The sense and significance of place, both subjectively and objectively, is a complex structure of the human experience that encompasses the self and the other, space and time, experience and identity. Its significance is not always found in the actual experience of place (though more often than not it is), but rather in the grounding of experience in place. Interesting, this kind of binding attachment isn’t only a feature of our existence, but also, quite often, consumes our thoughts, narrates our perspectives, steers our lives, and establishes our very notions of roots. That very sense of place and heritage, both common and divergent, is materialized, suppressed, and celebrated in the muted and almost-entirely ceramic works featured in Beyond the Morning Calm: a beautiful exhibition of ten contemporary Korean artists living in the U.S., curated by artist Steven Young Lee. The strength of the exhibition, when viewed as a collection in its entirety, is its thoughtful and beautiful presentation of delicate materials, impeccable techniques, and dark, poetic, emotional impressions. The material and heritage of the artists, in many ways, is all that is common here, and often this would be a downfall; but in this instance, it serves as both the catalyst and the declaration of a very serious dialogue.
One of my favorites, and certainly one of the most popular, is Meiping Vase with Peonies by Steven Young Lee. An elegantly crafted porcelain vase in the palest of blues is shrouded in opaque white peonies, mimicking the traditional Chinese form originally utilized as a wine vessel and later becoming popular for holding plum blossoms. Given its historic reference and traditional form, it is an object loaded with connotation and history; however, Lee obliterates these preconceptions by exploding the side of the crucible – leaving a gaping hole in the thick slab of the material with protruding rough edges and drips of glaze, both preserving the evidence of the blast. Decidedly modern, the object becomes narrative – evolving into questions of symbolism, superstition, identity, and value. Suddenly, I, as the viewer, find a unique role to play in the in-between: a distant past that no longer exists and a future that is yet to be determined. It is a captivating piece and undoubtedly one of the most formidable on view.
Just adjacent to Lee’s vase, also in the same soft palette of blues is Blooming, Withering, and Other Thoughts III by Jae Won Lee; a trio of objects meant to convey the idea of a white winter as a place to contemplate simplicity, silence, and solitude. Constructed of delicate, matte, porcelain silhouettes assembled into singular units, Lee’s work (by nature of the material and scale) is intimate and tempting. Evoking forms from nature and language, the individual components compound into new, unknown amalgamations that blur the lines of philosophy, identity, and culture into a personal, visual vernacular. There are distinctions, though subtle and gradual, that reference the artist’s background; but even more so of her search, of her poetic return to a physical place (what she refers to as a homing instinct). I feel compelled to to drape myself in the long, quiet strands of sandwiched specimens, to caress and care for the smaller, denser bundles as I join in her ultimately, elusive journey.
The final work of the exhibition, a delightfully surprising collection and point of punctuation is by Jae Yong Kim; which could not be any more different than either of the works noted above. Although Kim is renowned for his works depicting snails (creatures who carry their homes literally on their backs), I Donut Care offers a playful investigation into not only the artist’s desire to understand my (and subsequently his own) feelings of self, place, and satisfaction – of home. Sixty-three ceramic donuts adorn the wall in a close-knit grid, traditional glazed and jelly forms are sprinkled among squares, hearts, devils, and animated mouse delicacies. Coated with elaborate glazes and patterns, golden lacquers and sparkling crystals, Kim offers these eclectic and humorous surrogates of pleasure as subjects – as constants for ready and reasonable entry into larger queries of experience, stability, and joy. The idea that donuts are universal is both comforting and delicious, and an unexpected object to depict the elasticity of the terms foreign and domestic and present. Ultimately, and ironically, I can relate to that same desire; only I never knew it would (or could) be echoed by the same undeniable craving I experience for decadent pastries. Kim has masterfully evoked a powerful nostalgia for the sweet and the familiar, and the safety I find in both.
Beyond the Morning Calm is currently on view at Lillstreet Gallery located at 4401 N Ravenswood, Chicago, IL and also includes works by the following artists: Sam Chung, Heesoo Lee, Hoon Lee, Kyungmin Park, Myungjin Park, and Sunkoo Yuh in addition to the artists featured here. For more, visit: http://lillstreetgallery.com/beyond-the-morning-calm
Images from top to bottom: Jae Yong Kim, I Donut Care, 2013-2015, ceramic, underglaze, glaze, luster glaze, Swarovski crystals; Steven Young Lee, Meiping Vase with Peonies, 2014, porcelain; Jae Won Lee, Blooming, Withering, and Other Thoughts III, 2015, porcelain; Jae Yong Kim, I Donut Care (detail), 2013-2015, ceramic, underglaze, glaze, luster glaze, Swarovski crystals; exhibition view