“Knowing how to communicate and understand others is fundamental to art as well as life.” – James Wu

Senior Printmaking major at MICA, James Wu sat down with Microcosm staff to discuss his current body of work entitled Trading Cards. These pocket-sized black and white etchings feature common accessories used in contemporary sexualized images (hair, high heels, dancing poles, etc.) while the figure remains an absent silhouette. The series started just after he purchased a box of adult magazines from a sidewalk sale and is in response to his traditional Baptist upbringing where the environment heavily repressed and stigmatized all forms of sexuality. In an attempt to understand and further explore traditional notions of propriety and the ‘what’ that makes an image inappropriate, Wu has opted to focus on the objects originally used to conceal the models. He says his work looks at “sexualized” images without the need for flesh.” Currently he is working with the placement of accessories and the audience’s imagination to fill in the image. Wu likes to ask the question, “What else besides the figure could be sexy about the image?”

Peers and instructors at MICA encouraged self-exploration in Wu which started his pursuit of sexualized images. Investigating ideas of sex and expectation, and the line between pornography and art, Wu consciously wants to push boundaries and encourage emotional reactions in his audience. The interplay between what is shown and what is not creates a product that asks the viewer to come to terms with their own expectations. Trading Cards explores the progression of “what [the audience] has seen before, to what they are expecting to see, to finally what they see in the product.” Some people find it hard to look past the pornographic aspect of the trading cards, Wu tells, while others see the images for what they are. Wu gives a mischievous smile when he points out that “these are just still lives,” and that the viewer subscribes their personal expectations onto the cards, and it is they who place a figure within them.

Wu acknowledges the comedic humor of his Trading Cards series and how they borrow on the American hobby of collecting trading cards. Particularly enjoying the range of emotions collectors have when speaking about their collection of trading cards, Wu believes “some collectors [are] proud and others are completely ashamed by it,” and he is also concerned with how the variety in reactions is similar to people who watch porn. Trading cards and card games can also be sophisticated or not depending on the viewer, a metaphor for the way his own work may be perceived as either pornographic or as art. In a full homage to their collectable lineage Wu thinks his Trading Cards would best be displayed in plastic card sleeves, as if they were “prized possessions.”

When asked who his preferred audience is, Wu responded with a nonchalant shrug. “Everyone. Uptight crowds who are sexually repressed. No main audience.” Wu wants his audience to gain a better understanding of themselves through his work and for the audience to ask of themselves why they think and feel about the images the way that they do. But Wu quite empathetically makes the allowance that there are lots of valid possibilities out there when dealing with sexuality, and that rather than focus on a particular doctrine, his work is in how the viewer questions the artist’s intentions and how that might differ from how the viewer sees the work. For him the most important part of life is in self-questioning and self-exploration, and he wants his audience to acknowledge that life is about making up your own rules.

Leslie-Morgan Frederick

Vol. 2, Fall 2009