Tommy Kha, Má @Higher Pictures Generation

JTF (just the facts): A total of 7 color photographs, generally framed in white and unmatted (one image is enlarged and affixed directly to the wall), and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the office area. All of the works are pigment prints, made between 2015 and 2021. Physical sizes range from 24×30 to 36×45 inches (or the reverse) and all of the prints are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: If we start with the fundamental premise that America is largely a nation of immigrants, it follows that most of us have origin stories of departure from a homeland and arrival in America somewhere in our generational past, as well as later histories of lives led in new places and the social and cultural adaptations that took place along the way. When we look at ourselves in the present, we see not only the accumulation of these diasporic details (however distant or recent), but the creation of complex identities that variously merge these connections with dozens of other factors that have come together to make us who we are now.

For Tommy Kha, the linked lineup of characteristics that designates him as Asian-American (with a mother who immigrated from Vietnam), queer, Yale MFA educated, and a native of Memphis, Tennessee, among other things, seems to offer the potential for a life perspective we haven’t heard from often, at least in the contemporary photography world. And while we are undeniably in a broader cultural moment of wanting to hear from diverse artistic voices that have been previously marginalized, Kha’s name may be frustratingly familiar due to a recent incident where a self-portrait he made of himself as an Elvis impersonator (a much beloved hometown subject he has explored for years now) was purchased for and installed at the international airport in Memphis, removed after a round of initial complaints (some racially based), and then ultimately reinstalled; sadly, it seems that some are not entirely ready to embrace new voices like Kha’s that might broaden, challenge, and expand long established worldviews.

This small show introduces a different project from Kha, one where he has been working together collaboratively with his mother to create both portraits of her and paired self-portraits of the two of them. And while Kha certainly isn’t the first photographer to enlist a mother, father, sibling, or other family member to participate in performative photography experiments, the intimate scenes they share seem openly interdependent and searching, rather than simply staged by the artist using his mother as a willing subject or actor.

Several of the setups play with the idea of seeing and being seen, with the family’s Whitehaven, Memphis, location serving as the backdrop. In one work, Kha’s mother lies on the floor with her head poking out from a doorway into the hall; open and closed doors surround her as she stares at us resolutely, leaning on her arm. It’s a picture filled with resignation and dislocation, like a maze of disorienting (and wearying) pathways, the constant in-betweenness of the life of a new immigrant given physical form. In another photograph, Kha’s mother’s unsmiling face is captured in a pink hand mirror held at arm’s length; but if Kha himself is behind the camera, then somehow he’s seeing his mother’s face instead of his own reflection, thereby creating a pleasing jumble of layered and conflicted identities. And in a third picture, the mother and son sit blank faced in their underwear against a backdrop of blue-patterned wallpaper; as the two look across each other (together but without entirely connecting), their slumped vulnerability mirrors each other, as if closely linked but still separated and distant.

Rather than avoid these uncomfortable forays into identity, Kha leans into them further, using paper cutouts of his own face and body to complicate the scenes. In one disorienting picture, Kha seems to toss away his own face (or “mask”), only to have it hover in the air and confront us, while its shadow (cast on a nearby wall) seems to double the artist’s head. And in a second image, he amplifies this kind of deception in what is ostensibly a portrait of his mother sitting on the floor of a dentist’s office; Kha sneakily intrudes on the private scene twice, once as himself and once as a cutout, the two heads peeking out from gaps in the nearby dentist’s chair, like mischievous children – and from the expression on her face, mom is not impressed.

The mood gets more directly biting when Kha and his mother start to unpack Asian stereotypes. His mother’s traditional Vietnamese conical hat seems altogether out of place when set against a brick wall and chain link fence with razor wire; it’s almost a prison setup, with the practical farming/sun hat like a costume. The emotional tenor of the picture is understated but charged, leaving the deeper significance and personal cultural resonance of the hat open for alternate interpretations. The same might be said for a picture of mother and son, with Kha dressed in a shiny embroidered outfit and outfitted with a large fan; both of their faces have been decorated with transparent masks that edge toward the grotesque, giving the scene a mood of sharp, unforgiving caricature. They stare at us with bleak disdain, as if to remind us of the ridiculousness of the stereotypes (visible and invisible) they are forced to wear.

Weighing in at only a handful of pictures, this is certainly an abbreviated show, and a larger presentation (or a fuller photobook) would likely allow us to dig into these various interlocked themes more fully and understand Kha’s motives and intentions with more nuance. For the moment, this selection feels like a brief but enticing introduction, or the welcome placement of a marker that we can now follow more closely going forward. As seen here, Kha’s artistic vantage point feels both fresh and photographically sophisticated, opening up layered aspects of the Asian-American experience that richly add to what we think we already know.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $2000, regardless of variations in size. Kha’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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