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Michael Jang @ Stephen Wirtz

Study Hall, 1973, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14"

 

Is Michael Jang the greatest living Bay Area photographer you’ve never heard of?  I’m betting he is.  Like many artists, Jang, 61, made commercial work to earn a living while quietly pursuing art. He never intended to show it.  A soft-spoken, unassuming man, he found galleries off-putting. That, apparently, has changed.   Earlier this year, SFMOMA, which acquired a trove of his photos, placed two images from his paparazzi series, Banquet Crasher, on view next to photos by Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.  Both influenced Jang while he was earning BFA and MFA degrees at Cal Arts and SFAI in the 1970s.  Like them, Jang has a knack for framing decisive moments packed with details that make you look and keep on looking.   

This show, The Jangs, is an intimate family profile made in 1973 while he was enrolled in an SF State workshop taught by Lisette Model, Diane Arbus’ teacher.  The 30 black-and-white prints on view detail Jang’s aunt, uncle and cousins in their suburban cocoon: watching TV, eating, goofing, exercising and lounging amongst telling period artifacts. At a time when America’s leading street photographers were depicting a culture at war with itself, Jang’s views of life in the upscale SF suburb of Pacifica cut against the grain.  They could be stills from a cheery sit-com about Chinese-Americans.  Portraits of assimilation and success, these pictures smash whatever stereotypes might have then existed.

Chris in Record Store, 1973, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14"

While the Westernization of China and Chinese culture is today a fact, it wasn’t back then.  So when we see Jang’s uncle wearing a visor and cowboy boots; the family posed in dark glasses as Devo fans; his young cousin standing before a wall of football posters or iconic ‘70s LPs, we know we’re no longer in Chinatown.  Jang maintains that he made these pictures as casual snapshots, with no documentary intentions, and I believe him.  But we also know that artistic choices aren’t always conscious acts. Why, for example, did Jang make a picture of David Carradine in his Kung Fu role staring out from a TV screen in the Jang's living room?  My guess: The appearance of this faux-Asian screen star signaled a pivotal moment in the mainstreaming of Asian culture in the U.S., and Jang clearly recognized it.  Evidence of actual Chinese culture in the series is similarly scant; it is confined to exactly one image: of a disembodied hand pointing to a rice cooker, then an exotic item in American households.   It’s an anomaly within the series, but it doesn’t dilute Jang’s essential message, which is: These are Americans, no hyphenation required. 

 
The lasting impression of them is of normalcy and genuine familial warmth.  At Home with the Jangs, a signature shot, shows the family relaxing in their living room, each person engaged in separate activities yet connected.  They exhibit none the alienation you’d expect from pictures taken in an era when generational warfare was the norm.  The teenaged daughter sprawls on a shaggy beanbag, happily yakking on the phone within audible distance of her parents.  They sit nearby, absorbed in books.  Her younger brother, a few feet away, lays on an air mattress, staring at something outside the frame.  A basset hound in foreground completes the scene.  Moments like these practically make voyeurism feel like a wholesome activity.  
 
Chris Skiing in the Living Room, 1973, gelatin silver print

Still, Jang’s photos contain enough weird ticks to push them into Winogrand-Friedlander territory.  What, for example, can we make of that headless “body” in Chris Skiing in the Living Room?  Clothing minus the mannequin?  It’s a possibility since the family owned a chain of leather goods stores. But what about the one of the boy drinking a bottle of Dr. Pepper through a funnel while dad looks on through a window?  And why is Uncle Monroe practicing his golf swing in the dark?  They’re outliers in this series, but within Jang’s oeuvre they are emblematic. 

Three books of his work, two of which are on view at the gallery, prove it.  College is one of the best ‘70s counterculture documents you’ll lay eyes on, and his paparazzi photos, made by infiltrating celebrity events in LA with a fake press pass, aren’t far behind.  The same goes for his punk rock series, Garage Band, created when the artist was far too old to be hanging out with teenagers.   As I left the gallery, Renny Pritikin’s line – “Why isn’t this guy famous?” – about the artist Tony May — ran through my head.  Why, Indeed?  
 
For an enterprising curator, a Michael Jang retrospective would be to a photo exhibition what a slow-moving pitch is to baseball: an easy homerun. 
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Michael Jang,“The Jangs” @ Stephen Wirtz Gallery through July 13, 2013.

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