Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
That opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” describes an attitude prevalent in the arts. It’s not just that the dark side is more interesting territory to explore; we also equate it with seriousness and profundity. Light is, well, lite.
Work about identity, for example, generally expresses anxiety and disalignment. One might expect as much from “Detourist,” the title of Jiha Moon‘s solo show at Saltworks through May 25. To be or feel like a tourist connotes not belonging. For an artist, though, remove is an advantage, if not a must. And the word also implies curiosity and discovery. That is the spirit of Moon’s work.
Although her paintings, sculptures and installation acknowledge that living in two cultures — her native Korean and adopted American — is not a seamless experience, Moon deploys wit rather than angst to express disjunction. The painting “Luck of Irish” for instance, is born of her bemused discovery that the luck of the Irish is not, as she assumed, good luck.
The artist continues her practice of bringing her worlds together in a stir-fry of images and styles. She melds references to American and Korean pop culture, the classic imagery of landscape painting, Abstract Expressionist brushstrokes, calligraphy and collage in paintings on Hanji paper, a Korean material with a mother lode of cultural history, not to mention a symbolic durability.
The paintings are sumptuous and dynamic, Moon on her game. But the installation “Detour” is perhaps the most cogently argued piece. Here she relies on line, in prints on fan-shaped paper and in wall stencils, to create a rich tapestry of interlocking images dominated by Disney’s Snow White and classic Chinese princesses.
The Asian imagery, however, is actually drawn from that on American menus and chopstick wrappers. It is an American invention, like chop suey and fortune cookies, whose vapid “fortunes” hang like streamers from the ceiling. The piece is a testament to how we absorb, deform and invent culture. Detour, indeed.
The exhibition also includes works using fabric, an interest that predates but has expanded because of Moon’s 2010 residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. In “Rota,” which she made during the residency, she plays with ribbons, pincushions, hacky sack balls and woven belts — vehicles of color, pattern and texture — to create an abstract painting-sculpture.
Moon stitches swaths of her grandmother’s patterned fabrics to create flags that hang on poles like a display at the United Nations. Their colors and compositions may resemble actual flags of countries, but obviously they are fictions. Though not aesthetically at the level of the paintings, this work bespeaks the cultural mash-up of globalization and expresses her view that embracing the condition of permanent tourist brings its own insights and pleasures.