition announcement. The interpretive impulse finds far more fertile turf in consideration of the split personality of these allegorical works.

The tautological relation that plays obliquely between text and image operates in a similarly self-contained manner between paintings that aren’t paintings and photographs that aren’t photographs—at least not in the traditional sense. Both are fake in their own beguiling way: one with captions painted on aluminum by a commercial sign painter who makes pictures out of words, the other with portraits of stereotypical real-life characters who, since they are frequently played by actors, are wholly contrived. Lum sends a second-level shock wave by leavening the austerity of the Jeff Wall school of conceptual photography (his mentor) with the candy-colored trappings of Pop art, in the same irreverent manner that his sectional couches and conversation pits played with the conventions of Minimalist sculpture. The salient effect of his high-low synthesis of humor, sociopolitical critique, and art is to keep us guessing and catch us just a little bit off guard.

Jan Avgikos