A Different Blue Period in Larissa Pham’s “Pop Song”
Pop Song: adventures in art and intimacy is the first collection of essays and non-fiction by writer Larissa Pham, following her debut novel, Fantastic. Pham studied painting and art history at Yale University and is currently an artist and writer in Brooklyn. She has written essays and reviews for The Paris Review Daily, The nation, Art in America, the Poetry Foundation and others. Drawing on his vast experience and deep appreciation for the visual arts, pop song is about distance and intimacy, a study in juxtaposition, using a “top-down” mix of fine art and pop culture to flesh out a nuanced portrait of identity, sexuality, and art by a young new voice in art criticism and social commentary.
This collection feels like a seamless integration between two worlds: it’s an artist’s diary and it’s a writer’s sketchbook, full of discoveries and experimentation. At various times – sections such as “Camera Roll (Notes on Longing)” and “Breakup Interludes”, among others – the essays are fragmented, reading more like quick successions of micro-essays within an essay, or vignettes moving to a general theme. This desire to play with the form of the essay was effective: I felt like I was walking through a gallery, going around Pham’s most intimate moments, sometimes with high definition photorealism, other times in broad, dreamy brushstrokes, deliberately layered. after another. Pham’s use of language is skillful, and she successfully delivers the beautiful, evocative language demanded by ekphrastic art commentary:
“A wider wash of gray, twice the height of the other bands but of the same hue, runs midway between them. The paint retains its characteristic thinness, but has been applied in broad, almost dripping, rippling strokes on the canvas; they have the feel of a stormy sea or incoming rain clouds.
When the subject matter (paintings and photographs) is itself already so beautiful, the language must be all the more precise and all the more vibrant to translate a work of visual art into a second, different (and non-visual) medium. Pham excelled in this area, evoking the essence of a painting without showing us the painting. It pushes even further, gently guiding us to the heart of the work, in search of the life and spirit of the artist who resides there.
“Contrary to my problem with the sky – which resisted representation – Martin completely dispenses with mimesis. After all, why paint the sky when the sky itself is a substitute, when instead you can paint the feeling you get when you look at the world and realize it contains so much beauty that you haven’t yet seen ?”
Pham’s essays combine several visual works, set against the dynamic backdrop of her own life – through her travels, whether it’s a family vacation in New Mexico, a summer art program in France or an editorial-related trip to Shanghai. Pham chronicles her relationship with lovers as well as herself – explorations of pleasure and pain, anxiety and serenity, loneliness and love. At the heart of it all is Pham’s appreciation and adoration for the beauty of the human body, painfully and poignantly juxtaposed with the trauma that Pham’s own body endured, as a rape survivor, and, more generally, the daily trauma of life and work. as a young Vietnamese woman in a society designed to harm bodies like hers. We are given an insight into the world of Western art and academia through the perspective both offered and complicated by Pham’s own political identity:
“I knew I was there to make the program run smoothly, whether it was helping a student call home, or making sure we had our meals arranged, or keeping track of program finances, or doing the timesheets that meant Paul and Jamie and Sam and I got paid – I knew it was all of that, and more, but it was invisible, feminized work that all the world around me seemed to take it for granted. I was overworked and undervalued.
This book may be particularly suitable for readers who like ekphrastic writing; this may be a favorite among Ocean Vuong fans On Earth, we are briefly beautiful, especially on the themes of sex, destruction and the body; and it’s perhaps for those who are fans of essayist Jia Tolentino, who seek to explore more cultural critique through the lens and gaze of a young Asian woman. In a more general sense, this collection is welcome reading for anyone looking for a writer who refuses to apologize, hide or back down, a writer who sees the world and, at the same time, demands that the world sees her.