Review by David A.M. Goldberg
Special to the Star-Advertiser
Depending on where and how it’s being used, a car interior can be a boudoir, a workspace, a day care center, a mobile storage unit, an ostentatious demand for attention or a prison cell. Hawaii in particular loves its memorials for deceased loved ones, themed stick-figure families, and bold pledges to cultural, geographic, religious and athletic allegiance. From paint job to brand and bumper sticker, everyone has a sense that cars can represent projections of their owners’ beliefs and sense of self.
Photographer Phil Jung’s collagelike portraits of automotive interiors and external surfaces refine the intuitive guesswork that we bring to bear when we attempt to read a car as a kind of record of ownership — in terms of its dents, degree of polish, dashboard toys and trinkets hanging from rear-view mirrors. Who hasn’t performed a casual forensic analysis (and subsequent social judgment) based on what people leave on their seats, or allow their children to stick to their windows?
To assert that someone’s car reflects someone’s tastes is straightforward, but might one’s car also reflect their mind or soul? Jung provides a straightforward conceptual framework to explore such a question, using art photography to amplify our everyday vision. There is nothing in the show that is shocking or unfamiliar, but the specific framing strategies and qualities of light Jung pursues are disciplined and highly evocative.
>> On exhibit: Through July 3, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays
>> Where: Hawai‘i Pacific University Art Gallery, Hawai‘i Loa campus, 45-045 Kamehameha Highway in Kaneohe
>> Info: 544-0228
Specializing in juxtapositions and contrasts that mix the grim, the humorous and the ironic, Jung presents 15 pieces shot all over the United States. In each he is trying to photograph the intersection of a character or personality, the vehicle’s locale and the specific ways that age, clutter and deterioration end up producing an infinity of unique nuances.
Jung favors workaday cars over luxury ones and presents interiors that are clearly lived in, if not currently occupied. Looking at lottery tickets crammed into a seat pocket, a postcard tucked behind a door strap, or a Bible seemingly bracing one corner of a rear window is a far cry from the commercial photography that sells cars into peoples’ lives in the first place. Instead, wear, stains, cracking, scuffs and shadows of missing decals speak to life’s erosions and its entropy.
Jung brings all of this together in "Sleeping Mask," a complex tableau featuring a bright red pencil sharpener, bent cigarette butts (one with matching lipstick traces, two without,) a scattering of ash across the burled maple around the gear shift, and the titular red-pink mask hooked over it. Narrative threads of long drives to nowhere and ambiguous episodes passed in rest stops weave themselves together, charged by the lurking presence of a great, dark, gray-tipped fur rolling in like thunderclouds from the left side of the frame.
The photograph is a thousand-word mystery, as the viewer/voyeur is invited to piece together a story from these elements: Who is the owner? Why is the gear shift wet as if a window were left open? A final, tantalizing detail is revealed in the soft electric orange glow of the "P" in the gear indicator … the car is on!
Under what circumstances did Jung, who writes in his artist statement that "if a car sits too long uninhabited, it loses something," take this and other similarly haunted photos? "Starry Night" shows an amateur (child’s?) reproduction of Van Gogh’s famous painting, half-covered in a scintillating pile of shattered safety glass. "Cloths Piled Up" is a portrait of a car someone clearly lives in, the air freshener blurred in mid spin above an active, upward-turned vent.
"L&L BBQ" is a trove of local references (Jung lives in both Boston and Hawaii) featuring the debris of a lunch break, marked by soft drink and snack brands we are all familiar with, accented by a pair of heavy boots that speak to a working-class life. The hand-written note to "Brent" left on the seat tells us the owner will be back to pick up — what, exactly?
Jung’s lens pushes deep into these worlds, past the tint jobs, racing decals, Hello Kitty stickers and windows left open in the parking lots. Through "Windscreen," we are encouraged to consider what kinds of worlds each of us builds in our cars, and to ask: Who else might be trying to interpret them?