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Category Archives: painting & photography

hpgrp-gallery-more-than-a-woman

I am fortunate to have really talented friends. Becky and I have been friends since college. I consider myself lucky to have been able to witness the development of her photography commercially and artistically from before her Tokyo days or as she once put it: “In college, when we used to just hang a bed sheet and pose.”

Becky Yee’s first solo show in the US, More Than a Woman at the hpgrp gallery closed over the weekend. If you were not able to make it to the show, there is a limited edition companion book available through the gallery. Its hard glossy flesh colored cover that works well as an extension of the show and subject matter.

Using Cindy Sherman’s theatrics and Diane Arbus’ flair for the fringe as my markers, Becky deftly applies their visual signatures to the photos that form the content of More Than a Woman. As Robert Shuster of the Village Voice describes it:

Somewhere between photojournalism and a fashion shoot, Yee’s softly lit images play up the erotic fantasy, but also hint at misogyny. The unmarried engineer—so dedicated to his rubber harem that he wears a wedding ring—assumes various poses with his vixens, sexual and pathetically tender… all this might have been exploitative kitsch, but Yee’s smart eye turns it into an artful creep show.

Cameron Shaw of Art Forum writes:

Each successive image elucidates the complex interaction of man and surrogate…  An unexpected tenderness emerges; the juxtaposition of real and synthetic flesh proposes that intimacy is a condition of the free mind, predicated on trust and dependability. The bête noire on display is not sexual perversion, but fear. To negate the possibility of rejection, Yee’s subject is willing to sacrifice arguably the most crucial aspect of his humanity—social improvisation.

I prefer Shaw’s description because it substitutes leading words like erotic, misogyny, dedicated, vixens, and pathetically with more probing words like interaction and juxtaposition.

As quoted in the back of her book, Becky’s intention was not to :

assert my personal judgement of any kind, but rather to frame questions. These shocking and intriguing images evoke complex emotions in me. I never thought a moment so pure, full of intimacy and tenderness could be so disturbing.

The show as an isolated event is creditworthy. The photographs are well framed and well crafted to create a relationship between subject and viewer that extends beyond the superficial curiosity of the fetish of Dutch Wives. As Shuster notes: “all this might have been exploitative kitsch, but Yee’s smart eye turns it into an artful creep show.” (though I don’t know that I would’ve called it a “creep show.”)

The show as a part of a larger social scope invites some deeper questions into our social psyche and our fascination with dolls. Regardless of whether it was planned or whether it was just incidental, the show’s occurrence during the celebration of Barbie’s 50th birthday adds a new layer of meaning to More Than a Woman.

But before that questions like:

He wears a wedding ring and states he is married when asked. Do his wives wear rings also? The social understanding of weddings is of a union where the ring symbolizes the bond.

The assumption is that he “customizes” his wives to suit his mood or his immediate needs. How many different combinations of heads, limbs, and bodies has he created so far? Can we assume that certain dolls are used for certain moods? What occurs if he is in a combative or bad mood?

Are his wives “alive” in that they have names and personalities? If he claims to have the largest collection of Dutch wives, does he consider himself a “collector”? A collector catalogues. How does he “catalogue” his wives?

Finally, does he take pictures of himself and his wives or his wives alone? Everyone has taken a “family” snapshot or has posed for one. What does his family snapshot look like? (by “family” I am referring to the one created when he married his wives.)

I feel more disturbing than the world that Becky has portrayed for us, are the resulting questions that beg contemplation. In his isolation as the only human flesh and blood participant in the relationship Becky depicts, this nameless, faceless engineer (as a product of society) himself depicts an interesting allegorical story of us (as the mainstream population at large).

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I am in Salt Lake City, Utah for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conference. One of the things that drew me out here was an announcement that Malcolm Gladwell would be speaking at the conference’s opening ceremony.

I was not disappointed.

I have read (or read most of) his books, The Tipping Point and Blink. I found their subject matter engaging and approachable. Gladwell’s writing is effective in presenting sophisticated ideas and relationships in a casual conversational tone that potentially challenges readers without insulting them. My criticism of his books has been that at times it seems the “conversation” goes too long which lessens the impact of his conclusions.

He introduced a new theory he called the “Time Price of Art” (at least I think that’s what he called it). It is the correlation between the age of an artist and the monetary value/ critical acclamation of his work. For example, Picasso achieved his most valued pieces in his 20s where Cezanne did not achieve his most valued pieces until his 60s. Gladwell went on to the Eagles in comparison to Fleetwood Mac, and Orson Welles in comparison to Alfred Hitchcock. He asserted that the former saw success much earlier than the latter.

Though he did not come out and say so, he hinted that the latter is the more effective approach when it came to education. He said we were seeking classrooms of Picassos where we should be cultivating Cezannes. The former representing a single and immediate “genius.” The latter representing persistence and hard work.

A study conducted by a Michigan professor found most US students did not finish the exhaustive survey that accompanies the TIMSS report while most Asian students did. Gladwell attributed this to an essential difference in attitude among the two groups of students.

It is not aptitude but attitude that holds US students back. Gladwell proposed that US students see math learning as something magical or unique; either you are born with it or you’re not. He proposed that Asian students see math as a series of problems that must be overcome. I think of the story of the Little Engine Who Could. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the Little Engine chugged on and on and eventually succeeded.

It’s reminiscent of the Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes, where the fox does not want the grapes any longer because they are too far out of reach. As Gladwell put it: Because it’s hard to do.

While he was unable to offer any practical suggestions for changing current attitudes about how we as a nation think about learning, he made a convincing argument for the change. When asked what he would suggest for change, he said he didn’t know enough about education to offer any valid suggestions but that perhaps a paradigm shift was needed regarding how students learn.

Gladwell’s new book is due out in November.