SunheeKim Jung's solo Exhibition
Essay by Phil Hutinet
Sunhee Kim Jung’sartistic career spans three decades. She has created a wide array of two and three dimensional work informed mainly by her experience as a Korean immigrant living in the United States. Her perspective as an outsider looking in reappears in each of her series revealing to the viewer human experiences that hide in plain sight. While Jung has experimented with various media including the use of brightly colored candy in her series Color Crush, Jung is best known for her exquisite botanical paintings. Sinuous and lush, these works demonstrate Jung’s remarkable skill in capturing plants with mastery ofcompositionand through insightful understanding of color theory influenced in part by the writings of Josef Albers.
Her twelfth solo exhibition, on view at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center from June 15 through August 18, 2019, is titledThe One: Work by Sunhee Kim Jung. The exhibition combines two of the artist’s recent series:Sanctuaries(2017-present) and Camouflage(2011-2012).Set amidst a backdrop of plants and rural landscapes, both series address issues of alienation and isolation. In the first of the two series,Sanctuaries offers personal insight into Jung’s experience as an immigrant. In this series, cartoonish mice intentionally set uncomfortably in the foreground of American farmland act as self-portraits by proxy. In the second of the two series, Camouflage depicts soldiers hiding amidst foliage. In these paintings, Jung addresses sacrifice, loss and social reintegration after combat.
Curatorially, The One dovetails the Camouflage and Sanctuaries series thematically and pictorially even though each of the series is hung on separate floors and galleries of the Schlesinger Center. Camouflage is hung in the Forum Gallery located at the main level of the Center. The Forum Gallery’s spaciousness provides ample room for the large canvases of the Camouflage series, which average five feet in width and length, to breathe. In contrast, on the second level, the Passage Gallery, with its lower ceilings and narrow walkway, provides a more intimate area for viewing the Sanctuary series allowing the viewer to intimately interact with the work.
Little grey mice appear in each of Jung’s Sanctuariespaintings. The backgrounds look familiar to anyone who has driven in North America—scenes of rolling hills, barns and silos dot the landscape. Paintings With the Crown and Wedding Day appear to have snow in the foreground while others, like Blue Mind and Jack Strolling through the Field show crops ripe for harvest. Yet in each of these bucolic scenes of the idealized American Heartland, a mouse appears. While tiny relative to the other forms in the background, the juxtaposition of a cartoon-like mouse figurein the foreground of representational landscape immediately jars the viewer. And this is what Jung intended.
“I am the mouse,” Jung concedes. For Jung, mice represent some natives’ perceptionof immigrants.Some of her mice wear traditional Korean costumes. While small in stature, mice startle and frighten people as they appear unexpectedly. Civilization associates mice with disease and squalor. By extension, Jung compares this phenomenon to her own experience as an immigrant whose presence startled Americans and who sometimes felt rejected or seen as somehow threatening despite her gentle and inoffensive demeanor.
However, as Jung has come to understand, mice also provide lifesaving qualities. “Mice used in [scientific] labs have saved countless humans,” she explains. For Jung, the use of mice in research resulting in medical breakthroughs gives them value.
But mice have also played an important role in American popular culture. Jung, who has always had an affinity for cartoons, draws on the traditions of Mickey Mouse or Jerry, the mouse from the animated seriesTom and Jerry. Both characters demonstrate exceptional intelligence and outwit their peers. Jerry is a more apt comparison with Jung’s characterJack who appears in several paintings in her series. Like Jerry, Jack may be small in stature but he survives through his cunning and good cheer.
Also of note in Jung’s Sanctuary series is the presence of bones.InJack Strolling through the Field and Blue Mind, bones appear to rise over the horizon, ghostly, white and almost translucent. The Bones which often appear in Jung’s work represent the cycle of birth, lifeand death. They also serve as reminders of life’s indestructibility as they remain despite one’s mortality.
The Camouflage series takes a more solemn tone as the artist explores alienation not from an immigrant’s perspective but from the perspective of service members and military families affected by war. Hidden in Jung’s botanical paintings, plants obscure soldiers who sometimes appear merely as outlines as in Camouflage X, as faceless as in Camouflage VII or in full view as in Camouflage VI. In certain instances, Jung intended to conceal the race—and to a certain extent the identity—of the soldiers to allow the viewer to directly connect with the subjects. In other instances, the subject, as in Camouflage 9, is clearly identified; in this case, a blond female service member greets a child, presumably hers.
Jung’s ability to hide her subject in these paintings relies on her ability to create depth within the pictures plane. Herein lays the artist’s mastery of color theory and Albers’ influence. Each of the works possesses three elements as follows: a brightly colored camouflage patterned background, plants in the foreground and a subject in between. The contrast between the background colors of the camouflage pattern and the plants create a three dimensional push-pull effect. This depth allows for the concealment of the subject.
Jung does not seek to discuss war’s morality but rather to impart the toll it levies on those who fight it and their families.On the contrary, Jung respects and admires those who are willing to risk their lives for others. In turn, she shudders at what they and their loved ones may loseas a result of this choice. As some of her subjects appear effaced, Jung attempts to fathom the incomprehensible—the loss of a loved one to war. “I cannot imagine losing a son,” Jung confesses. And for many Americans, the loss of a family member to armed conflict is a reality with which they live daily, for the rest of their lives. Like Jung’s soldiers hidden in the brush, the mourning of family members often goes unnoticed by society, pushed into the background and deep into the foliage.
For those service members who survive combat and whose family members sacrificed during their absence, reintegration into family life and society poses its own set of difficulties.Alienated from society and estranged from their families, soldiers once again fade in the background, concealed by the plants despite being apparent upon closer examination.
By assembling both the Camouflage and the Sanctuaryseries into a single exhibition, The One demonstrates the next step in the evolution of Jung’s work from single topic paintings to series that provide a thematic array of visual narration.
"Phil Hutinet, a third generation Capitol Hill resident, is the publisher of East City Art, DC's Visual Arts publication of record, which he began in 2010. In 2012-2013, his consultancy work east of the river yielded the Anacostia Playhouse, Craig Kraft Studios, the Anacostia Arts Center and the 2012-2013 LUMEN8ANACOSTIA festivals. In 2015, 2018 and 2019 he acted as the Gateway Open Studio Tour coordinator. From 2013-2018, he produced EMULSION, East City Art's regional juried show and has produced over 150 local exhibitions in his career as a gallery owner and director. Currently, he oversees the ECA Foundation's Critical Arts Writing and Research Program which produces an annual anthology titled 'CONFLUENCE: Two Rivers One City'. Hutinet has been interviewed by or has made appearances on the BBC, Capital Community News, Euronews, Washingtonian Magazine, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, WJLA ABC News Channel 7/Channel 8, WTOP and other local, national and international media."
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