Pao Houa Her‘s My Mother’s Flowers at Bockley Gallery is a thoughtful examination of the intersection between beauty and identity. Her’s series of 15 photographs alternate between delicate black and white photographs of floral arrangements and colorful images of beautiful women wreathed in tropical blooms. Both emanate a quiet, poised beauty. The formality of these photographs is reminiscent of Victorian-era portraiture and botanical illustrations with every lady, every bloom perfectly positioned.
At least this is what viewers may see the first time around the gallery, because on second glance, the work appears quite different: from behind the flowers emerges a crumpled, taped paper backdrop, and in front of the figures is a slight blur, even spots where the image breaks down into pink and purple pixels. The bouquets are “fake” silk flowers found at thrift stores by Her’s mother who has a vast collection of floral arrangements. The images of lovely young ladies are also found. Her collects pictures that Hmong women post on dating sites in Laos hoping to find husbands in the States, then she alters the images ever so slightly, heightening the colors and the obscuring the focus. What these collected flowers and images share is a longing to be transformed, to transcend one’s current state of being, which Her captures with incredible objectivity. The figures and flowers are all placed in the middle of the page and displayed in a row, more like specimens for examination than intimate portraits.
These small photographs of women and silk flowers revolve around a single larger image of lucky bamboo, Untitled (2016), that is placed directly across from the main entry to the gallery. It is the only photograph of a living plant in color, and the searing red backdrop almost consumes the pale green bamboo plants. This red is somewhere between hot pink toenail polish and a blazing orange summer sunset, so it speaks volumes about desire.
This a common theme throughout Houa Her’s extensive work as a photographer, including an ongoing series from 2007, simply titled Desire, that recently earned her a McKnight Foundation Fellowship. Yet Her’s earlier images—bursting fruit and beautiful women, where desire is in some way fulfilled—contrast with this current work about desire that is withheld. My Mother’s Flowers is as much about perception as it is about longing. Her’s images provoke questions about how we present ourselves based on our aspirations in life. These questions are very important to Her as a first generation Hmong-American, whose family immigrated to Minnesota from Laos in 1986. Much of Her’s work addresses the difficulty of negotiating the ideals of beauty and femininity ascribed to women in popular culture in the US, versus in traditional Hmong culture.
At the same time, the experience of viewing Her’s photographs demonstrates how easy it is to misperceive. What at first glance appears alluring, a moment later, is rife with imperfection. The most compelling part of the exhibition is perhaps not the lovely images, but the challenge of reconciling these two competing experiences of the work.
Noted exhibition information: My Mother’s Flowers, an exhibition of work by Pao Houa Her, is on view at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis through August 6, 2016.