Shotgun Review

The Jangs

By Shotgun Reviews June 13, 2013

Created during the era that produced shag carpets, bead curtains, and polyester suits, The Jangs allows a deliciously voyeuristic look into a Bay Area home in 1973. The California-based photographer Michael Jang made these black-and-white photographs as a young student intrigued by documentary photographers such as Garry Winogrand. But instead of photographing the public, he turned his camera towards his Chinese American relatives with whom he lived in Pacifica for a summer1

The scenes revolve around the minutiae of daily suburban life, such as an earnest violin recital in the living room in Sheila Playing for the Parents (1973) or lawn care in Lucy Watering at Night (1973). The resulting images record jovial, candid, suburban moments that are amplified by Jang’s eye for complex gazes. Within each photograph, and the exhibition as a whole, a network of exchanges takes place from the eyes of one figure to another. Be it David Bowie on a record cover (Chris in Record Store, 1973) or a group portrait of grinning, elderly relatives wearing goofy sunglasses (Aunts and Uncles, 1973), the viewer is pulled into eye contact with the Jangs.

Jang captures the moments that emerge in the special, intimate strangeness that extended family members bring forth when in the same room, a dynamic amplified by the traces of pop culture. In David in His Bedroom (1973), a self-conscious teenage boy sits in a room pasted entirely with football posters. The hyper-masculinity of the players amplifies his awkwardness, a jarring contrast of private adolescence and mass culture.

4.17_Michael_Jang,_Monroe_and_Cynthia_Watching_T.V.,_1973

Michael Jang. Monroe and Cynthia Watching T.V., 1973; gelatin silver print; 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco.

In Monroe and Cynthia Watching T.V. (1973), Jang’s uncle lounges casually with a glass of white wine in hand while his cousin stares avidly at the screen; both are seen in profile. The woman whose eyes charmingly catch the viewer’s is a stranger in the living room, a bikini-clad blonde woman on the television, caught mid-smile. The directness of her gaze is exaggerated by the viewer not seeing the eyes of Monroe and Cynthia but witnessing their captivation from afar.

In these photographs, the privacy of suburban home life is broken down twice: first, by the nonreciprocal gazes of celebrities who do not actually engage us but emerge in our homes as entertainment and decorations; and second, by Jang’s camera and decision to exhibit this work forty years after its production. The Jangs makes for a complex meditation on the interruptions of pop culture into the private home and the suburban experience. 

 

The Jangs is on view at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery, in San Francisco, through July 13, 2013.

 

Emily K. Holmes is a writer and photographer living in San Francisco, CA.

 

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Notes:

1. Stephen Wirtz Gallery press release, http://www.wirtzgallery.com/exhibitions/2013/2013_05/Jang/Jang_frame.html

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