by David M. Roth
In 2001, an unknown commercial photographer named Michael Jang submitted a 40–year-old portfolio of prints that nobody except friends and family had ever seen to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The act wasn’t as audacious as it might seem. The museum’s photography department, then under the curatorial direction of Sandra Phillips, maintained a policy of reviewing portfolios from anyone who cared to submit them. Shortly after doing so, Jang received a call. Phillips wanted several prints for the museum’s permanent collection. Jang, who was well past the age at which art careers typically take flight, was elated. But that was only the beginning. Michael Jang’s California, an exhibition of these and other photos, on view at the McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through January 18, has elicited praise from publications across the spectrum, from Juxtapoz to The New Yorker. Its contents are packaged in an elegant doorstop of a volume, Who is Michael Jang?, published by Atelier Éditions, which contains a plethora worthy images that didn't make it into the exhibition.
The story behind this unlikely chain of events goes as follows. After earning a BA degree from Cal Arts in 1973 year and an MFA from SFAI in 1977, Jang, like many would-be artists, scrapped his early ambitions in favor of earning a living, and for the next four decades he gave little thought to the body of work he’d assembled as a student that forms the corpus of this exhibition — until, that is, he encountered Phillips, who pledged to do more than just purchase some prints. She decided, then and there, to champion his work as one of the first projects she’d undertake upon retiring from the museum. Fast forward to 2013 when the erstwhile (and much missed) San Francisco gallerist Stephen Wirtz, having caught wind of Phillips’ discovery, mounted a show called The Jangs, devoted to images that the 22-year-old photography student, in between semesters at Cal Arts, made of his uncle’s family in Pacifica, a suburban coastal enclave about 20 miles south of San Francisco. They form but one piece of this show, but they are, to my mind, the heart and soul of it, though hardly the sole points of interest.
The year was 1973, and change was afoot. Asian-Americans, like other minority groups, were battling for recognition and inclusion, and though they’d come further than most in achieving the American Dream, they were still, by and large, seen as an exotic subspecies by the white majority. I saw Jang’s effort as an attempt to correct those perceptions. Jang denies having any such intentions, and I have no reason to doubt him — works of art often express ideas that their makers didn’t intend or didn’t realize until after-the-fact.
As I wrote in my review of the Wirtz exhibition: “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.”
One that stands in memory to support this point, which was included the Wirtz exhibition, but not in this one, is called Kung Fu, Starring David Carradine. At the center is a Zenith TV
displaying, in plain view, the visage of the white actor portraying a Chinese martial arts expert who, aided by flashbacks to his master’s teachings, roams the Old West avenging wrongdoing. Though the image contains other things – a pair of caged rabbits, coke bottles on a windowsill, a shelf of paperbacks — the most crucial detail is the angle at which it was shot: it’s completely askew. Jang’s socio-political awareness may have been dim or dormant, yet it crept into practically everything he did during the period covered by this show. But it’s in these early images, The Jangs especially, that we see the most persuasive evidence how he absorbed the influence of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. Images from all three, drawn from the McEvoy Foundation’s holdings, are on display in the gallery’s front room as a reminder of where, formally and conceptually, Jang’s photos originated. The Jangs, in particular, show the artist gravitating instinctively to the offbeat and the strange as a means of making photos that elicit more questions than answers. What, for example, are we to make of that headless mannequin in Chris Skiing in the Living Room? The boy drinking a bottle of Dr. Pepper through a funnel while dad looks on through a window? The shot of a cousin staring at the camera with a plastic bag over his head? And why is Uncle Monroe practicing his golf swing in the dark?
We could be witnessing scenes from a latter-day Cabaret Voltaire. Or, looking at records of the sort Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel culled from government archives and assembled in a book (and touring exhibition) called Evidence (1977). Sultan and Mandel never contextualized the "evidence" they collected and neither, for all intents and purposes, did Jang. Which leaves us to wonder: Were these scenes orchestrated by the artist? Spontaneously enacted by those involved? Surreptitiously captured? We’ll never know. As Arbus once said: "A photo is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know."
At Cal Arts, Jang embarked on a variety of similarly inspired photographic adventures, one of which was shooting pictures of his classmates and their immediate environs. My favorite shot (available only in the exhibition catalog) shows a pair of trick-or-treaters seen through a screen door. Their mock-ghoulish visages occupy half the frame and echo the chintz patterning of drapes and a nearby chair seen in the other half, igniting an eerie dialog between innocence and menace that recalls Ralph Eugene Meatyard's photos. Or, consider the two bikini-clad women below wearing ape masks. It was taken, we are told,
at an event called Planet of the Apes Beauty Contest in Century City. Other pictures in the series depict the stoned-out antics of Jang’s cohorts at Cal Arts. A party scene (available only in the catalog) shows a woman hoisted overhead by a group of revelers. It’s a gleeful melee. In the middle, a man can be seen extending a hand. Look closely and you’ll see that he’s offering a slender object dotted with three circles of white powder. Between his thumb and index finger, you can also detect the burned-down nub of a joint. It’s a Blow-Up kind of moment, no magnification needed.
Jang, you discover as you move through the show, wasn’t just shooting what he knew. Upon learning that the Beverly Hilton regularly hosted celebrity events, the photographer forged press credentials to gain entry. He wound up rubbing elbows with the likes of David Bowie, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart and Rudy Vallee and many anonymous well-heeled strangers who he portrayed with the same kind of pitiless attention to telling detail that Robert Frank did when he crashed similar events. The ostentatious displays of wealth — that distinct brand of all-white Southern California privilege that you could still see in the waning years of the Nixon era — are on parade. Nuggets can be found in unguarded moments: Bowie signing autographs; Sinatra (pictured with Ronald Reagan and Milton Berle), aiming a ray of blue-eyed charm into Jang’s
lens; and a woman with a garish hairdo exiting a Rolls Royce are but a few of the choice images on view. Intimate takes such as these would be next to impossible to record in today's security-obsessed environment. They remind us of the days when photographic storytelling of this sort dominated news magazines and tabloids. Most have since perished, replaced, unsatisfactorily, by online media platforms where the onslaught of images is such that few pictures ever break through to embed themselves in the popular imagination. Jang’s, had he submitted them to any of those extant pubs, might have easily done so.
When he moved north to attend SFAI, Jang trained his lens on San Francisco streets, punk clubs and public events, and it was there that his journalistic moxie and skill at composing on the fly really coalesced, buttressing the unstated (but implied) notion, that, had he had pursued this kind of work full-time, he might have scaled the heights reached by his artistic forebears. His shot of onlookers at George Moscone’s funeral, dominated by an enormously fat man flanked at the right by two young girls dressed like identical twins, is pure Arbus. So is his shot of three men standing at urinals at the 1978 Hooker's Ball at the Cow Palace. One dons the plastic shell of a TV set for a mask, pushing what would otherwise be a banal image into surrealist territory.
Midway through the exhibition, we encounter a series called Summer Weather (1983). For Jang, it was just another money gig: making headshots of would-be weathercasters auditioning for a local TV station. Jang, however, turned it into a typological study, the results of which cover two walls, one of which contains three images enlarged to monumental scale for no apparent reason other than to create a cinematic impact. Apart from the diversity of characters who showed up, few, by themselves, stand out. But there is one I can’t resist mentioning. It’s a woman whose coiffure looks as if it was spun from cotton candy. It rests on her head at an angle, like a sculptural realization of a moving cold front.
A full third of the show is given over to large-scale images of garage bands and punk rock shows. The latter, while entirely competent, show us nothing we've not seen a million times before in the pages of Rolling Stone, whereas those of bands led by cohorts of Jang’s then-teenaged daughter open a window into a lesser-known milieu: that of upper-middle-class teenage wannabes, and the tension between the two carries this final leg of the show. The
former is, notably, the only part of the exhibition shot in color, and that jarring transition seems to magnify the differences between the poseurs and the professionals. Johnny Rotten serves as the literal poster child for the latter in what surely, for Jang, must have been an exercise in fandom, amplified and extended by vitrines filled with punk-era memorabilia that he had a hand in creating.
I left the show thinking Paul Simon had it wrong; it’s times like these when the world really does look better in black and white. I’ve since had other thoughts, most of which revolve around the differences between Jang’s photos and those made by the photographers who influenced him.
Take Arbus. Her subjects – social outcasts of all sorts — had few choices if they were to remain true to themselves; Jang’s kids, by contrast, really did have options, and the significance of that fact cannot be overstated. There’s also the radical empathy Arbus brought to image-making, a subject about which her writings say plenty and need not be recounted except to note that the sensitivity she brought to the photographer-subject relationship produced transcendent results, the likes of which have gone unequalled since her death in 1971. As for Winogrand and Friedlander, comparisons become relevant when we look at Jang’s street photos. Winogrand’s and Friedlander’s are puzzles out of which multiple narratives can be coaxed. They are records not only of extraordinary photographic seeing but of human relationships played out on city streets, New York's in particular. They are emblems of an era. Jang’s shots of California are, too, but they don't present nearly the same level of complexity – the stories at the center of his pictures represent pretty much all there is to see. Only a few demand that you patrol the margins for sub-narratives. That’s not to downgrade Jang’s considerable achievements, only to put the hoopla now surrounding him in perspective.
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“Michael Jang’s California” @ McEvoy Foundation for the Arts through January 18, 2020.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.