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tseng kwong chi at julie saul gallery

by Joan Kee  

The Gang's All Here

Party of the Year, 1980
(Self-Portrait with Andy Warhol and entourage)


Tseng Kwong Chi
Niagara Falls, New York

Tseng Kwong Chi
Paris, France

Party of the Year,
Metropolitan Museum of Art,
1980 (Self-Portrait with
Jacqueline Ribes)

   The late photographer Tseng Kwong Chi came to prominence in the 1980s with a series of stiff self-portraits standing in front of travel landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Disneyland, poses that seem designed to achieve a kind of monumental "fame by association." This recent show at Julie Saul, titled "The Gang's All Here," concentrated on images of Tseng and friends, or Tseng and other, "realer" celebrities. In pictures taken at the Metropolitan Museum's 1980 opening of its Manchu Dragon exhibition, for instance, Tseng has assumed a more intimate and relaxed dimension -- he has removed his sunglasses, a disavowal of the cool, detached stance that marks much of his work.

But even with this symbolic unshielding, Tseng's self-portraits with luminaries such as Andy Warhol and Paloma Picasso still manage to preserve the dichotomy between private and public, intimate and distant, that he explores in his other photos. The shutter-release cord that Tseng holds may symbolically connect viewer and artist, but one can't help but note the disparity between the everyday world and the over-the-top, almost surreal glamour of the Met gala. Tseng and his companions may be linked arm in arm in a gesture of fellowship, but their smiles are too-perfect, as if contrived to complete the external ensemble.

Tseng's regular costume was a formal outfit with Mao jacket, and his own exaggerated "officialness" was his ticket of entry, providing him with unlimited access to worlds that would otherwise have been impenetrable. He is the photographer-as-tourist, and his photos effectively objectify the celebrities they celebrate.

Costume and appearance had a recurring fascination for Tseng in both larger group portraits such as The Gang's All Here and in more casual shots. Commemorating parties held at downtown nightclubs like the Mudd Club, Underground and Danceteria, these works show Tseng and his friends in various get-ups, from the pretentious gallery-hopper to the outlandish club queen. In this massive Halloween party, no one's who they're supposed to be. But who cares? These works are a nostalgic reminder of that wild and crazy party known as the `80s.

Tseng Kwong Chi, Sept. 10-Oct. 11, 1997, at Julie Saul Gallery, 560 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012

JOAN KEE frequently writes on contemporary Asian and Asian American art.