Catalog Essay by Alberto McKelligan Hernández:
Like several works in this exhibition, Jimmy Luu's finished object resists one-word categorization such as painting, photography, or collage. Instead, the artist calls his work an artifact of seeing, the resulting record of a particular viewing experience. The process behind this artifact begins with a collection of iconic physique magazine photographs, depicting male models in a variety of suggestive poses. Luu examines these images, finally selecting a few in order to reproduce them in different panels; he then layers these images with drawings, splashes of color, and other elements. The final product, prominently displayed in a gallery, prompts yet another transformation for Luu's source material; the image of a male model in a jail cell, originally intended for private viewing, now stands in a public space.
Confronting Luu's work, I find myself with the difficulty of describing how these archival photographs function. It would be easy to interpret the art object as a deliberate commentary on how particular individuals were reduced to mere objects of desire. In this view, the artist's decision to use bright colors and decorative patterns would only underline how these men were transformed to appealing objects of consumption as disposable as birthday wrapping paper.
But things are not quite that simple, as I don't believe Luu's work merely describes the act of seeing as a voyeuristic exercise. Luu's splashes of hot pink and textures strike me, perhaps surprisingly, as melancholic; they remind me of battered party streamers strewn across the asphalt after a block party. The fact that Luu's source photographs are readily identifiable as part of a world that would later face the AIDS epidemic further pushes me into this interpretation… Once one considers the historical events linked to the original images, melancholia seems unavoidable.
If Luu's work is an "‘artifact of seeing" then, it is a melancholic and layered one, as it acknowledges the complexities of the relationship between those who observe and those observed. Speaking with the artist, he described his viewing experience and artistic production as conversation. To me, this reveals how our gaze may not entirely succeed in reducing the photographed models to objects. Admittedly, our gaze does hit the sides of their faces… despite the multiple layers of color and drawings, the images retain their ability to entice the willing viewer. But if one examines the entirety of the work, noticing the amount of layers and details, one must face that elusive emotional component... as viewers, we are prompted to invest time in these details, just as the artist originally did during his construction process.
Facing Luu's work, we do not resemble the all-controlling voyeurs who flip through magazine images that are entirely interchangeable. Instead, we are prompted to admit, begrudgingly perhaps, that the inert image we view may affect us in unforeseen ways, far beyond simply providing scopic pleasure. By presenting his "artifact of seeing" to the gallery'’s audience, Luu invites other individuals to participate in these debates and conversations.