When Artists Are Hackers

LOS ANGELES — The group exhibition So Excited at Steve Turner is premised on art-making as a form of hacking, a hacker defined as “someone who is immersed in the programming subculture and who spends their time to creatively solve technical computing problems.” The question is, what is being hacked? The analogy of a hacker automatically sets up an us-versus-them binary, dictating a narrow framework in viewing the exhibition.

A binary is visible in the works by each of the four artists in the exhibition — Bianca Fields, Auriea Harvey, Charlie Mai, and Brittany Tucker — whether painting versus sculpture, digital versus analogue, east versus west, realism versus line drawing. To use the latter as an example, Tucker’s paintings feature images of the artist rendered with photorealistic detail against a simplified black and white backdrop, reduced to the point of caricature. The stark contrast between Tucker’s photorealistic treatment of her own image and the cartoonishness of her surroundings underlines the estrangement felt in the paintings, dividing the subject from the world around her. The exaggerated discrepancy in style is an effective tactic to speak to the discrepancies experienced by the artist, the most obvious one being the gap between being Black in the US and what the US stands for. By priming her viewers with a heightened awareness of the subject/object binary, Tucker poses other, more implicit questions such as: which one is reality, and which one is fantasy? Who gets to be taken seriously, and who doesn’t?

So Excited at Steve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles, installation view

However, the usage of binary as a metaphorical device for the exhibition falls short at times, too. Apart from feeling somewhat gimmicky — identifying visual or thematic pairs like a game of “spot the difference” — the analogy offers little opportunity for nuance. Formally, the idea tends to rely on tired tropes such as digital versus analogue, while conceptually, it can oftentimes limit the understanding of both the artist’s work and identity to two incompatible halves.

Breaking free from these rigid constraints is one, gleaming moment: Charlie Mai’s installation, titled “MW Saw Them/I See Them. Do You See Them?” The eight-by-nine-foot installation is a shimmering mylar curtain suspended in the air by two chains, with ASL lettering at the top. Painted over the reflective strips are two larger-than-life figures, one looming up close to the viewer while the other retreats hazily into the background, both rendered in infrared colors as if targeted through a lens of a thermal camera.

Charlie Mai, “MW Saw Them/I See Them. Do You See Them?” (2021), mylar curtain, paint, wooden box and metal chain 105 x 114 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches 

Only just discernible, the portraits dissolve with the slightest movement into entrancing, hypnotic ripples. The sheet acts like a veil, fluttering elusively, separating the viewer from understanding the piece through the opaque layers of signage created by the artist. In an email, Mai explained to Hyperallergic that the two men on the curtain are the ones who killed Vincent Chin, while the sign language reads, “When the breeze settles I see them / you [it’s always them/you].” Here, the work allows breathing space between the us/them binary, allowing the viewer to insert themselves on either side of the curtain.

So Excited continues at Steve Turner (6830 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through September 11.

Previous post The Lyrical and Funny Art of Erasing Words From Books
Next post Why Shang-Chi’s success matters — and why it shouldn’t