BY Andrew Berardini in Features | 01 MAR 11
Featured in
Issue 137

Amanda Ross-Ho

Childhood possessions, assembled tableaux, secret stories and studio walls

BY Andrew Berardini in Features | 01 MAR 11

Untitled Spatial Arrangement (Drying Rack) (2009)

It can be a heartbreaking task to cycle through someone’s things in order to try and make sense of their life. Such excavations usually happen in the lonesome funereal after-burn, or during the first, nervous coupling at a new lover’s house. Some of these possessions are just begging to be figured, whether to suture grief or stoke desire. Pictures pinned to the wall, magazines stacked on the nightstand, dirty clothes peeking out from a half-open closet, small notes doodled in the margins of open books, a desktop layered with geologic strata of work in-progress. What prompted the keeping of this or that? What memories or experiences are contained within an object?

Many artists have attempted to turn the detritus of modern living into art, but there’s something particular about Amanda Ross-Ho’s sculptures, photographs, paintings and assemblages. The Los Angeles-based artist photographs these objects and flattens them together as Inkjet prints, which are arranged to look vaguely diagrammatic – an idiosyncratic flowchart marking an excavation of the artist’s own life, ranging from the personal to the culturally processed, referencing everything from her parent’s artistic aspirations to Frank Stella or 1980s design. Here the past is plundered for the purposes of a continually shifting present; even if the formal and informal connections sometimes appear indecipherable, their emotional couplings are still strangely evident. A story is implied, but its truth always seems tantalizingly out of reach.

Ross-Ho’s tableaux combine elements in a tightly controlled display. Artefacts from her childhood – a picture of her mother taken by her father, say, or a product shot of champagne flutes taken by her uncle (looking suspiciously like the work of some of her peers) – sit alongside a scribbled-upon page and a protractor (Exposé for the Shadows, Develop for the Highlights [Perforated Sampler]: White Light, Crewel Point, Triangle 208.33%, Glasses [His], Portrait [Hers], 2010). While this piece, which was recently included in ‘New Photography 2010’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, toys with a range of approaches to photography, one isn’t told of the hidden stories. But even without this knowledge, the woman looks nostalgically of another era; the flutes could almost be a photograph by Elad Lassry, the abstraction like a photogram by Walead Beshty; the protractor could be about angling objects into a mathematically precise position and/or a sly reference to Frank Stella. Take your pick – whether or not you know Ross-Ho’s personal story, you can identify some organizational trickery at work.

Recently, Ross-Ho has incorporated sliced-out hunks of her studio wall into these assemblages, the panels retaining all the rough traces of the chop (though I suspect there’s a fictional tease here too). They lean against the gallery wall like a misplaced tombstone or a haggard John McCracken sculpture. Joisted with two-by-fours and clad in a peg-board skin or sheet-rock, the walls are covered with found pictures and scraps, splashes and spills from a past life. Again, protractors hang there too, as if ready for someone to make schoolishly Pythagorean shapes at a moment’s notice. Sometimes Ross-Ho enlarges the objects to make quietly personal things seem monumental: a pair of supersized black trousers are neatly folded on a teak plinth (a stack of black pants); while dangling on the wall behind it hangs an enlarged charm of twinned Greek tragedy masks (Double Feature [double tragedy], both 2010). These arrangements might seem like a mess of muddling or personal hermeticism but, whatever ambiguity or veiled story is present, the way in which they are roped together suggests an intuitive understanding of things qua things, of formal qualities and sensual shapes.

Ross-Ho’s two most recent solo shows, at Cherry and Martin in LA last autumn and her current exhibition at the Visual Arts Center at the University of Texas, represent new directions. Hardly abandoning the studio as medium, her use of it has become quieter, more sub-rosa. The installation at Cherry and Martin contained enlargements, both sculptural (the trousers, the charm) and photographic – an advertisement for coconuts (brown coconuts), as well as a sheet rock composition, Untitled Still Life (i want you [loop]) (2010) – but the walls were dominated by rather slick-looking abstract paintings that, at first glance, seemed a little toothless until one realized that the strokes of red were made using a teacher’s correction pen. At the Visual Arts Center, the installation becomes more of a public performance about accumulation (instead of her dance in the studio, handily inscribed on the objects). For untitled nothing factory (2011), reams of trashed paperwork at the university have been saved, their contents transformed into a hands-on collaboration with students to pulverize the scrap into new paper. The colours and pieces show up here and there, but all their former meaning is completely flattened into the new form. In both exhibitions, the material is still drawn from either a personal or an institutional archive, but its content erased, instead highlighting re-creation and arrangement.

While the secret stories behind Ross-Ho’s assemblies are likely to remain elusive, their ambiguity allows us to project onto them our own stories. The objects of a person’s life may not always readily reveal their owner’s intended message or legacy, but their story is sometimes richer because of it.