Yee Jan Bao

Betsy Rosenfield Gallery

Yee Jan Bao’s syrupy paintings of vintage automobiles are amiable send-ups of a centerpiece of American cultural mythology. He cleverly underlines what are already poignant tendencies in the auto industry—the manner in which a new car is packaged and presented. Like a fresh and pure beloved, it is full of the promise of personal freedom and the open road, of endlessly renewable possibilities. Bao plays off the standard presentation of new cars in advertising campaigns—that tantalizing, low-angled view of both front (or rear) and side views of the auto, as if it were shyly exhibiting its charms. Bao then cuts to the chase, glossing over the minor stylistic differences between each model, concentrating instead on its core mythos, its caricatured signature by which it is best known and most revered. He reduces to intensify, and in his hands his various Thunderbirds, Corvettes, Rivieras, Landaus, and Bel Airs become both nostalgic and iconic.

This is more an act of recognition than an exercise in parody. Bao sees these historic automobiles as a charmed confluence of desire, expectation, and fulfillment, as objects that possess a come-hither-and-drive-me seduction that promises unabated delight. With numerous small adjustments—tires become dreamy and puffy donuts, the autos are ethereal and cast no shadows, colors get heightened to impossible (but really keen) shades like cinnamon, aqua, and butterscotch, and little planets and satellites often orbit nearby in dizzying fashion—Bao approaches his subjects with a tender humor. The taillights and bumper in Detroit (1968 Buick Riviera), 1994, are slightly adjusted in order to present a sleek and winsome face to the viewer. Bao clearly anthropomorphizes these machines, or, rather, he manages to accentuate the tendencies already inherent in having cars obliquely echo humans. The car as an extension and reflection of the fantasies and concerns of the person who first covets and then possesses it is of primary concern to both Detroit and Bao. Bao uses his art to mimic the collapse of difference between the consumer and the consumed.

Pasadena (1960 Ford Thunderbird), 1993, also evokes the voracious escapist symbology of the American road, the kind of lissome Route-66 anthem of freedom that is just a fill-up away. Here too, color—the brilliant cherry-red of the Thunderbird set off against the pale gray of its background—heightens the drama, and sets up another arena of pictorial pleasure. While Bao reduces tangential design details in his cars, he accentuates and intensifies their chrome, and his smallish paintings are powerful and glossy candy-colored conveyors of great formal beauty. Somewhere between a gentle lampoon and an affectionate poke in the ribs, Bao’s enterprise tenderly mocks strategies within the history of American technology and marketing to expose the frailties he has uncovered at the heart of desire.

James Yood