New York

Ken Lum

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Comprising variously patterned and colored throw pillows of outsized proportions casually plopped down beside reductive, image-populated and text-inscribed paintings, Ken Lum’s oblique arrangement of works set in motion a scramble for hermeneutic points of entry. This peculiar ensemble also demanded a patient excavation of buried contents. In contrast to the social parody of certain of Lum’s previous efforts—his “Furniture Sculpture,” 1982-93, and “Portrait Logos,” 1984—a disturbing neutrality prevailed here. Meaning had to be teased out of the potential correspondences between objects and their iconographic strata.

The authorial logic or subtext of conceptual practices becomes, in Lum’s work, a subtle complex of autobiographical allusions. In previous statements, Lum proposed that much of his work connotes his family’s past and his experience gowing up as a Chinese-Canadian. If his practice is informed by reflections upon a complex cultural identity, Lum’s negotiation of the social norms of communication and organization could be described as ambivalent, shifting: there is no desire to establish a fixed political or ideological position. While we may feel reassured by the artist’s interest in critical self-reflection, we may not be convinced this psycho-social narrative is persuasively articulated in the work. At the same time, identity politics is not essential to interpreting Lum’s work, though it may provide the least circuitous route to decoding his language.

A square white canvas overlaid with a scattered group of diminutive black and white photographic images of (apparently) sleeping homeless people in the street (entitled Sleep, all works 1992) may point to a specific type of sociopolitical reading. But if we are to follow the artist’s cue, then the painting might read instead as an index of Lum’s flâneur-like strolls through the urban spaces of Los Angeles and Vancouver, during which photography becomes an instrument of random accumulation, and through which categories or classes of images emerge. Yet just when an identifiable subject matter threatens to arise, qualities of abstraction intercede, as if to indicate a possible relationship between the artist’s apparent nomadic inquiry about social (self)identity and the use of the metaphor of “homelessness.”

In Flag, a painting from the same series (“Street Photo Paintings”), a similarly randomized method of composition, now featuring a group of flags (photographed in urban territories) that float over a white field, suggests a mapping of the flâneur’s gaze—each image an icon of momentary fixation. In reference to touristic activity, Lum’s Middle Aged Woman with Camera, from the “Question Painting” series, presents a series of questions—“Where has she visited so far?” “Is she a tourist?”—that hover above a black monochromatic expanse and represent “actual” queries that the artist might pose to a hypothetical stranger. And with those huge cushionlike objects propped up against the wall or corner (in particular, the pathetically comic plaid pillow that lay across the floor like a beached whale), an unusual symbolic space of psychological dislocation—a coolly detached, ambiguously communicative zone of individual and social alienation—found articulation.

Joshua Decter