New York

Patty Chang

Jack Tilton Gallery

Since graduating from the University of California at San Diego in 1994, Patty Chang has been a regular on New York’s performance circuit, plying her distinctive brand of ’60s-style body art meets ’90s riot-grrrl feminism in such venues as P.S. 122 and the Clit Club and garnering particular praise for Alter Ergo, first seen in Exit Art’s 1997 showcase of emerging performance artists, “Terra Bomba.”

Chang revived Alter Ergo in this debut solo show, which, along with videotapes and large-scale color photographs, included a series of live performances held in the gallery’s back room. Recalling Chris Burden’s durational works, Alter Ergo had Chang standing stock-still for hours at a stretch, her mouth clamped open by a piece of dental equipment and crammed with peppermint candies. A pale-pink string of saliva leaked down her starched white shirt and tailored gray suit. Chang’s forced ingestion and involuntary release of sugary sweets lent a grim reality to such good-girl aphorisms as “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” The equation of her prim secretarial attire to an oppressive straitjacket was rendered similarly literal by thread that stitched her jacket’s sleeves to its bodice and her pantyhosed legs to one another.

Apart from Burden, perhaps the most relevant reference point for Chang is Hannah Wilke. Like Wilke’s efforts, Chang’s work is characterized by its brash confrontation of female stereotypes, its attention to the metaphoric and erotic implications of foodstuffs (Wilke often worked with chocolate, chewing gum, and fortune cookies; Chang favors melons, candy, and eggs), and above all its insistence—borne out in the use of performance—that societal norms are not abstractions but the lived experience of the bodies they mark. Chang also follows Wilke’s lead in the production of staged photographs (taken by David Kelley) that, while based on performances, do not have the status of direct documentation. Bruce Nauman is another obvious precedent, but Chang more fully shares Wilke’s exploitation of the tension between the temporality inherent in performance and the arrested motion specific to photography for the manifestly feminist purpose of addressing the process of self-objectification—of how women produce themselves as objects to be visually consumed.

If Chang’s photographs repeat the strategies and concerns of an already well-established feminist trajectory extending back to Cindy Sherman, Francesca Woodman, and to an extent even Claude Cahun, they manage to give this tradition a more current edge. Candies, 1998, the still-image corollary to Alter Ergo, shows Chang’s ambiguously pried-open mouth and stiffly bound but elegantly clad body against a stark white background, resembling nothing so much as a United Colors of Benetton ad. Like that campaign, Chang’s photograph plays the physical irreducibility of race off the leveling homogeneity of mass-produced fashion and converts the reality of the individual consumer’s relative powerlessness into an appealingly diffuse “sex sells” brand of sadomasochism. Chang’s use of highspeed film and Cibachrome prints gives the images a razor sharp, bug-trapped-in-amber resolution that both references the super-slick production values of contemporary advertising and heightens the fetishistic effects of photography.

But, as with Wilke and so many others, Chang’s ironic embrace of the codes of cultural and sexual oppression, however deft, runs the perpetual risk of lapsing into a purely mimetic exercise. As Linda Nochlin observed in a recent review of the book Women in Dada, “Self-objectification and active agency are hard to juggle.” That the stakes and strategies of feminine self-empowerment should remain so fundamentally unchanged after more than seventy years is another less-than-welcome instance of repetition.

Margaret Sundell