In Howard Henry Chen’s Journey to the West #8, a vast swath of dense forest is interrupted by a single flash of orange: a saffron-robed monk dwarfed by the great trees that surround him. But at first glance, that spark of color could as easily be the blazing orange of a hunter’s coat.
This flip-flop of narrative is important to Chen, a graduate of Columbia College’s MFA program. The three-paneled photo, on view in the MCA’s New Artists/New Work series, is, in part, a response to the much-publicized 2004 murders of six white hunters in the woods of Wisconsin by an ethnic Hmong immigrant—a conflict Chen calls "in essence, a turf war."
The subject is one to which the artist—who immigrated to the U.S. from Saigon with his family in 1975, just weeks before the end of the Vietnam War—returns often. For several years Chen, now 36, traveled back and forth between Chicago and Saigon, making art about the role cultural differences play in our battles over land.
Despite its violent inspiration, the triptych is also incredibly beautiful. At nearly ten feet across, the image invokes art-historical concepts of the sublime and manipulated scale, much in the same way 19th-century U.S. landscape paintings were designed to "open up the West"—an effort Chen cites as part of yet another episode in the nation’s long history of boundary disputes.
Aug 2-31. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E Chicago. 312-280-2660.
Photography: Howard Henry Chen, Journey into the West #8