Oregonian, January 17, 2003
In any message, it's all in the spin – even in the world of visual art.Take, for example, the work of two talented New York-based artists, Heidi Cody and Su-en Wong.
Cody and Wong have exhibits at Savage this month casting their coolly pointed artistic gazes at two different worlds – capitalism and the oil industry for Cody, the objectification of women for Wong. Unfortunately, for both the glossy spin of their work is more dazzle than substance, subverting the works' intended deeper meanings.
The artists have shown previously in Portland: Wong two years ago at Savage, and Cody at the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Feldman Gallery nearly a year ago.
Cody's exhbition, called "No Purchase Necessary," was a series of light box installations and fabrications that tweaked the commercial spirit of Andy Warhol. Each sleek Plexiglas light box illuminated the initial letter from a retail product's glossy packaging, creating a halogenous alphabet that turned the gallery in to a radiating room of warm colors. With it's slyly mocking attitude, the show was a spirited sendup of commercial packaging, a playful reminder of how marketing has been elevated to an art form.
Her current show, "Big Business," narrows its focus to the United States' oil companies. Cody once again amps up the voltage on those lighted boxes, this time pilfering not letters but partial symbols from the logos of Union 76, Shell, Conoco and Phillips Petroleum, among others. Presented in fragments that are not immediately recognizable, the logos' slick, bright chevrons and and partially winding lines, planes and curves are reminiscent of the kind of hard-edged abstractions and stand-alone shapes made famous by Ellsworth Kelly in the 50's and 60's.
But unlike Cody's previous work with its deft, light touch, here her critique of capitalism and the oil business is more enigmatic. Whereas "No Purchase Necessary" talked to the viewer – the show's open ended title symbolized its less forceful hand – "Big Business" talks like the guy at the bar generalizing about the world's problems. It's easy to paint big oil companies as entities of evil in these environmentally friendly days. But Cody has offered no context for such condemnation other than that they make money. The knee-jerk stab is all the more disappointing given the wit of "No Purchase." The beauty of the fantastic looking light boxes, however, nearly redeems the show's obtuseness.
Similarly, the deeper aspirations of Wong's show run aground. Born in Singapore and educated in the United States, the artist has turned heads for her provocative self-portraits that tackle such explosive isues as gender clichés and the stereotyping of Asian women.
Wong's unsettling strategy is to portray herself as the lone subject in weird, fetishistic sexual poses. Starkly returning her gaze back to the viewer, she's a little girl one minute, a sex-kittenish woman in the next, waiting to be scrutinized. It's a game of power between viewer and subject to see who will blink first.
In the current Savage show, Wong once again presents herself in lush, theatrical settings where it isn't clear whether she's the dominated or the dominator. In the combination painting/drawing, figure-ground compositions, seas of deep blue, purple, pink and green set the scene for the artists' sexual doppelgangers. She's salaciously lounging by a watering hole, straddling long poles like a stripper at a club or sitting coyly atop a many layered cake. Whether pigtailed or with a chic bob, Wong is almost always, of course, in the nude.
Technically, it's exquisite work – the stark, monochromatic color fields create a somber background that highlights the perverse fantasies that are ambivalently presented as both the artist's and those of the men who frequent bars and porn sites. Ultimatedly, the artist lures us in, the chides us for letting her do so. In a culture that sometimes relishes its gratuitousness, that may be a thrilling way to win an audience, but it also seems more than a tad disingenuous.
Nevertheless, Wong's balancing act is working. The artist, who is representd by high-profile New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch, is a rising artist on the East Coast – and her second show at Savage intimates that Portland appearances in the nude might become a regular occurence.