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.
But underlying these specific social and political implications are a panoply of semiotic strategies — the inversions, mirroring, echoing and translations — that direct the viewer’s attention back on itself, giving the work an immediate and universal phenomenological wallop missing from more fundamentally didactic art.
“I am interested in craft,” explains the artist, “but it isn’t necessarily an interest in ‘textiles as a feminine endeavor.’ It’s something that implicitly gets worked into the read of it — which is fine — but my objective is really the idea of translation, the idea of translating something that was made as a sculptural thing from an image of it, of pulling it through a system back into being something made again. For me, these macramé pieces are a picture and an object at the same time, because the process of making it mimics the labor that goes into the original thing. But really it’s still just a picture, and it’s holding together by virtue of the paint soaking into the canvas. It’s a simultaneous flattening and dimensionalizing of the image.”
This complex play with representation is interesting enough when informing individual artworks, but as one begins to pay close attention to Ross-Ho’s larger body of work, similar strategies begin to emerge on a systemwide scale. The separate works in a given exhibit reveal themselves to be engaged in complex multivalent dialogue — between one another and the outside world, including the artist’s personal life. While Ross-Ho was preparing for the Whitney, her father became ill and needed her help to dislodge himself from his seriously cluttered three-story house. In the midst of this undertaking, she was approached to participate in a museum exhibit on the Chinese-American experience. Reluctant at first, Ross-Ho realized that she was waist-deep in the perfect multilayered response to this curatorial proposal, and a retrospective of her father’s artwork was presented as an Amanda Ross-Ho installation this summer at Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum.
Ross-Ho’s second solo exhibit at Cherry and Martin includes even more personal material — an across-the-board inversion of her previous appropriation of faux-autobiographical generic mass-media imagery. (In an earlier installation, she included a found magazine clipping of an Asian girl making an abstract-expressionist painting, which many mistook for a portrait of the artist as a young woman; the new show includes several commercial photos for which Ross-Ho was the actual child model.) There’s a new series of cutout black-silhouette paintings — this time mimicking the pegboard of her Whitney installation. The wall on which these were painted will form part of her installation for OCMA’s California Biennial later this summer.
The current show — titled “Half of What I Say Is Meaningless” — also reaches back in time to her previous installation in the same space, reinscribing the layout of her breakthrough 2007 show, “Nothin Fuckin Matters,” with works that mimic, invert, translate and fracture their predecessors.
“That’s kind of the big project in a way — to create something that isn’t just about physical dimensionality, but that has a temporal dimensionality.” This sounds like an implicit idea that underlies many artists’ oeuvres throughout history, but the best art often seems to make the obvious strange and new by simply foregrounding it. Has Amanda Ross-Ho’s three-year burst of looking-glass permutations unlocked a new dimension of art, or will she find herself locked in an increasingly self-referential loop? Or both? Only time will tell.
AMANDA ROSS-HO: HALF OF WHAT I SAY IS MEANINGLESS | Cherry and Martin | 12611 Venice Blvd., L.A. | (310) 398-7404 | Sept. 20 through Nov. 1