Push for the Butter
"Influenced by comics" is like "influenced by the Ramones" is like "influenced by Tarantino": it could be an advance apology for amateurism and incoherence, maybe with a little style to sugar it up. Jeni Yang, though, means what she says: in her show "Between Catnaps," she simply remembers to be cute and funny, with quirky and instantly vivid characters whose bodies have been shaped to represent their personalities. Like: "Ouch," Yang's "bad boy," a hulking fuzzball with Band-Aids on his forehead and a thermometer in his mouth, or Toasthead and Noodlehead, the fast-food service robots ("Push for the butter!" "Veggie hair!") gone independently renegade. Most of Yang's work in "Catnaps" is this sort of cheerful character sketch, portraits of her little menagerie caught in moments that seem lifted from an unwritten story—no surprise that she'd one day like to illustrate a children's book, or that she currently freelances as a graphic/fashion/T-shirt designer. Her characters come imbued with a certain immediate charisma that lends itself well to—and isn't there a gentler term?—brand identity. It's sweet, charming and cartoony, a nice complement to the Artery gallery space and to the Lab itself.
Yang's more recent works, however, inch toward something—not realistic, necessarily, but there is a feeling of depth and gravity that puttering Noodlehead portraits don't (and don't need to) have. Yang is happily a technical enough artist that she doesn't need to hide behind a comics/cartoon influence: in one piece, she stirs together industrial brown and sky blue over a dirty landscape; in Normal Day on a Random Train, she puts a brother and sister on an empty plastic subway bench, breaking up the sterility with bits of trash (spilled soda cups and bottles show up several times in "Catnaps") and people ignoring the rules. ("Smoking on a nonsmoking train," she smiles. "I kinda like that.") The artist flipping through her own comics and children's books—and then painting her own cast of extras—is adorable but sort of temporary; the artist looking up from her comics to reconcile the world around her could be much more interesting. The Adventures of Noodlehead will be just fine, but the adventures of Jeni Yang should come next.
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