REVIEW | Raeleen Kao & Joanne Aono: Cut and Sown

Raeleen Kao & Joanne Aono: Cut and Sown

Firecat Projects

If there is one exhibition to see this spring, its this one. The exquisite drawings by Chicago artists Raeleen Kao and Joanne Aono are like flashes from a dream: vivid, brief, and visceral – snippets of lives lived and remembered (even agonized over) that, at times, are wanting, desperate, and non-conciliatory. They are meticulously beautiful, minimal and delicate, and unapologetically feminine. I physically feel the weight and the burden of their personal histories that are so unsettlingly present; so much so, that these haunting works have remained with me, long after I’ve left the gallery.

I first saw Raeleen Kao’s work several years ago and I still think of those first pieces often. Undoubtedly, I am drawn to her use of human hair, meticulously drawn in braided bundles or long, whispy lengths; it conjures the ideas captured in mourning jewelry of commemorating a loss but also celebrating a life. It also serves as an obvious surrogate for the body, a gender-specific memento mori capturing the unique anatomical representations of the female body as an object. It is the forced façade of feminine beauty and ideals, and Kao masterfully renders its vulnerabilities to physical and psychological trauma and forfeiture as a result of disease, treatment, and subsequent deterioration.

Here, Kao presents a body of work titled Show Me Where it Hurts, a series of ghostly, graphite drawings of paper dolls – referencing those used medical settings as a communication tool for children to indicate the location of pain or discomfort. Her focus on the scars, stitches, and biopsy sites actively externalizes her own, intimate medical history, one that is difficult to fully comprehend.

In her artist statement, she writes: “In my earliest memory, I was laying heavily sedated on a hospital bed at three years old. In the four hours prior to that memory, my heart had been cut out from chest and my body sustained on a machine which replicated a heart's function of pumping blood through my arteries. I see my work as a record from that first memory through a series of separate chronic conditions and surgical procedures which continue to affect my body.”

As I view Kao’s arresting works, I am reminded of a passage by John Keats that read, “Until we are sick, we understand not.” As someone who lived through a significant health condition with long-lasting repercussions, I intrinsically understand some of feelings expressed here: of time dominated by hospital gowns, surgical beds, and endless medications. And I also understand the need to document and commemorate the difficult experience of serious illness and physical trauma in order to comprehend the ever-changing feelings it brings and to find some comfort in the triumph of both living through it and beyond it. Illness is a precocious lens with which to view the world, and for some, like Kao, it is undeniable; but it forces us to pay attention to ourselves and the present more intuitively and holistically. And in that, I find, feelings of resolution and possibility.

Joanne Aono’s drawings are deceptively simple. Despite her intentionally minimal techniques, her pairings are incredibly rich conceptually as she examines the distinct dualities of her experiences as an identical twin and defining her own unique identity, as well as the conscious and manifesting connections to her ancestral history. Here, Aono presents selections from two series of works: Green Fields, a theoretical representation of the stark similarities of the present with the past, and Home Fields, a deeper exploration into assimilation and individuality. Green Fields (pictured here), incidentally also a translation of Aono’s last name, conjures images of two contrasting geographical locations: the rice paddies where her own ancestors once farmed and the rolling plains of the Midwest farmland where she now calls home. Home Fields (pictured below) is an introspective homage to immigrants, like her own grandparents, who planted vegetable seeds native to their birthplace upon their arrival in the United States. They simultaneously grew comfort food while diversifying the agricultural appetite of the United States, adding their culture to the country’s ever-growing and pluralistic mix.

Each series consists of nine panels, white with a natural wooden frame, protruding several inches from the wall, subtle blades of grass in graphite and/or green colored pencil create small bundles in an otherwise desolate landscapes. There are no discernible landmarks or geographical markers – this could be a field anywhere at any time. With two pencils in her hand, held like hashi (chopsticks), Aono uses an extraordinary process to manipulate both to work in opposition to each other while working together to create the drawing. In this sense, her technique mirrors her own aspirations to express the duality of embracing cultural differences and similarities, while simultaneously seeking both assimilation and individuality. Further, softly layered onto the surface of each panel is harshly formatted and obscured text, nearly invisible except for where the soft blades cross over the rigid edges of the letters. While I understand the intention of the addition of the text, I find it unnecessary. Perhaps it is the particular font or that it is difficult to decipher or that it feels a bit jarring against the soft palette and gentle, rolling lines of Aono’s quiet conjured fields – of which, I think can fully stand on their own.

Raeleen Kao & Joanne Aono: Cut and Sown is open now through March 19 at Firecat Projects, located at 2124 N Damen Avenue, Chicago. For more, visit: or (Raeleen Kao) or (Joanne Aono).

Also, make plans to attend the artist talk Saturday, March 19 from 3 – 5 pm.

Images (from top to bottom): Raeleen Kao, Show Me Where it Hurts V (detail), 2015, graphite pencil on paper, 26 x 20 inches and Joanne Aono, Green Fieldscape (detail), 2016, graphite and colored pencil on panel, 9 x 84 inches; Raeleen Kao, Show Me Where it Hurts I, 2015, graphite pencil on paper, 26 x 20 inches; Raeleen Kao, Show Me Where it Hurts X, 2015, graphite pencil on paper, 26 x 20 inches; Joanne Aono, Green Fields Series, 2016, graphite and colored pencil on panel, nine panels: 8 x 10 inches each; Joanne Aono, Home Fields: Colombia - Guasca, 2016, graphite on panel, 6 x 8 inches

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