“If someone threatens you and you strike a tae kwon do pose, even if you don’t know tae kwon do, they’ll think you do because you’re Asian,” says Jiha Moon. “My work does a similar thing.”
Like many artists who create work outside their native cultures, the 40-year-old Korean-born artist incorporates elements of her original and adopted homes in complex, multivalent works rich with symbolism and intrigue. Asian motifs — peonies, fiery dragon heads and calligraphy — share space with piñatas, the Starbucks mermaid, the Tiger Balm tiger and Martha Stewart scrapbooking stickers. Birds play a big role as well, from Angry Birds, lovebirds and the “Hecho en Mexico” Aztec eagle to Audubon-worthy specimens. Moon layers materials and metaphors in order to upend stereotypes and cultural assumptions, mixing East and West, high and low, fact and fiction.
Known for her ebullient paintings on paper and fabric, she takes the same approach in an exciting new body of ceramic and mixed-media works, which share the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia’s main gallery with nine new paintings in the exhibition “Foreign Love,” on view through November 2.
The show is the culmination of Moon’s Working Artist Project fellowship, which provided her with a stipend, a studio at the Goat Farm Arts Center and a couple of assistants along the way. It gave her time and resources to deepen her practice, and to continue tackling big ideas with exquisite attention to color and form.
Before coming to the United States in 1999 to pursue an MFA at the University of Iowa, she made portraits and figurative paintings. The prevailing aesthetic among her predominantly male peers in Iowa was abstract, “pure” painting on a large scale. “I admire [Jackson] Pollock and Color Field painting, but I realized I could not be one of them,” Moon says.
It took about 10 years to develop her mature style, which was facilitated by necessity. After graduation, Moon lived in an attic with some students, including Andy Wilson — who added “Moon” to his name after they married in 2001. She had no studio and only a small table to work on, which prompted her to switch from oil and canvas to ink, fast-drying acrylic paint and paper. Hanji, a traditional fibrous paper that can take on an aged or vellum-like quality, is her favorite. She uses large single sheets or constructs configurations of shaped overlapping layers – usually the double-lobed silhouette of a Korean fan.
The largest painting on view at MOCA GA, “Yellow Wave,” took Moon more than a year to complete. At 50 by 90 inches, it comprises more than 10 fan shapes collaged together. Among the many details in the dense composition, a monk in flowing robes with a peony for a head is seated near the bottom right. Like figures in 19th-century Sublime paintings, he’s overwhelmed by the swirling landscape around him. Little slips of paper from Chinese fortune cookies are scattered across the painting as if caught in a gust of wind. Fortune cookies — a distinctly American tradition, born in California — are a perfect example of the made-up or muddled ethnic associations that are key to Moon’s work.
The artist frequently depicts masks, as in the painting “Masqueraders,” in which several float among such recurring motifs as pink-tipped peaches and expressionistic swirls of paint and Roy Lichtenstein-style brushstrokes. The piece, which will enter MOCA GA’s collection, is also adorned with peony sew-on patches, a cheap alternative to true embroidery, and a similarly low-end swatch of a Mexican peasant blouse.
Rich with detail, Moon’s works require intimacy, something the cavernous MOCA GA gallery doesn’t provide. So she played with the scale of the space, installing everything at her eye level, a bit lower than the norm, in order to mimic the sense of tallness that many Westerners experience when visiting Asian countries.
In the center of the gallery, a welcoming arrangement of four low Asian-style tables adds a homey feeling. Sitting on Oriental rugs and surrounded by floor cushions, the tables are covered with the artist’s ceramics. The installation creates a cohesive, thematically appropriate environment for the large group of sculptural objects in a way that pedestals couldn’t have, though pedestals would have allowed closer examination (visitors are not allowed onto the rugs).
Moon excels in her new medium. Her delightfully misshapen, nonfunctional vessels exude personality. Whether hand-built or thrown on a wheel, glazed glossy or matte, they’re all endearingly quirky. They reflect her affinity for “beautifully awkward” Pennsylvania Dutch crafts, which she likens to Korean folk art. One could be a pitcher, with a spout sticking straight up and an ear for a handle. Some take more conventional forms but with strange appendages.
In the manner of rock gardens, Moon has arranged the works to create little landscapes. A lumpy piece inspired by Chinese scholars’ rocks plays the role of a mountain beside a vase containing a plastic pine branch. Other ceramic works are shown on stools or wall-mounted shelves. Many of them hold fake bamboo branches, whose artificiality she heightens by painting them black, turquoise, yellow and imitation tie-dye. “Like Asians who dye their hair blond and wear blue contacts,” Moon says.
A new series of mixed-media wall works riffs on norigae, a popular souvenir and traditional Korean fashion accessory consisting of an ornament and tassel. Instead of the traditional silk rope, Moon has used synthetic hair that has been tightly braided and knotted at the top and hangs from ceramic centerpieces in braids, curls or dreads festooned with shells, beads and other ornaments. Without knowledge of their Korean origins, the pieces elicit associations with African, South American or Native American shamanistic objects.
The work often trips up viewers’ assumptions. What I first thought was a Mexican wrestling mask is a kachina doll. A very Asian-looking dog is copied from a can of Westbrook White Thai beer, made in South Carolina. Many things are vaguely familiar, or not what they seem.
In her conflation of references, Moon touches on strange similarities among disparate cultures. Traditional Korean painters have criticized her work for its inauthenticity or deviation from convention. “But it’s not traditional Korean painting,” she has to remind them. At a show in South Korea, one visitor insisted that the imagery in a Moon work was traditional when in fact it was inspired by Pennsylvania Dutch themes. When the artist asked him to pinpoint exactly what made it Korean, he couldn’t.
The peach-shaped paintings and ceramics can be borderline hokey, perhaps because they’re too literal, or because we live in the Peach State. But Moon’s treatment of them pulls them back from the brink. They’re put to humorous use in several ceramic works: a breast-like one is lodged in the mouth of a dragon; others are stuck onto squat pots like raver buns.
Her works often bear Asian text that most viewers can’t identify. The calligraphic marks are sometimes Korean, sometimes Chinese and sometimes just characters that she makes up. Here she has repeatedly used faux-Asian-style letters to spell out the English words “love” and “like.” More explicitly, “Gook” is blazoned across a pot in loud-and-clear Google-style typeface. The slur is humorously undermined by an Angry Bird above the offending word and two peach-breast “ears.”
According to Moon, the word “gook” is not inherently negative; the slur comes from the Korean pronunciation of their word for “people” or “nation.” She compares it to the word “Yankee,” explaining, “It’s not a bad term in America, but in Korea it is very insulting to call an American ‘Yankee.’ ”
Some artists might interpret these cultural misunderstandings in a disparaging or arrogant tone, but Moon delights in them — and shows us that, indeed, there are two (or more) sides to every story.
Moon will give an artist talk at 7 p.m. Tuesday, September 17, preceded by a reception at 6:30.
Click here to view more work from the exhibit.