Ink caution tape ribbon
24.5in x 18.5in x 2.5in
Protein resin, pigments, metal pins,
archival inkjeg print on synthetic fabric
by Adam Lehrer
The late 1990s was the last era in which a cohesive art scene, with all its attendant radicalism, bohemian intrigue and debauchery, formed in downtown New York. It was just before the Giuliani/Bloomberg renovation was “complete.” That era of the city’s bohemia was as legendary for its drug fueled abandon (and the untimely deaths of some of its brightest stars, such as the late, great Dash Snow) as it was for producing some of the most famous and financially successful artists of the last 25 years (after all, it’s not just art that collectors buy, it’s the myth of the artist their buying art by).
This dense mythology around an “art scene” can bring the artist opportunities of course, but it can also be limiting in the long run (one need to only read Barthes’ Mythologies to comprehend the problematic nature of socially created mythology). In fact, it’s very hard to look at the recent work by these artists without comparing it or even diminishing it against the work made in their youths. Ryan Mcginley, for example, has emerged as one of the world’s most famous fashion and fine art photographers with his color blasted, technically accomplished photos of youths and celebs against nature. Nevertheless, it is his early work, the grainy and reckless photos of Dash Snow, Dan Colen, Jack Walls, and others, that he is still best remembered for. Hanna Liden, another artist of the same moment, is now creating work that exceeds her earlier efforts in both conceptual sophistication and technical skill. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to imagine that her early photographs of masked female nudes against barren nature won’t be the work she’s best remembered for.
Artist Ellen Jong came out of a similar era of New York’s history, knew/knows the aforementioned artists, and her early work indeed shares some stylistic traits with some of her contemporaries. But nevertheless, Jong was a bit older than Snow or McGinley, and maintained some healthy distance between herself and “the scene.” She was never “conned by junk” (as Glenn O’Brien succinctly put it in a eulogy for Snow) or overly seduced by drugs, and chose to focus on an individualistic practice. She maintains that she was always a bit of the “black sheep” of the late ‘90s downtown New York art world. “I never desired to be part of a crew or collective,” she says. That distance has proven to be healthy, allowing Jong to confidently build upon her body of work, with each new series growing in sophistication and maturity.
Individualism and the imposition of identity onto the world has long been a characteristic of Jong’s work. Her earliest works to receive attention, a series of photographic self-portraits of Jong urinating throughout the concrete jungle, could literally be read as an artist “marking her territory.” The metaphor is not subtle but it effective. While the diaristic aesthetic of the images aligned with the formal approach of artists like Snow and McGinley, they differed from them in philosophical intent. McGinley and Snow captured the mood of a moment. McGinley found in his group a hedonistic celebration of youth, while Dash framed that same culture more nihilistically. Jong however always used the photographic image as a way of attaining a heightened self-awareness. Urination became physical proof of the body, establishing Jong’s presence in the city and the world. All artists are, in one way or another, attempting to leave their marks, but not as many took that imperative as literally as Jong.
In spite or perhaps because of her conceptual and personal distance from the scene that defined New York at that time, Jong’s work has been able to grow in sophistication without the trappings of or associations with a movement can leave on the rest of an artist’s career.
Jong still uses her pee selfies as reference material and a source of inspiration, but the mediums and aesthetics that define her practice have grown in their expansiveness even if they are still connected to a broader theme of the self, identity and self-awareness. While Jong’s earlier photographic works could almost be seen in the lineage of Nan Goldin, the relation of herself to the city and culture surrounding her, more recent projects have leaned into the conceptual territory of artists like Eleanor Antin. The self as subject has long been used in feminist art theory, a history that Jong could be slotted into, to frame identity in relation to larger political themes.
Another photographic series Getting To Know My Husband’s Cock conceptually recalls a project like Antin’s 100 Boots project. Like Antin, Jong uses repetition of a personally important object to highlight her subjectivity and heightened self-awareness. As opposed to her boots, Jong repeatedly photographs her husband’s penis and body in close-up. But the conceptual intent is similar: through repeatedly familiarizing herself with a cherished object, she is reinforcing the growth of her identity.
Jong’s recent work are some of her most formally audacious project ever. Inspired by a trip to China with her mother where they saw the cave “water prisons.” These cave dwellings would get natural welts 6 to 10 ft. deep from the tides, and families would put prisoners in there allowing the tides to decide when their prisoners would die of drowning. Intrigued in the concept of the body as a water prison, Jong marked her own height around the walls of an art space in Shanghai, a cavernous concrete bunker three stories below the street. The performance piece is an expression of her presence and death; the repetitive markings as a waterline cultivate a kind of historical awareness and empathy.
Jong has turned to traditional Chinese ink materials to confront her past and her history while furthering her exploration of her identity. Intriguingly, Jong uses this traditional material in most untraditional methods: she dries the ink to create sculptural forms often based upon her own body. This self-expression, especially as it relates to themes of sexuality and the body, are anathema to traditional use of the material. Here, Jong can literally use the aspects of her past and heritage that she holds in tender regards while still subverting that heritage to carve out her own personal sense of self.