26 January 2024
JoEllen Wang explores the
ambiguity of devalued subjects
by Kate Mothes
Roll beneath urban bridges in many American cities, under which people seek shelter in tents and campers, and one realizes the scale of many of these communities that are so often underserved and overlooked. JoEllen Wang considers the value we place on people, objects, and places, focusing on those that society frequently turns a blind eye to.
“I am drawn to subjects that are ubiquitous yet universally devalued—plastics, weeds, mothers,” says the Seattle-based artist, who emphasizes on the interconnection between social, economic, and environmental matters. Drawing on motifs of camping culture and the American road trip paired with visual commentary on transience and shelter, the artist tries to “balance humor and sincerity.”
In her paintings and sculptures, Wang intentionally miscontextualizes subjects as a way to examine the values we associate with them. “Seeing tarps devoid of the RVs they cover and encampments located in picturesque landscapes helps me have empathy for people habitually ignored,” the artist says. “My installation work similarly uses ambiguity and absurdity to invite a viewer’s reevaluation of cultural norms, such as our acceptance of disposability and our bias towards sedentary lifestyles as the correct way to live.”
A recent public installation titled Camper Fluffle comprises 255 white camper-shaped forms on stakes, each with rabbit ears made from blue plastic tarp. Like a stream through a gully, the campers spread through an electrical transmission corridor that bifurcates the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Seattle. Wang says, “The number is in proportion to an estimate of the number of people living in vehicles in King County.” She continues:
The ears allude to the Eastern Cottontail population that surges in our area whenever there are milder winters. I’m a little obsessed with the theme of shelter, or home, and the idea of safety implicit within the concept. Camper Fluffle is an attempt to find nuance between nomadic and sedentary living, and to look closer at the physical vs. jurisdictional lines between public and private spaces.
Wang often utilizes found imagery from old books, typically featuring 1980s color film photography of wooded vistas and shorelines with an RV or series of temporary shelters portrayed in precarious or dangerous situations. She describes the series, titled Encamping, as an “exercise in misplacing the displaced…(thinking) about positives to nomadism as an adaptive response to one’s environs.”
All images © JoEllen Wang