Yang Soon-yael: Mother
Elga Wimmer PCC, NYC
One of the most refreshing exhibitions to hit Chelsea this season took place at Elga Wimmer PCC. Entitled Mother, the show was created by Korean multi-media artist Yang Soon-yael and curated by Soojung Hyun. It consisted of large paintings and groupings of floor sculptures, engaging the viewer not only with colorful appearances, but also with a memorable, movable installation. Delighted audiences participated in the show by arranging the pieces throughout the gallery space. The works' well-balanced construction enabled them to see-saw but not lose their vertical stance as they vacillated back and forth and from side to side. Spaced in groups, the sculptures spread out against the right side gallery wall, adorning its white surface with colorful undulating forms.
The seemingly prosaic theme of the show was deceptive. Yang's subjects, made of fully rounded forms but lacking limbs, could be read abstractly as well as figuratively -- and also as a critique of the human figure. According to the artist, they represent the mother figure, invested with a poetic sense of humanity. Their missing extremities can be seen as making them helpless, dependent on others to give them physical completion. This reading would go against feminist ideals; it can be taken as a contemptuous reading of supposedly female frailty. However, at present, we must consider not only the international context of the artist when we try to make sense of their work, we must also consider their national origins. Korea, the nation itself, is seen as the mother of Korean culture and mores by its citizens. She -- the country is thought of as female -- is the core of a personal and national affiliation and belief almost holy by nature.
The mother figure is also up high in the social hierarchy, as indicated by Confucian philosophy, even though in contemporary Korean life women are generally given a low rank on the totem pole. But Yang has traveled widely, and exhibited globally; consequently, she is an independent and accomplished woman. So the traditional reading--that the mother is an ancient and primal influence on creativity -- is not as well supported as the notion that her thematic choices are based on artistic or formal considerations.
Yang's education and early career were tied to Oriental painting, with its strong emphasis on brushwork. But even in her early developmental stages, Yang's two- and three-dimensional work featured the mother theme. Related closely to the "Mother" sculpture series, Yang created the Ottogi (Roly-Poly) series around 2010, while working on an exhibition investigating the first Western account of life in 17th-century Korea. For many years the Netherlandish Hamel and his crew languished in Korea without the possibility of returning home; they existed more or less nomadically, being transferred from city to town. In the context of this story, Yang's subjects' origins and their variously shifting orientations (as determined by viewer preference) can also be seen as artistic facsimiles of the wandering Western seafarers neglected in a foreign land.
Yang's monumental, vertically formatted paintings feature gestural movement in their brushwork. The motion alludes to tumultuousness -- both in their directionality and through the event of their bright color. In the midst of this triumphant movement is a white circle that anchors the painting compositionally, giving cohesion and stability to its surrounding vortex-like brush-storm. Further, Yang's way of stretching her canvas is quite unusual in its methodology: she rolls it away from and on top of the wooden stretcher rather than around and under it. This results in a multi-dimensional quality that allows her painting to smoothly develop into a sculptural idiom. Because of the artist's inventive use of form, and, additionally, her reference to historical events, viewing this exhibition has been a highly pleasurable experience. Given the mediocre nature of most offerings in the art world today, the show stood out for its formal achievement as well as, its emotional depth.