Tommy Kha, Half, Full, Quarter

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Aperture (here). Hardcover (8.5 x 10.5 inches), 176 pages, with 115 color photographs. Includes essays by Hua Hsu, and an interview with the artist by An-My Lê. Edited by Lesley A. Martin. Design by Studio Lin. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of Tommy Kha, the Memphis-born and now New York-based artist, brings together references to his own life and to the cultural symbols of his childhood to offer commentaries on the immigrant experience, including such themes as family, trauma, intimacy, and representation. In the 1930s, Kha’s grandparents fled China for Vietnam, and decades later his mother fled Vietnam, first to Canada, and then to the United States, eventually settling in Tennessee. He grew up in the Memphis neighborhood of Whitehaven, the home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland and a predominantly Black area, and had a rather quiet childhood in his Chinese-Vietnamese family’s small suburban home. 

Photographs made over the past decade are brought together in Kha’s first monograph Half, Full, Quarter, offering “the highly personal psycho-geography of his hometown.” The title references his three photographic series: the collaboration series with his mother (Half), the “Facades” series of  “cut-up pictures” (Full), and the photographs his mother took while in Canada (Quarter). Kha says that he likes to think of his “individual projects as one large body of work” and this monograph thoughtfully interleaves them together. 

Half, Full, Quarter is quite successful in terms of its design and construction. It has a red cloth cover, with the artist’s name and title placed in small gold font at the very top (and repeated again on the spine). A belly band appears around the back cover with the description of the book, and a cut-out of the artist’s face is placed behind it. The photographs, both in color and black and white, range in their size and placement on the pages, creating a dynamic visual narrative. Another section of the book contains a number of the collages created by the artist using a mix of archival family photos and his own images. The texts and commentaries are printed on thicker red paper in a white font and are placed at the very end. The photobook’s only drawback is an unfortunate production flaw that makes the book warp once it is out of the shrink wrap. 

Kha says that his work “is about the self in self-portrait, the portrait in self-portrait, and the hyphen in self-portrait,” and through his practice, he explores identity, its construction, and its performance. He takes self-portraits, yet he is often not physically present in the frame, and instead inserts cardboard images of his face, masks, cutouts, or printed sculptures. His ongoing collaboration with his mother May Kha, a frequent subject in his photographs, is another important series. “I am a cut of my mom. Every photograph I make of her is Half Self-Portrait.” A selection of photographs from this engaging project was on view at the Higher Pictures Generation at the end of 2022 (reviewed here). 

In addition to Kha’s photographs, Half, Full, Quarter also includes images Kha’s mother took years ago, back in the 1980s, and only recently shared with him. In these faded snapshots, she poses on a beach with her friends, hugs oversized stuffed animals, and celebrates birthdays with friends. Kha says that “spiritually, my picture making is a continuation of the photographs my mother created in 1984, a year after she fled Vietnam.” 

Kha often uses a mask of his face and cardboard cutouts of his hands to create images that reflect his sense of dislocation and fragmentation. These props give him both the freedom to position his image and agency over his representation. The book opens with one of these striking photographs: a rocky area of beach with splashing water is sprinkled with cutouts of the artist’s hands. The image is followed by a spread pairing two photographs of the artist’s mother in her youth: in one she is posing next to a triangle shaped tree and in other one she is on her bed reading a book. She feels rather comfortable in front of the camera and gently smiles in both shots. Then there is a photo of an old billboard for Wonder Bread, placed on top of a white building with the background of a blue sky and a fluffy white cloud. 

Another image in this opening sequence shows Kha (or to be precise a cut-out of himself) standing in a pale blue kitchen wearing an outfit inspired by Elvis Presley’s costume in his “Aloha from Hawaii” concert; Elvis has been a major influence in Kha’s life and several images pay homage to the singer’s larger-than-life persona. On the right page of the same spread is an image of Kha and his mother deep in their thoughts, both looking in different directions. It is followed by a horizontal shot of the front of an Asian restaurant in Memphis. Together, these photographs weave together Kha’s experiences as a second-generation Asian American living in Tennessee.

Kha documents the Asian immigrant presence within a specific sense of topography and landscape. A number of images show Asian restaurants in Memphis, depicting both scenes indoors and outside façades. One of them, titled “New China (New Lin’s Chinese)”, depicts the interior of a Chinese restaurant, with various red decorations and a photograph of a Chinese landscape, but also with a dozen of Big Mouth Billy Bass singing fish plaques on the wall, and a Bruce Lee poster, reshuffling the various cultural references.

Kha’s photographs are also playful and often include visual jokes. In a photograph titled “Tourist (Halloween Costume), East Memphis”, Kha appears reenacting a scene from his childhood. He is in the back of his parents’ house, wearing a black trash bag as a Batman character; he holds a camera trigger in his hand while looking straight into the camera. The image on the right is a portrait of Kha’s mother sitting on the floor in a room which served as his father’s private dental office; a cut out of Kha’s face is inserted in the chair, while his head also appears behind it. Both photographs revolves around a feeling of alienation, and of not belonging in his environment. 

Kha’s photographs incisively reflect his relationship with the South and its culture, as well as his own Chinese heritage. The visual narrative gathers together connections between Kha’s family, their history, and his hometown, and as Kha examines the refraction of the self that occurs, he also maps out a wider and more complex racial landscape. His approach, with its distinct aesthetic sensibility, exposes his vulnerabilities and conflicts, and at the same time offers a subtle commentary on the nature of representation. Kha’s work is an important contribution to the complex conversation about the immigrant experience and its influence on identity and representation, and Half, Full, Quarter is a thoughtfully built photobook that amplifies these themes.

Collector’s POV: Tommy Kha is represented by Higher Pictures Generation in New York (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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