New York

Ken Lum

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Published in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas was the ultimate postmodern (or antimodern) document, as it showed how, in North America at least, buildings were often subsidiary to road signs; architecture was, in essence, secondary to advertising. Ken Lum’s latest work doesn’t reference that canonical book specifically, but it radiates from the same center: The artist also examines the convergence of the political, historical, and everyday through the commercial-strip business sign with “adjustable type” (used in Vegas to advertise performers and everywhere else to announce sales, birthdays, and weddings, welcome conventioneers, and congratulate local sports teams).

But rather than go out and photograph found business signs, as Venturi et al. did, Lum created his own. Constructed of lacquered aluminum, his marquees aren’t as flashy as those in Vegas (which once featured ads for Flip Wilson, Ben Vereen, and the New Chnsty Minstrels and now constitute full-scale Spielbergian roadside spectacle). Instead they are based on the signs you’d find along any commercial strip, advertising local businesses like beauty salons, shoe repair shops, and financial consultants. The twist is that Lum infused his placards with narrative, humor, and tragedy, showing how signs in today’s car culture function as intersections of the public and private realms.

Lum’s fictional small-business owners move quickly past the banality of business to bigger topics: geopolitics, racism, sexuality, privacy. The proprietors of “Hanoi Travel” offer “Disneyland Packages” but also advise the viewer to “Remember the people’s war”; “Danny’s Shoe Re-Nu” begs us to “Help free Leonard Pelltier”; “Ebony Eyes” beauty salon advertises a “bonus manicure with facial” and touts “All power to the people!” while the proprietor of “McGill & Sons Paper and Printing” informs his “valued customers” that “My son is no longer my son.” “Grace Chung Financial” claims “expertise you can trust,” but the lower half of the sign reads like a chilling fragment of free verse: “Please leave / my family alone / whoever you are / deal with me.”

From Lum’s earliest work, the foggy terrain between public and private has been his special territory. In the mid-’80s he began producing photographs with panels of text that functioned like comic-strip thought bubbles, revealing a subject’s silent musings. Subsequent projects included portraits of big families and mirrors decorated with snapshots, illuminating the casual yet significant role photographs play in ordinary people’s lives. As is the case with fellow Vancouver artists Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham, psychology and drama in everyday life are mainstays in Lum’s work. But he expands on the Twin Peaks–style menace of Wall’s predominantly white subjects, expressing the range of ethnic diversity in North America and the stretching of alliances across the globe: No one is immune from the alienation of contemporary culture, and no international conflict is ever too far from home.

These signs mark the first time Lum has not relied on images of people in his work, but the voices and presence of his fictional speakers are keenly felt. Indeed, what is different here is that rather than use photography as a surrogate for tapping internal terrain, Lum goes right to the source, exploring the contemporary compulsion to express oneself to no one in particular. North American street signs, Lum suggests, serve as a kind of Fourth Amendment forum: To be a true American (or Canadian) is to be out there publicly airing private grievances like daytime talk-show guests. His subjects may be fictional, but what they say provides a dramatized yet subtly nuanced vision of the contemporary commercialized landscape.

Martha Schwendener