Phung Huynh and Osvaldo Trujillo at CB1
By Genie Davis
As beautiful as women are expected to be, it’s hardly surprising that Pretty Hurts. This dark truth behind society’s quest for an “ideal” woman is also the title of Phung Huynh’s powerful exhibition at CB1 Gallery that just closed. Huynh uses as her reference point the idea of Chinese foot-binding – one of the first types of cosmetic surgery, and used to create a traditional image of Asian beauty, small feet, small eyes, and small breasts. The body image that represents beauty in western culture today may be different, but the message is the same: ignore the pain, it’s worth it to be beautiful, whether the iconic feminine image is to have small feet or large breasts or buttocks.
The Los Angeles-based Huynh takes on cultural and sexual stereotypes in her work, which uses an accessible pop aesthetic to skewer these stereotypical images. Her works require the viewer to think twice about these images, where they are disseminated from, and what they mean to every woman. She combines an intuitive, ironic look at American culture and traditional Chinese ideals of beauty with a delicately rendered traditional Chinese style of painting and drawing.
The artist’s graphite on wood “Woodblock Drawing (Boob Job)” visualizes a woman with traditional Chinese hairstyle, a kneeling figure, partially draped in fabric, enhanced large breasts showing. “Untitled,” a series of small, beautifully drawn 4.75 by 4.75 graphite on paper images show eyes, noses, feet – the ideals that women torture themselves to realize. Who is the arbiter of such ideals, Huynh’s work asks? Is there a way, through powerful visual wit to point out the folly in embracing such impossible perfection? And what is perfect, anyway?
Well surely, Huynh’s art is perfect in and of itself. Her weeping oil on canvas “Beauty Queen” cries for self-realization. The crowned queen is framed in an oval ringed by lovely lotus flowers, but her “winning” is meaningless. It is not the winner’s self being celebrated, it is a false icon she is being forced to embrace. The oil on canvas and collage “Unbound” uses a similar visual dynamic, floral images encroaching upon a beautiful woman. Here, that woman wears a defiant expression, and ribbons of foot binding cloths trail from her; she has loosed what traps her. “Nose Sharpener” features the image of a woman using a torturous looking device to alter the shape of her nose – she has not broken free of expectations.
The artist has created intriguing, intense paintings – their use of traditional Asian style and palette to flout the painful conventions of both Asian and American culture results in a visual dichotomy that is both startling and thought provoking. The aesthetic she’s using for her art is often viewed as soothing, beautiful, perfect – the pastel colors, the lovely women, the floral motifs. And yet what she is showing is the distaff side of beauty: the inherent ugliness in anyone deciding what is beautiful and what is not, in reshaping what nature has wrought. Those floral images – will a steadfastly patriarchal, dominating society also attempt to change flowers into vines, leaves into roses?
Also at CB1 is another stunning show, the delicate, lacey laser cut work of Osvaldo Trujillo’s Of Our Time. Using computer technology to create this ephemeral, dream-like art is an interesting fusion of the digital and the divine. These intricate works represent circuits and topography, cities and viruses. They are as precise as they are layered, imagined by man yet formed by machine. Like Huynh’s exhibition, there is a dichotomy at play here, inviting viewers to self-reflection.
CB1 Gallery is located at 1923 S. Santa Fe Ave. in DTLA.