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At Frey Norris Gallery

Christine Wong Yap and Jenifer K. Wofford are two San Francisco-based artists whose work -- collectively ranging from comic-book-esque sketches of immigrant nurses to installations of paper bags embossed with cheeky truisms -- is more preoccupied with instances of the mundane than anything else. But glancing through “Sorry", a collection of their recent works at the Frey Norris Gallery, you needn’t wade through the playful renderings of everyday vernacular and ritualized habits to get to the heart of the show, which exploits the manner in which language and image are often shrouded in indeterminate, constantly changing meanings, making the possibility of an intelligible narrative illusory.

Wofford’s “Point of Departure” project takes up half of the exhibition and features the artist’s ongoing pen and ink collection of drawings of Filipina nurses, which are surprisingly striking given the sparseness of materials and the banal subject matter. The topic under examination seems innocuous enough, but Wofford is specifically interested in how race and gender coalesce to form the power dynamics of caregiving, and in how stereotypes in the spectators’ mind inform their interpretations. The pieces, are arranged throughout the gallery in rubrics that seem to approximate a unified narrative, are reminiscent of comic-book panels, which is obviously an intentional gambit—while the works were never meant to coincide with a sequence of tangible events, Wofford seems well aware that the viewer will naturally attempt to make connections between each piece. (Visitors to her website can arrange and rearrange the drawings in multiple configurations to coincide with their own imagined narrative.) In fact, the point of this bizarre series, in many ways, is to reveal how one story can be told and re-told multiple times, in multiple ways—which is particularly pertinent given Wofford’s own preoccupation with the idea of the “immigrant” experience, which comprises fractured narratives more than cohesive or absolute histories.

It is perhaps the banal nature of the drawings that works in their favor and meshes with the conceptual rigor of the project. Each of the drawings, clinically composed on square pieces of paper, has the kind of mathematical acuteness reminiscent of traditional studies of an object. These are simple pieces, and yet there is nothing elementary about them. The nurses work, daydream, and find themselves in inconclusive spaces, interacting with strange, gummy globs of unidentifiable origin (which, perhaps, are metaphors for the liminal spaces of sickness and convalescence portended by the nursing profession itself). These are places of fantasy that seem to defy narrative while screaming for a caption, all the same. In Wofford’s “Sink and Falling Nurse,” a rendering of a hospital sink stands alongside the almost violent image of a nurse falling through blue space. The composition is intriguing in its startling juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate images. We want to make sense of it, and all the other drawings, and the fact that Wofford gives us little to go on is as tantalizing as it is frustrating.

Wong Yap is similarly invested in the intersection between the mundane and the astounding, but while Wofford’s work veers on the edge of narrative, Wong Yap takes snatches of conversation and everyday language and divorces them from context in order to examine the emotional basis of words that we often take for granted. The eponymous piece, “Sorry,” features the word ornately calligraphed backwards as if we were looking at the mirror reflection. In some ways, Wong Yap seems to posit that language in its daily usage is somewhat like its reflection -- proportionally inverse in meaning and translation. In addition, the occupation of the text in a physical space enables the word to approximate an image, in that we as spectators can see that the text is merely the representation of an idea rather than the idea itself.

Not all of Wong Yap’s work is so conceptually heady. Her interest in obsessive listmaking and the habitual patterns of language -- as well as its artificiality and emotionality -- is accompanied by her representations of contradiction. Her “Inventions” series comprises a number of collages and drawings on graph paper that saucily reference product design and the motivations behind technology and invention. “Dark Light", which features the image of a shadow protruding from a lamp and flooding a keyboard, is one such example. The scene is particular to Wong Yap’s oeuvre, which entertains the possibility of perceiving contradiction and paradox, of imagining the ultimately unknowable or imperceptible—but always with a cheeky acknowledgment of the disingenuousness inherent in surface appearances.

The manner in which Wofford and Wong Yap examine the boundaries between image and language, idea and execution is always engaging; however, the place where the show falls short is in its exposition of the relationship between the two artists and their work. The pieces come across more as unconnected surveys of the artists’ recent work than an intelligibly conceived exhibition that relies on overt thematic similarities. Of course, most spectators won’t need an obvious conjunction, but the lack of structure sometimes makes the pieces seem like little more than ingeniously executed projects -- albeit, ones that make us hunger for more of the same.

at Frey Norris Gallery
runs through April 27th