Then and Again: The Perennial Present and Deep Reflection of Ken Lum

Ken Lum, Anna May Wong, 2021. Canon LED curable inks, mirror, aluminum 54 x 54 in.

Ken Lum

Magenta Plains

149 Canal Street

September 17 through October 15, 2022 

&

Ken Lum: Death and Furniture

Art Gallery of Ontario

June 25, 2022 through January 2, 2023

&

Ken Lum

Art Toronto

October 27 through 30, 2022

By STEPHEN WOZNIAK, September 2022

“Learning to live ought to mean learning to die - to acknowledge, to accept an absolute mortality.”  

“I speak only one language, and it is not my own.” 

“We are all mediators, translators.” 

“Peace is only possible when one of the warring sides takes the first step, the hazardous initiative, the risk of opening up dialogue, and decides to make the gesture that will lead not only to an armistice, but to peace.”

– Jacques Derrida

One too many Derrida quotes? Perhaps, but postmodern French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s influence on artist Ken Lum is unmistakable. And these blunt passages make plain what Lum’s art often shows his audiences. It’s all – or at least often – about the critical deconstruction and phenomenology. If you see the work, you’ll know what I mean. You can, if you step into the three new Ken Lum exhibitions now on view.

Lum’s new solo art exhibition at Magenta Plains gallery in New York City presents nine recent works that address perennial, present-tense concerns of the artist — from racist, pop cultural identity to the despair of unemployment and to our eventual death, of course. Unlike some work of other notable conceptual and minimal artists over the decades that present austere, unitary, patterned text and objects that test viewer attention about space, time and sense perception, Lum’s work helps us additionally focus on our cultural, social and personal perceptions, which is a dire need in light of recently renewed international unrest.  

I interviewed Lum in May for his Remai Modern Museum Death and Furniture solo retrospective in Canada (Ken Lum Interview Podcast) and talked with him again in late August about the intersection between life and the artifacts we create to mark our path, stake our claim and essentially brace ourselves for this oblique world.

Clearly, Lum wants us to pay attention: to look, to review our gaze and check ourselves. The large-scale, mirrored works included in his new exhibition perform just this task with some help from the viewer. “Anna May Wong,” featuring a still image of the often-stereotyped, eponymous silent film actress, depicts her squarely facing us, though looking just off to the side to avert our stare. When we see ourselves in this very mirror, we’re reminded of our regard for, and contribution to, her identity and our acceptance of a movie character, but denial of the actual person who played her. Like the famous feminist Carol Hanisch’s rallying slogan, “The Personal is the Political,” this and other works here start with seemingly smaller, single-character personal (re)views that point to larger problems of systemic racism, widespread economic failure, endemic warfare and the preponderance of institutional power.  

In another mirror piece, “Little Big Horn,” which alludes to the triumphant 19th century Sioux and Cheyenne battle against Colonel Custer’s army, a remarkably peaceful, grass-covered plain peppered with a few ramshackle homes in the distance is shown. With our reflection in the sky above the field image, we might ask “what happened, when and what’s left,” but certainly not without reviewing our complicity or understanding of the events and space in which it unfolded.

While Lum recognizes that the medium sends the message, he’s also interested in the space his individual art objects occupy. 

I’m always interested in multiple spaces, how works of art are sited and how they are expected to perform, which is somewhat different, according to different spaces. The three I’m interested in are: the private space of an individual, which could be a private art collector; the spaces of museums, which are private spaces, even though they function as semi-public spaces; and public spaces,” Lum explained. “Museums seem private and often look denatured; they don’t have sociality, in a sense. Just clean white walls. They’ve been scrubbed of any interference.” 

I asked if he wanted to change that convention – since his art regularly exhibits in museums and large commercial galleries – and does he think about his work as discrete objects or grouped installations.  

I like hovering somewhere in between. I like discrete objects in the sense that I think the autonomy of a work of art – an old modernist term – is important because that gives it a perimeter of the intended meaning. At the same time, that containment acts in the service of its relationship to the social world beyond the gallery,” Lum told me. 

He’s not interested in the closure or the distance between what’s classed as non-art and art. He genuinely likes the distinction of each category, but also the momentary confusion viewers experience regarding the identity of what they see on a wall. So long as there is no default “this is art” category that registers with audiences, he’s happy. “I hope what I present is more interesting,” Lum said. 

Two other works in the show, the large-scale text-and-photo “They Have No Idea How Much I Work” and “I Lost My Job,” unequivocally ask us to pay attention to the human subjects featured and their bare interior revelations that occupy equal space on the picture plane. Both the African American mother and elder European American man in the pieces are depicted in pleasant outdoor public park settings, each with a child and dog, respectively. This helps us to recognize them as whole humans who can and should deserve a break from the hard knocks of life, but who are also depended upon by others they care for and love, putting them in a quandary. In some circles, because of the early genesis of these works in the 1980s before the Internet, Lum is known affectionately as the “Godfather of Memes,” something he concedes today. While rich and complex, his work is also as direct as a poignant, witty scroll stop on Instagram.

Lum’s Necrology series, works of which I had seen at Royale Projects in Los Angeles, and now showing in the Art Gallery of Ontario retrospective, sort of act as epitaphs or highlight obituaries for primarily tireless workaday world laborers. With Lum, who writes all the original text, we get more. In the piece “Life as a Keypunch Operator,” there’s mention of essential family love, but also preparation of the subject for entry into a thankless lifetime employment role. It’s funny that these pieces feature numerous, and wildly different, font styles, which remind me of Old West outlaw wanted posters. It’s as if these humble servants have been elevated to a fleeting, desirable, but problematic “wanted” position preserved in an oversized recorded paper summary. 

Ken Lum, Life as a Keypunch Operator, 2016. Archival ink on Hanhemuhle Photo Rag Ultra Smooth paper mounted on 3mm dibond framed in powder coated aluminum, 76 x 44 in. 

Lum, it turns out, was initially struck by a recent faithful reproduction of an April 15, 1865 President Lincoln assassination newspaper cover story featuring Lincoln’s life highlights, in which each appear as their own competing “mini- headline” written in “florid language.” To Lum, it piqued his interest in the flux between “pictorialism and textuality,” but also the replacement of picture for text that he hopes will help reinvigorate how we actively see and imagine, since our brains are almost continuously overloaded with electronic imagery that we don’t generate daily.

Lum and I talked ceaselessly about art, his work in Monument Lab, family and summer vacations, his fantastic New York gallery, his day job as a professor at University of Pennsylvania – and about history.  

I asked him about his interest in the hidden history of the 1871 Los Angeles Chinese Massacre, which was led by both whites and Latinos for revenge of a death that resulted from Chinese gang conflict. The American massacre was marked as the single highest number of lynchings in one event. Lum has written a motion picture screenplay about it he hopes to get produced. Official notice of the tragedy has increased recently and Lum is going to submit a proposal to the city for a public memorial honoring the victims – offering a symbol of new beginnings to hopefully, and rightly, supplant the many statues of questionable leaders slowly being dismantled worldwide.  

All of this shows Lum’s interest in refocusing our perceptions, discovering our common experience and living in the present, even though much of his uncanny and sometimes ironic work draws on a deep and mired past and even though it’s his sincere intent to contribute to what amounts to new history. He cares about what’s right in front of him.  

To wrap up our interview, I sent him a quick text message. “What is your ultimate goal as an artist: to present polemics, engage disenfranchised masses, reflect deception, and generate peace – or something else altogether? If you had your druthers, what do you want in the life you've chosen and manifested?” 

In pure Ken Lum style, he quickly sent me this simple sincere text, “To leave the world with my voice through my art. For others to think about my complexities after taking in my art. I want to live as long as my children live, so that I can fully take in their lives.”

While I’m sure we’ll have Lum and his remarkable works around for years, hopefully, his children and the generations to come will live long past his stay on Earth and carry his fundamental present tense intent with them.  

Ken Lum’s work is on view at Magenta Plains from September 17 – October 15 and the Art Gallery of Ontario until January 2, 2023. His work will also be represented by Royale Projects at Art Toronto from October 27 – 30. WM

 

Stephen Wozniak

Stephen Wozniak is a professional fine artist, writer and motion picture actor based in Los Angeles, California. He earned a B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University. To learn more go to: www.stephenwozniakart.com and www.stephenwozniak.com. Follow on  Instagram.

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