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Exhibition visit: Monologues at the KCC

The current exhibition at the KCC is the first to feature only paintings. All four artists, all of them female, are alumnae of the National Museum of Contemporary Arts’ artist-in-residence programme.

The title of the exhibition – Monologues – is strange but apt. One hopes that an exhibition sets up a dialogue between the artist and viewer, inviting a response from the viewer; and that a group show additionally sets up a dialogue between the artists.

With such a variety of styles on offer, however, the four artists seem to have little to say to each other – each seems to inhabit a completely different world both in terms of subject matter and style. And each artist unsettles the viewer, leaving us uncertain how to respond. So, a series of four monologues is what we are faced with.

Self-injury: Lee Eunsil (2007)
Self-injury: Lee Eunsil (2007). 128 x 192cm, Colours and ink on Korean paper

Perhaps the most recognisably eastern in style is the work of Lee Eunsil: her subjects are placed in Korean-style architecture or in landscapes which could have come straight from a Joseon dynasty literati painting. At first sight the compositions seem calm and harmonious. But the contented black panther reclining inside a Korean house like a domesticated cat is actually being dragged backwards out of the picture, as evidenced by the parallel claw-marks on the floor; in the pastoral landscape we see that the tiger has just deflowered a deer – blood is still dripping from the sexual organs of both animals, and both animals strangely have their heads hidden behind a tree trunk. Even stranger are the paintings of the cat about to explode with constipation, and odd creature which seems to be on fire. The viewer, initially drawn in by the superficially pleasing images ends up puzzled by what the artist is trying to convey.

Never Delete: Lee Jinju (2008)
Never Delete: Lee Jinju (2008). 107 x 187cm, Korean colours on fabric

The surreal compositions of Lee Jinju are similarly puzzling, if still interesting to look at. What is to be made of the woman who is hanging out to dry on a washing line?

Olympia's vomiting. Mackerel Safranski (2008)
Olympia's vomiting. Mackerel Safranski (2008) 59.4 x 168 cm, mixed media

More disturbing than puzzling are the nightmarish visions of Mackerel Safranski. Like illustrations from a children’s book, the paintings seem to portray the unsettled outlook of a deeply insecure and unloved youth, threatened by sinister men in blue suits (representing a brutal father or stepfather?) and suffering from bulimia as she hides in her mother’s wardrobe in one picture and seems to drown in her own vomit in another.

Fall, Sunny Kim (2009)
Fall, Sunny Kim (2009) 100 x 125 cm, acrylic on canvas

The most accessible work is by Sunny Kim – tranquil, melancholy and subdued paintings of schoolchildren whose faces are never visible. But even here there is an element which unsettles: the children are motionless, standing zombie-like in a stark landscape as if out of place, waiting to be woken up.

There is no doubt that the work is well executed and visitors are bound to find something to enjoy. What is difficult to assess is how we are supposed to react to four such very different approaches.

Monologues continues at the KCC until 28 May. The exhibition notes in the accompanying leaflet provide the following information.

The paintings of Mackerel Safranski are bright and colourful. However, her paintings seem to be a battlefield of conflict. In I Wait the Night in Mom’s Closet (2008), stars shine between the horns of a two-headed deer travelling in the dusk of a flaming sunset which turns blood-red when two men dressed in blue suits stab both of its necks with daggers. Rainbows emanating from the mouths of the deer settle over neutral coloured plants like rain. Underneath the two-headed deer, a girl hides in her mother’s messy wardrobe, curled in a foetal position and clad only in black underwear, awaiting the arrival of night. Seen in the mirror on her left, a group of men wearing blue jackets and white trousers are staring at the girl, faces devoid of thought. On her right, a white rabbit flees. From what, the viewer is left to explore. On the back of the two-headed deer, girls in yellow are holding unsynchronised clocks, as if to say the girl in the wardrobe has a long wait in store.

Mackerel Safranski creates narratives – almost scenes from a play – through the use of a re-occurring cast of characters. One of these is “the man dressed in a blue suit”, who symbolises the authoritarianism of a male-oriented society. Another is “the girl with empty eyes.” On to whom the artist projects herself. These characters in conflict obtain relevance through the use of animals (or clothes made of their skin), male and female sexual organs, unravelling bobbins of thread (signifying societal flaws) and clocks.

Sunny Kim is a Korean-American who moved to the United States when she was a child, living there much of her life. Her paintings exhibited discontinued narratives cultivated from another’s photo album or mass media such as movies, magazines and newspapers. Once removed from their original context, she attempts to reorganise imaginary narratives using found images from a Korean childhood not realised in her own life, abruptly lost by cultural separation hue to immigration. Although the artist appears to find solace in the borrowed imagery and experiences of others, her paintings feel empty, permeated by nostalgia for unrealised memories. Photos which may be memories of a certain time or place for another simply become decontextualised artefacts in her paintings. The use of washed-out colours and the exclusion of external influences by the uniformed backs presented to the viewer transforms them into a voyeur separated by a sense of both distance and time from the subjects of Sunny Kim’s work. Rather than overlaying their personal story, the audience is forced to accept the narrative presented by the artist.

Lee Eunsil depicts psychological phenomena driven by the basic desires held with humanity using metaphors and symbols. Through her unique visual language, she explores the complexities of human nature and the boundaries between our reality and the metaphysical. Furthermore, by transforming the mundane to the grotesque and through her use of imagery pertaining to sexual preferences, Lee Eunsil invites a discussion of the human subconscious.

Unlike oil painting, where paint is layered on canvas in a controlled fashion, there is a degree of chaos and unpredictability inherent to the process of ink-wash drawings. Desires, both sexual and excretory, permeate her drawings with a subdued but powerful vitality that reduces the boundary between our reality and that of the canvas to a hair’s breadth.

As if realising that the human body and the brain can never be separated, a seemingly human figure covered with hair like a fetish is placed in a de-constructed Korean traditional house. Doors open, and walls are drawn in part, functioning as a screen dividing the space, but the vitality and energy of the scene is still able to flow freely from the interior of the space to the exterior. The ambiguity of the architectural entrances and exits in her paintings is expanded and reflected into the space of the body through a strange male figure who is posed nude and in a similar fashion to an ostrich in the painting Into the Hole (2009)

Lee Jinju employs an approach in which she explores her ego by recognising her surroundings from fragments of personal memories. She makes the familiar strange by arranging recognisable icons in her own way with a delicate touch. Her work challenges one’s perception of the world through use of her own kinaesthetic logic. This approach allows a visual experience in which a stage is developed that allows various narratives to coexist.

By emphasising a delicate density and transparent visual textures, Lee Jinju creates a realistic, quiet and calm landscape. The contradictor inner world of people today and their complicated mentalities have various levels, resulting in her scheme for visual art. Shapes of pragmatic things appear here and there on the canvas, but her paintings can be said to capture a harmonious world, removing functionality in everyday lives and accepting different values.

In her works, the artist’s dream of supernatural space becomes a reality while the world in which she lives becomes a non-reality. From open works allowing for polysemous interpretation, the audience is reminded of personal experiences and through these find a common ground with the artist.

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