Pao Houa Her: My Mother’s Flowers

Review by Mia Lopez

Bockley Gallery
June 27–July 30, 2016

In My Mother’s Flowers at the Bockley Gallery, artist Pao Houa Her juxtaposes black and white floral still lifes with glamorous portraits of Hmong women, creating a jarring contrast of color and vibrancy. The artist’s practice has frequently included reflections on identity politics and expressions of culture in her immigrant community. Yet Her’s exhibition is well balanced, finding accord through scale and careful editing. The exhibition highlights but one aspect of the artist’s practice, and clearly articulates her distinct approach to producing work from a place of intimacy and respect for her Hmong American heritage.

Place and community are central to Her’s practice, both literally and figuratively. After growing up in Saint Paul and studying at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she became the first Hmong person to graduate with an MFA from Yale University School of Art. Yet unlike many recent graduates who move to New York to break into the art world, Her returned to Minnesota and the community she was raised in. This has resulted in a body of work that presents a nuanced, personal perspective of Hmong Americans, while eschewing conventional formulas of identity politics based art. Her often turns the lens towards individuals actively engaged in exploring how they present themselves to the outside world- women dressed glamorously attempting to attract suitors, military veterans in formal uniforms, or recent immigrants straddling two cultures. These are not candid, in situ images nor do they read as such. Instead, Her’s subjects typically look toward the camera, both acknowledging the photographer’s presence while consenting to having their likeness captured. This moment of recognition is critical to understanding the artist’s practice, as it discloses a personal connection to the subjects. Though not explicitly stated, Her uses photography as a form of authoring her own biography. Thus, the subjects of her images become an extension or projection of the artist’s own concept of self. Even when Her utilizes photos that she did not take, she seems careful to select snapshots that reveal a glimpse of personality and compel the viewer to look a little closer.

In My Mother’s Flowers and some previous projects Her has incorporated photographs appropriated from profiles on dating websites aimed at the international Hmong community. The sites typically cater to Hmong men in the United States who are seeking mail order brides. Thus, the women in the pictures endeavor to present themselves through an idealized lens of gender and cultural heritage. They wear a mix of contemporary and traditional garments in front of Technicolor floral backdrops, both natural and photographed. Her utilizes images taken directly from the websites, as well as those she shot herself while visiting Laos, mimicking the style and form of the vernacular snapshots. The integration of her own fine art portraits with the lower resolution photos suggests a sort of universality, standardizing the act of posing for a picture and the desire to be seen and loved. While at first glance the portraits immediately speak to performing femininity, the still life images are more understated. Though both sets of images are unified through floral motifs, the photographs of the floral arrangements are devoid of color, and thus absent of traditional aesthetic value. They are not joyous, lush, or verdant but clearly belie their artificial components. Is the choice of gray tones an attempt to mask the artificiality, or enhance it? Her’s decision is ambiguous, but successfully imbues the photos with a gravitas that might not have been present in vivid color. The employment of the classic still life structure is also notable, and demonstrative of the artist’s thoughtful approach to composition. The central placement of the bouquets elevates their significance, and invites the viewer to look closely for indications of beauty or significance. Although the silk flower arrangements were created by Her’s mother for their Saint Paul home, they are photographed in front of a neutral backdrop. Though the objects are undeniably domestic in origin, this choice reframes the silk flowers as fine art. And yet, the exhibition title is a clear indication of authorship, perhaps even recasting Her’s mother as an artist herself.

Her cautiously avoids any heavy handed gestures in her work and stops short of a full critique of beauty standards or gender performance. Instead, she creates a new photographic context in which the viewer naturally attempts to find synchronicity between the two disparate images. As the viewer attempts to excavate layers of meaning in the black and white florals, so do they transpose the method of looking to the portraits of women. Has Her sneakily recast us as the men on the dating websites, perusing profiles in search of a picture perfect wife? Displayed side by side with the portraits, the black and white photographs seem to suggest the instability of beauty, demonstrating that a slight alteration of the lens can completely transform the image’s reception. And yet, even when cast in grayscale or rendered in poor resolution, the subjects of Her’s compositions are transfixing.