By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
There was something a little peculiar about the walls of Amanda Ross-Ho’s installation for the 2008 Whitney Biennial this past March. While most of the 80-some artists were provided with pristine white-cube spaces, Ross-Ho’s appeared to be surfaced with generic Home Depot pegboard — the off-the-shelf lumber you hang tools on. But, as they say, appearances can be deceiving. “A lot of people thought it was just pegboard, but it took six days of labor to lay out that foundation,” recalls the 33-year-old artist during a recent studio visit. “I was really adamant about it being something intimate, and literally invasive to the space. But also something subtle and delicate — we basically used pegboards as a template and drilled 100,000 holes around the space. It was incredibly labor-intensive.”
The artist’s ramshackle East-L.A. warehouse space oozes industry. “Some people didn’t even notice,” she adds about her Biennial installation. “Which is fine because for me it was about embedding the space with that energy. But for people to see it as just a backdrop — even though in reality it was a huge part of the installation — was an interesting flip. The thing that was most present, in a way, spoke the most softly.” These sorts of inversions are not uncommon in Ross-Ho’s work. In fact, they could be identified as some of the unifying conceptual underpinnings of an oeuvre that — on the surface — appears almost bewilderingly disparate.
I first encountered Ross-Ho’s work late in 2005 while she was a graduate student at USC’s increasingly influential Roski School of Fine Arts. I was trolling for talent for “State of Emergence” — the first L.A. Weekly Annual Biennial. Ross-Ho had just gotten back from showing in Beijing, where she had obscured a blown-up postcard of the Great Wall with spray-painted glyphs and perched a falcon-pattern kite atop a teetering skeletal wooden tower. Her spanking-new studio at USC contained a similarly weird mishmash of awkward art objects, found material and party debris. A shrinelike clutter of empty wine bottles, spray cans, paint jars and pinecones had accumulated along the floor at the bottom of a Day-Glo graffiti-style painting on an unstretched drop cloth; its densely layered abstract pictographs were bleeding through onto the supporting wall.
Eventually, she exhibited the excised support wall facing a reduced, light-box-mounted photo of the original painting.
“That was kind of an important one,” recalls Ross-Ho. “It was the first time that I used actual physical walls. It talked about all these things — peripheral space, residue, the indirect product — how the primary view defines the work while something more interesting happens on the edges or behind or the space outside that.”
The work that finally ended up in the Weekly show — an array of dazzling, puzzling cellophane-wrapped gift baskets containing not-quite-arbitrary arrangements of found items and studio detritus — similarly gave initial shape to concepts that have cropped up repeatedly in Ross-Ho’s subsequent work. The baskets’ unlikely, chance-friendly archetypal coherence and hermetic magpie inclusiveness functioned as metaphoric, microcosmic models of Ross-Ho’s own practice, and the very context in which they were being exhibited — a signature move that seems to have struck a nerve.
As the philosopher Jack Handy once advised, “If you ever discover that what you’re seeing is a play within a play, just slow down, take a deep breath and hold on for the ride of your life.” Ross-Ho’s combination of conceptual depth and virtuosic formal instincts — albeit using deliberately trashy post-slacker materials, and with the referential reverb turned up to 11 — has fueled a meteoric art-world ascent that has kept her in the state she luckily seems to find most productive: breathlessness.
This may be attributed, at least in part, to the figure skating. Born in Chicago to a Chinese-American painter dad and Italian-American photographer mom (now a conservation ecologist), Ross-Ho was a disciplined “ice ballet” competitor from age 5 to 17 — rising daily at 5 a.m. to explore the boundary between formal mathematical precision and physical self-expression, compulsory figures and free skating.
“I think that’s where the idea of a practice literally developed in my brain, because it was six-days-a-week training, before and after school. And it’s not as goal-oriented as it seems. We skated in shows and in competitions, but really it was about working every day at this thing. And I think that really sunk into my brain.”
Labor is an essential component — and subject matter — of Ross-Ho’s art. Her most widely recognized pieces have been her series of greatly enlarged cutout black-silhouette paintings of doilies and decorative macramé patterns, which have — not unfairly — been received as 21st-century reincarnations of ’70s feminist-art tropes. But previous to that layer of meaning are several others: Gender prejudice is definitively a subform of class prejudice — gift baskets, doilies, macramé and figure skating are all class “tells” (in the poker, show-your-hand sense) — and Ross-Ho’s work is, in addition to its other selling points, “beyond the Palin”T in abstract, working-class identification.
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