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A Refection on Jennifer Chen-Su Huang’s Artistic Practice

Written in curator Matt Morris' interdisciplinary critique class at the School of the Art Institute in the fall of 2016, Miguel Sbastida's essay investigates Jennifer Chen-Su Huang's creative practice. Experience her artwork in Let Me Be an Object that Screams, opening September 8 at Gallery 400.

A refection on Jennifer Huang’s artistic practice
Miguel Sbastida

Jennifer Huang’s work is a rich dialogue between texture, color and material, which come in play along an exploration of aesthetics, embodiment and personal desire.

As the maker she is, her practice is grounded in material experimentation. This includes sculpture, ceramics, weaving and papermaking. A seashell covered in paper, a tapestry with hair woven into fabric, small and colorful ceramics with indexical relations to the hand. Much of her aesthetic interest comes from the ocean, the world of reclaimed objects and the unexpected encounters of everyday life. She collapses these materials into small configurations, which are often reinterpretations or rearrangements of encounters with natural (such as shells, rocks or hair) and cultural (discarded objects, dirty subway chairs, melted ice cream) elements.

There is a sense of exploration and investigation in her works. An exploration filled by curiosity and necessity to understand. But Huang’s works aren’t just an agglomeration of visual interest. Beyond an exploration of material and aesthetic dialogue there is personal longing for and searching for identity: a need for grounding that is embedded in each of the works and which becomes particularly present in her installations.

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Jennifer Chen-su Huang, reading read reddening, 2017, broom top, paper-mâché crust, porcelain slip cast sock fragment, sea shells, sand dollar fragment, graphite pencils, clown nose, porcelain cast clown nose, moss, handmade folio with woodblock and photo lithograph cover, birch plywood, beet juice, cotton paper pulp, and mohair and cotton jacquard weaving of stained CTA seat.
Jennifer Chen-su Huang, goo goo too, 2017, birch plywood, beet juice, graphite powder, white pastel, ceramic fragments, porcelain cast clown nose, porcelain cast AA battery, porcelain cast knitting needles, porcelain slip cast flower, porcelain slip cast crocheted tube, crocheted wool, foam, cereal, feather, broken brick, chunk of sidewalk, tiny broom of human hair and clay, cotton paper pulp, moss, sand dollars, thread counter, magnifying glass, stone, clay stone, sand, embossed paper, denim, pencil, and graphite on mylar roll.
Image courtesy the artist.

Huang was born in Yorktown Heights, New York. Her parents are from Taiwan, as were her grandparents and grand-grandparents before. Her family tree comes from the Pingpu aborigines, a matriarchal culture that was largely eliminated by the Chinese during the Quing dynasty. Huang found herself growing up in the United States, detached from her cultural ancestry. This cultural removal has triggered her effort to understand her own identity in relation to her ancestral home and the current society that surrounds her. Growing up in this situation is like being caught between two places, trying to balance where you come from and where you stand in relation to your race and cultural origin. I think a person is formed first, psychologically—this is the belief system, the education and cultural background—and second, bodily, by the life experiences and physical environment that shape us as we grow. In both cases, body and mind are informed by one another. Our bodies are the result of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the places we live in and the materials present in our everyday life. The mind is the result of memory, of personal experience and of education.

In a similar way to Huang’s personal cultural-diaspora (her cultural sense of displacement and her efforts in reconnecting and making sense of it), the materials of her works also develop a sense of displacement and belonging. Where do they come from? How did their actual material and cultural configuration come together? Are they a totality or just a fragment? How can we understand an object without having access to its origins?

In Huang’s work, found and made operate as equally relevant as they are part of an interconnected process. There is no one without the other and therefore, there is no party with more importance. By collecting objects from encounters she finds significant, she is also able to make meaning out of biographical experience. Her works are often the result of mementos, things that catch her eye such as seashells, stains on the train seats, melted ice cream on the sidewalk, small drills on the wall, the moving air of the subway. While these realities are the trigger for aesthetic study, they mutate along the process, in a constant discovery and re-interpretation. Through these desires, she analyzes the space she inhabits, and reflects on it by projecting a hidden beauty, a mysterious magnetism.

Her arrangements collapse, re-organize and put in dialogue objects, colors, textures and matter, providing space for contemplation, bewilderment and new meaning. Objects and materials are combined, complementing and completing one another, creating a vibrancy of color and texture; a rhythm between skin and body; a conversation between volume and space. Although these parts become unified, the initial components remain clearly visible, with a small degree of artifice. There is no trick to the eye in Huang’s work, as things are allowed to be and stand by themselves. A sensual character appears in many of these agglomerations, through which several bodies come together to shape new entities. The light pastel colors she makes bring up associations to childhood (as these are widely implemented in children products), which are reinforced by the small size of the objects and their installation displacement on the floor.

The materials she makes use of, bear clear and persistent referential properties to Huang’s own persona. A series of indexical relationships not only to the hand of the maker, but to the personal experiences that involve her encounters and the choices she made in the making process. In fact, many of her ceramic, plaster and porcelain works bear the imprint of the hand through the gesture of pressing material against her palm. These pieces will become fragments for future mutations, through color choice, material re-configurations and everyday narratives.

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Jennifer Chen-su Huang, detail of goo goo too, 2017, birch plywood, beet juice, graphite powder, white pastel, ceramic fragments, porcelain cast clown nose, porcelain cast AA battery, porcelain cast knitting needles, porcelain slip cast flower, porcelain slip cast crocheted tube, crocheted wool, foam, cereal, feather, broken brick, chunk of sidewalk, tiny broom of human hair and clay, cotton paper pulp, moss, sand dollars, thread counter, magnifying glass, stone, clay stone, sand, embossed paper, denim, pencil, and graphite on mylar roll.
Image courtesy the artist.

Huang has apparent affinity for smallness, detail and intimacy. As a child, she remembers carrying small pebbles in her pockets. Round stones she pressed between her fingers, which she referred to her parents as “her friends” as cited in her goo-goo water texts. These are amulets of belonging —objects that through their presence and materiality against the palm of our hand, mirror our existence; devices for embodiment; small arrangements of materials and textures that remind us we exist, we are grounded somewhere and we are part of something; things we have the power to hold within our very hands. Through the physicality of these objects, we can feel ourselves in contrast. Through their shape and volume, we get to understand the size of our hand and the limits of the body.

In a way, this sense of self-understanding though reflection feels connected to the ways in which she arranges her work in space. Often times, Huang also reacts to the history of the sites in which her work is installed, by making use of existing holes and marks on the walls from previous set-ups, and therefore, pushing the viewer into discovering the objects and also their new history in relation to the site. Her installations invite to navigate the space, pushing the viewer to understand the body in relation to the dimension of the scattered objects and the place these inhabit. Her works are microcosms, arranged in a way they become a totality.

Furthermore, I would argue this process of constant self-definition—or at least—self-discovery is very much in play with her cultural feeling of detachment. Through art making processes, aesthetics and personal narrative, Huang navigates the space of the self: a journey towards an understanding of the interactions between her ancient cultural, biological roots and her current identity.

In fact, there is a sense of history in all of her pieces; a trace of the original, a reference to the process of making and a state of the final product. Some of her textile work and papermaking include other materials such as hair, which were present during the making process. The way these are embedded into the final product, generates a relationship to both maker and methodology, a relationship to craftsmanship. The materials and creative procedures she makes use of —such as ceramics, paper making or textiles— have a sense of history too. This one comes perhaps through the division between craft and what has been rendered as fine art through History.

By making use of craftsmanship—and its commonly assessed category as low-art manifestations—and reintroducing these practices in the field of fine art, this division becomes blurred and uncertain. The objects and their methods, products of an amalgamation of ceramics, plaster casting, handmade soap, natural organic materials, papermaking and weaving, behave in this way as diasporic subjects, detached from their material and cultural contexts. These are the result of material and cultural displacements that become entangled through new situations, generating new meanings and pointing at the mystery of their origins. Objects that bear the mark of their maker and the mark of their making process. Configurations wishing to find a place between what they were and what they are. Entities wishing to be understood and to hopefully understand their new place in the world.

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Jennifer Chen-Su Huang, detail of goo goo too, 2017, birch plywood, beet juice, graphite powder, white pastel, ceramic fragments, porcelain cast clown nose, porcelain cast AA battery, porcelain cast knitting needles, porcelain slip cast flower, porcelain slip cast crocheted tube, crocheted wool, foam, cereal, feather, broken brick, chunk of sidewalk, tiny broom of human hair and clay, cotton paper pulp, moss, sand dollars, thread counter, magnifying glass, stone, clay stone, sand, embossed paper, denim, pencil, and graphite on mylar roll.
Image courtesy the artist.

Let Me Be an Object that Screams is on view September 8 - October 21 at Gallery 400. See more at »

Miguel Sbastida is a visual artist working in sculpture, video installation, and site-specific performance. He completed his MFA from the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, IL and his BFA from Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain.