Jow: A California Minute
Marine Contemporary, Venice
September 10 to October 15, 2011
Jow’s recent exhibit at Marine Contemporary made this gallery an inviting stop along the rambling trajectory of Pacific Standard Time (PST), the current collaboration of more than 60 regional cultural institutions exploring the history of art in Southern California from 1945 to 1980. In this new series, Jow playfully transforms California’s lyrical legacy into engaging visual imagery. The artist has used the words from popular songs about California as a point of departure for a series of paintings that appear abstract on one level, while paradoxically representing words. With a subtle touch, Jow has translated the lyrics into the precision dots and dashes of Morse Code, arranged in varied patterns. While the dots and dashes may have literal meaning, they assume their own graphic significance in carefully defined rows and different sizes - transcending the connotations of the words themselves.
Viewed together, this is a tightly connected series of abstract black and white images. There are eight paintings - acrylic and polyurethane on panels - all of them 36 X 48 inches in size. Each Morse code painting represents a different song, many of which came from the same time frame being celebrated by P.S.T. Individually, the paintings stand alone, have distinct merit; but seen together, they offer an indication of how the artist developed her theme from varied angles.
In California Nights, adapted from the 1967 Lesley Gore song, pristine white dots and dashes appear on the black background of nighttime. The coat of polyurethane gives the painting a lacquered finish, making the surface reflective. Beyond the hidden layers of the words beneath the symbols, deep inside the darkness, you can see your own shape and the colors of the room reflected in the glossy black, adding yet another dimension to the image. In her rendition of California Dreamin’, taken from the 1965 song by the Mamas & the Papas, she develops the concept further. Here, most of the dots and dashes are black, so they are subsumed into the dark background. We still see their shapes, slightly raised above the surface of the panel, while the white dots and dashes are flat, forming a pattern, as Jow manipulates the code to fit her own agenda. Reflected on the surface, is the silhouette of anyone gazing, along with a miniature of California Nights - the painting on the opposite wall.
In California, (Joni Mitchell, 1970), Jow flips the switch. Black dots and dashes pop out of a white background. Some of the symbols go off the edge of the frame, half dots and three quarter dots, waxing and waning. At the bottom of the panel, the shapes are larger and more widely spaced apart. California Soul (5th Dimension, Marlena Shaw, 1968) takes yet another twist. Raised white dots and dashes are barely discerned on a white background. Alone on the bottom right, three back dots and dashes emerge - meaning CA, the abbreviation for California.
Jow became interested in Morse code for its ability to communicate language, its sense of nostalgia, and its graphic qualities – which are reminiscent of the work of Minimalist artists. Although not derivative, this series echoes something of Cy Twombly’s exploration of visual language. Trained as a cryptographer by the U.S. Army in the 1950s, Twombly integrated codes and symbols in his art, sometimes giving it the effect of calligraphy. A contemporary of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Twombly died earlier this year at the age of 83.
On first entering the gallery, Jow’s bright yellow neon sculpture, A Golden State of Mind, set a lighthearted tone for the show. As a counterpart to the Morse Code paintings, mounted along the back wall was a collection of her witty drawings on vintage California letterhead. Among these, SuperCali, is a hand drawn outline of a California map on vintage paper from the Beverly Hills Hotel and Bungalows. Arrows indicate “super” spots of interest, starting in the northwest with “super trees”, to a location a little further south and inland, “super winos,” and much further south, where arrows point out hot spots like: “super stars,” “super sized,” and “super tanned.” In Super Cali II, rendered in ink on pencil crayon on vintage letterhead, Jow plays with song lyrics once again:â€¨
Born in Vancouver, Jow studied fine arts at Capilano College and the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design before relocating to the United States. A California Minute is her solo debut at Marine Contemporary. From the point of view of another Canadian expatriate who has spent a few rainy winters in Vancouver, it’s not difficult to understand how Jow could be infatuated with sunny California - enough to embrace it as an absorbing theme for her artistic exploration.
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
view all articles from this author