Victoria Jang: To Overcompensate
By: Marcus Civin
In her Baltimore home studio, Victoria Jang points out two wet ovoid forms, clay covered in plastic, works-in-progress she is turning on a Lazy Susan as she builds them up in slabs. The thirty-one-year-old artist recalls how her Korean-American mother prepared her school lunch, beautifully and energetically failing at making the typically slapped-together American-style sandwich; she dwelled on it, overworking it and triple-wrapping it. “To me, that sandwich was so humiliating,” Jang describes, “but I knew how much it was well-made. It was really well-made even though it was ridiculous, with the overcompensation of saran wrap, tin foil, Ziplock.”
Many things that are embarrassing in youth can become sources of strength and courage later on. Or, at least, they can become uncontested facts. Jang’s lunch was both American and Korean, an object informed by her mother’s cultural experience and a projection into the American educational environment, this effort so that her daughter might fit in at school.
Jang compares herself as an artist to her mother overdoing it with sandwich-making: “With my work, I’m just showcasing my experiences, and I think it could relate to someone else’s, even if they’re not Korean. I am expressing an immigrant childhood experience, or first-generation experience. I think I overcompensate, too, with my exteriors, with my forms.”
Jang has exhibited widely, with recent or upcoming exhibitions at Local Language and Patricia Sweetow Gallery in Oakland, Nous Tous Gallery in Los Angeles, and the South Korean Embassy in Washington, DC. Her new project, Suburban Susŏk Prototypes, concerns the immigrant experience and the impacts of racism. The project defies the quiet balance and visual simplicity in Susŏk, traditional Korean rock arrangement. The predominantly blue and yellow Suburban Susŏk Prototype 1, the orange-red Hibisco, and the red Bad Apple appear as if they’re elaborately dressed. They resemble Onggi, the stalwart Korean earthenware food containers, but they seem, at first, festive, more suited for a celebration or a 1960s psychedelic concert than a basic kitchen or a minimalist meditative rock garden. For these works in particular, by adding bright colors and layering ornaments around what might otherwise feel like echoes of sober traditional forms, Jang materializes the contradictions an individual feels when racists misread and misclassify their dispositions and abilities. In this way, Jang’s vessels articulate barriers and conflicts between exterior and interior as exemplified in group versus individual identity, and individual experience versus exterior perception.
I meet up with Jang in the ceramics studio at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she is faculty. She carefully opens kiln to reveal her vessels after a first fire and before glazing them. I ask her if they hold anything, if there is anything inside, and if she thinks of her sculptures like bodies or human surrogates. She answers that although the exterior is literally and figuratively loaded, there is a void inside. “They’re just cavities, holes, empty spaces,” she notes, describing the hollow and adorned vessels as images, like visual experiences of identity.
Identity for Jang is true self, absolute and deep, linked to and distinct from family and culture. And also for Jang, identity is the weapon culture uses to control, limit, and explain away the complexities of self, to carelessly lump groups and generations together. Jang’s colorful forms are an investment in surface; they’re descendants of Korean traditional form, part of that tradition and also separate from it. Jang explains her relationship to exteriors: “No one really cares what’s inside the vessel, and people want to be settled and regulated by that exterior. [...] People always want answers, and they want to define things. And so, I want to overwhelm them with things that they think are going to make them feel regulated.”
Some of Jang’s earlier ceramic sculptures are heads, busts, or human forms under duress. Some are broken and appear to be scrunched-up or splattered with shocks of color. Their eyes are often closed as if they are suffering or attempting to retreat from what they have seen or felt. Jang closes her eyes, too. In discussing how she experiences difficult conversations about race and culture in her own life, she shares with me, “I try to close my eyes when people talk lately. Especially to really see, because I have biases. I’m influenced by patriarchy. I’m influenced by whitewashing. So I have to really close my eyes to see if what [someone is] saying is valuable, because I’m influenced. I’m like: Yeah you’re right, you are smart; you’re intelligent. But then I realize when I close my eyes that it’s kind of bullshit. And I realize how biased I am, almost that [the visual bias] sabotages me. I tell myself: Vicci, just close your eyes, and maybe you can find some objective logic in this.”
Looking for logic, Jang cites the research of psychologist Derald Wing Sue, whose work argues that culture is only as strong as the ability of individuals to see identity and see through bias, that the evolution of culture ought to be synonymous with the removal of bias from everyday interactions. In American culture, the individual is lost when people are unwilling to talk about race and unprepared to talk about it in a critical, honest environment. Jang laments: “You become an object. You become invisible. You can become a shell. And you have to be aware of that shell that people see of you.”
One of the first case studies in Sue’s book Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence describes a receptionist for a large American manufacturing company mistaking a Chinese-American journalist for a Chinese food delivery person when the journalist had an appointment to interview the company’s president. This slight informed the journalist that, in the estimation of the receptionist, because of his race, he should more likely be performing a service than meeting with the company’s president. When the journalist told his white colleagues about the incident, they blamed him, suggesting that he was overreacting, and that he could avoid incidents like this by altering his walk and attire to appear more professional. His peers criticized him for looking and acting supposedly too Asian and too much like a Chinese food delivery person. Both the lobby interaction and the peer interaction suggested that an Asian person can’t be a journalist.
Read in the light of Sue’s case study, Suburban Susŏk Prototype 1, Hibisco, and Bad Apple are defiant image/objects; they’re tenacious, unabashed, and unyielding in their unregulated, uncompromised look and pose. They are what they want to be, distant from or perhaps satirical of their formal Korean antecedents. They appear to have oozed and bubbled over. Round and tubular beads, links of chain, and hard flowers start to resemble soldiers’ bandoliers holding large stocks of ammunition. These are sculptures of superabundance. Jang installs them on plinths covered in carpet. It’s almost as if they’re crouched there, squatting. But they could leap. They reflect the desire for individuation in the face of stereotype, ultimately taking on individual personality, their exteriors highly adorned and not necessarily aligned with cultural form.
Jang says, “You could think of ornamentation. You can overcompensate without making it so Rococo or fancy. [...] Once you start to feel like you are overcompensating, it comes out polarizing to people. I am struggling with starting to make [my work] more polarizing. It starts to bug people. It starts to contradict what they feel is right, but that’s actually their bias.”
I tell Jang that my article is shaping up to be about overcompensation as it relates to identity and perception and that it dwells on the example of her mother packing her sandwich. I say I think overcompensation is a sculptural and political strategy to confront bias. What she learned from her mother as error, she has recreated as an exercise in cultural politics.
Jang provides an additional anecdote about growing up in Olympia, Washington, this one concerning her grandmother harvesting greens: “I used to dread when spring rolled around in Olympia, when the fiddleheads were yet to bloom into robust ferns. My grandmother would appear out of the woods in front of my bus stop where all the kids in the school bus would see her with a stormtrooper-looking visor, gigantic bundle of fiddleheads on her back, red rubber-palmed work gloves, and a surgical mask. I was completely mortified.”
These moments of visibility, these culture clashes, overwhelm, polarize, produce incongruities, but still, the spirit underlying can remain firm, rooted. These days, Jang’s forms express a state of confidence. They’re completely alive.
Marcus Civin is a writer and performance artist. He has written for Art Papers, Artforum, and Afterimage, among other publications. He is working on a collection of fictions about the kinds of artists he has known.