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Jinah Sohn’s Emptied Mind and the Surface of Dense Paintings

Yeon Shim Chung (Art Critic, Hongik Univ.)

A new spirit has appeared in Jinah Sohn’s paintings, sculptures, and installations. Her new exhibit, which is opening two years after her last exhibition, is in line with works that were on view in 2009 in regard to art forms and content. Nonetheless her current 2011 artworks demonstrate a visible change. It is the way in which the operation of being void and compact in the canvas results from the interaction of color and space, as well as the working process embodying the artist’s thoughts.

The phrase “Nothing out there” runs through the artworks presented in the 2011 exhibition. “Nothing out there” might sound rather paradoxical or contradictory considering that Sohn’s works reveal compulsively compacted pictorial surfaces of ornamental patterns. If one accepts this phrase literally as meaning “nothing is out there physically,” the explication of Sohn’s work is totally misleading. That is well demonstrated in the Empty Mind, in which the “emptiness” contrasts with the mesmerizing compacted surface of lines and colors.

In the three 200 x 100 cm pieces of the Empty Mind, the primordial flattened geometric motifs are visible in traditional tapestries or carpets. The arabesque patterns with polka dots fill the pictorial space in organic forms. The floating forms are reminiscent of the decorative edges of medieval illuminated manuscripts or ornaments of stained glass, but they are non-real space with illusion. In other words, the ornamental patterns act as a means to raise “existential” questions.

In these distorted, exaggerated organic patterns that occupy Jinah Sohn’s oeuvres, the void-related words such as “nothing” and “empty” are coexistent with “sensuous” sensitivity resultant from the “decorativeness.” Because the former evokes a very spirituality, it might seem that the sensuous is far from these spiritual realms. However these two opposing elements work together as the weft and the warp threads are closely knitted. How then are the opposing components generated in Sohn’s works?
Sohn’s pictorial patterns and ornaments stimulate our vision, and the linear and curvilinear forms function as an arena of playfulness. The repetitive and the sensuous give rise to vividness in the flattened surface. However, once you look at the artist’s work, a new formal element pops up to control, refine, and transform the existing sensuousness toward the site of spiritual meditation. The surface of the painting presents an overlayered “accumulation” of brushstrokes, and the section with polka dots, which looks like a vestige of silkscreen technique, is created by Sohn’s painstaking hand touches. As time passes, the physical realms of the canvas are completed, painted, and appear decorative.

On the other hand, with the time shift, the artist’s mind becomes a symbolic site of something emptied, cleaned, and nondecorative. In this particular set of art works—paintings, sculptures, and installation pieces, which are very consistent with these themes, I find the corporeal traces and gestures with decorative patterns on one side, and the very becoming process of thought, meditation, monologue, and dialogue on the other hand. The way these two axes operate dialectically is the epitome of Jinah Sohn’s 2011 exhibition.

The motif of a chair continues to be essential in Sohn’s work as it’s been for the past decade. The chair exists as a symbolic vehicle for a personified self-portrait. According to an interview with the artist, the chair is not only her self-portrait, but functions as a portrait in a more general sense since the chair mimics the human form with its armrest and back. Her anthropomorphic ideas have been influenced by her study of Indian art during her graduate school studies in the United States. Taking this into account, the chair goes beyond the form of her self-portrait in characterizing the body, and connotes the expanded meaning of social status and desire as well as power and authority.

Looking at Sohn’s Confession, in which a stack of chairs are precariously piled up, exuding chaos, we can think of the chair group becoming a group of human forms. Diverse chairs, from the blue chair authoritatively placed on the table to the extended chair connoting Salvador Dali’s clock, depend on only one chair which the artist has chosen. These antique-looking chairs are not modernist sculpture per se with a sculptural base; rather the base, as a part of the artwork, recreates formal play with the diversion and extension of the chair’s functions and roles. Therefore the base and table are not formal aids but create risky situations or environments.

In addition, Sohn subverts the inherent features of the chairs by putting them on the table in order to project a symbolic aspect for the chair and to deemphasize its function. These chairs appear in Sohn’s Empty Mind with the overhead images of decorative patterns as in Baroque ceiling paintings, in which the side and front look of the chair are arranged. This chair connotes the very self of the onlooker, but it does not exclude the self as a social portrait. She weaves dialogues by depicting the chair as being singular as well as plural.

The method of reaching the narratives and dialogues lies in the way Jinah Sohn integrates such varied mediums as sculptures, installations, and abstract patterns as motifs, all of which produce “theatricality.” Her choices are very particular and specific because this theatrical manner puts viewers in the center of the artwork, allowing them to experience the actual formal space. According to Sohn, theatricality can best be produced with the large scale of her sculpture.
In Robert Morris’ article entitled “Notes on Sculpture,” published in 1966, the minimalist sculptor emphasizes the sculptural scale in relation to the size of the viewer versus the size of sculpture. He noted that, being in the actual artwork, the viewer can experience sculptural “presence”; this was reexamined in Critical Inquiry in 2000, in his article “Size Matters” by coining “Wagner Effects.” Morris writes:
Any abstract work may or may not have claimed for it the status of metaphorical or allegorical sign. Metonymic references are generally absent, or at least disparaged, when present in the sign system of nonobjective works. And here we might recall Edmund Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. Only the metaphorical can accede to sublime status, while only the partial, the small, and, of course, the feminine (I follow Burke here) can occupy the category of the beautiful. In American abstract art, big is not only always better but also the only hope against its nemesis, the decorative.
Following this grand scale of sculpture, Sohn’s work is far from the decorative seen in her paintings, and the viewer can experience theatricality directly, thus transforming the visual and illumined sensitivity of her paintings toward the temporal, Zeitlichhkeit.

At the same time, Sohn’s decision to employ bronze and stained glass, with permanent metallic properties, is shrewd in imposing historicism to the given mediums in her sculpture. Obviously her choice is different from Feminist artists including Louise Bourgeios, Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, and Yayoi Kusama, all of whom depended on soft-looking or feminine-looking sculptures in the 1960s when critic Lucy Lippard categorized their work as “Eccentric Abstraction.” 

Sohn is making efforts to create the temporal effects by having acid marked on the surface of her sculpture, and the very mark as an indexical sign on bronze is permanent in her working process. By giving life to bronze, which the aforementioned female artists neglected, Sohn stresses historicism of the past. In this way, she does not struggle with feminist or gender issues.

While Sohn’s paintings evoke optical illusion and, therefore, consciousness, the work which takes us to the real environment or reality is her work Hidden Breath, also the title of her exhibition. The hidden breath consists of four overwhelming chairs of different shapes, postures, and sizes. The dim or hazy feelings embedded in her hidden breath are delivered in a variety of shapes of the same bronze chair. Unlike the repetitive patterns, this sculpture delivers emotional sensitivities. Flowers are placed on one of the chairs. As the artist cannot make molds for these flowers, she cut the bronze pieces and created floral petals and welded each of them. Of course this technique requires the final touch of acid to engender the temporal effects with different patinas and acids.

The four transformed chairs are produced as portraits of the Other, as well as a site of social space/landscape, or place. To further the theatrical results, Sohn installs a chandelier sculpture entitled Deep Inside in the narrow corridor of the gallery. The work is visible from the lower floor of the gallery space. This sculpture, in particular, is visible in a different way depending on the viewer’s placement, beneath or above the work. This parallax viewpoint is well justified in her work because she accepts different perspectives and views. Therefore, viewing her artwork is not just physical orientation, rather it constructs the way in which the artist puts a process of thinking, meditating, and observing a variety of views for the given object/situation.

Let’s go back to Jinah Sohn’s painting called Deep Inside. In this work, the abstract and representational elements conflict and constantly negotiate on the canvas. As in the ceiling paintings by Baroque artists, Giambattista Tiepolo and Pietro da Cortona, a series of Sohn’s Deep Inside calls to mind a grand style and scale. Here she presents the chair without a sitter to represent the absent reality and emotional overtones. Sohn’s works from Passing on, Indifference to Big Black Sad are records of her state of mind and a confession to reach the path of nothingness. Unlike completely geometric and ornamental paintings, these examples are emotional and expressive as shown in the titles of sorrows and indifference.

This visual element reaches its climax in Sohn’s Here to Stay in which well-ordered arabesque patterns are distorted in convex and concave forms; objective images are constantly changing. The legible images remain as “vulnerable” objects. In this way, ornaments or patterns do not merely remain geometric but exist as signs. The sign of the chair signifies the situation. The metal craft cloisonné technique, visible in the stained glass, is suitable for design elements, as for instance, design covers or posters. This particular enamel technique creates the flatness and the literal quality of the images, despite the pictorial illusions. Keeping this in mind, consider the following point.
Artists at the beginning of the twentieth century (including Henri Matisse) evaluated flattened modernist paintings and the autonomy of paintings as well as their ontological values. However, they also had a strong phobia about having their work described as decorative or ornamental at the extreme case of being flattened. The very decorative elements might be craft, a pejorative term of the era in relation to the high art of painting and sculpture. “Decorative” was understood as giving up the aesthetic values of high art, and thus modernist painters were attentive to not become decorative in their pursuit of deductive abstraction.

Therefore, in the Red Studio of 1911, Matisse drew a line of distinguishing the wall and floor of the completely red studio, and in the case of Piet Mondrian, his geometric paintings are the meticulous result of painting the horizontal and the vertical lines. Unfortunately these visual vestiges are not visible in the reproductions but we can see the way Mondrian stuck to the traditional motifs of apple trees and landscapes.

At this point, then, we cannot ask a question about what the meaning of Sohn’s ornamental rhetoric is à la design. To define this, we can say that Sohn’s case is different from abstraction and decorativeness in modernist contexts and, further, her works are even distinct from the postmodernist production and expansion of different mediums. Rather I find that Jinah Sohn’s ornamental patterns and repetitive images act as a “sign,” giving her the will to deliver the meaning of the given symbols in her works. Sometimes, this gesture is private or personal, but the codes are frequently cultural and gender-based. For instance, as the curvilinear lines of the chair look both feminine and authoritative and present a powerful throne, we can see how the artist embodies social powers. This deciphering process is individual and yet expands its horizon to newer cultural meanings.

Signs such as ornamental patterns play effective visual roles in that (1) they create optically, capturing a beautiful sensuous world; (2) they are erotic and present tactile quality; and (3) they have repetitive rhythm and musical overtones, which produce acoustic quality. In the world of our senses, our minds and eyes are pleased with these ornaments which cause our desire and drive to come to the surface. However, these senses are slowly reduced as the artist paints restlessly and unrestrainedly in the course of a long time and, at the end, only the labor of repetition and accumulation remains.

The artist told me that she labors on these works for long hours per day, refining and retouching the signs/ornaments over and over. In essence, as Sohn fills the canvas with the ornaments and patterns effortlessly and compulsively, her work transforms the sensuous, sensitive visual elements as a process of meditation. While the canvas is being filled, distorted, changed, and exaggerated, Sohn herself observes the world as it is and looks at the object as a pure form. This is the way Jinah Sohn reaches “nothing out there” artistically and philosophically. In this pure geometric realm, decorative ornaments are devoid of psychological confusion.

In this process, Sohn’s allegorical installations and paintings exhibit religious overtones. The uncontaminated world of her works in which she draws pure signs is an ideal place without any illusion or diversion. Slowly her emptied mind replaces the dense decorative surfaces. As is well known, Tibetan monks create mandara on sand day and night. Upon getting up, they begin to work on painting, bending their backs to paint the mandara on the ground. This long labor makes them focus on meditation without any distractions and immerses them in the moment of painting. The highlight of the creation comes on the day of completion of the mandara; at that time, the monks erase all the visual forms with their hands, returning everything to the void, nothingness of our presence. By emptying the filled ones, everything gets completed. This existential operation is constantly played out in the colors and space of Sohn’s oeuvres. But the most important aesthetic elements are neither colors, ornamental patterns, nor installations, but the way in which all of these components operate on a symbolic level with the signs of patterns and chairs. This is both personal and socio-cultural. Ultimately while Jinah Sohn accumulates and repeats patterns and chairs, she clears all the distractions in meditation and creates a thoughtful arena.  Jinah Sohn’s Emptied Mind and the Surface of Dense Paintings
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