More, More, More paintings evoke desire

Sang-ah Choi´s Untitled Pop-up. 4-color process on cut cardstock. Adam Fotos

By Adam Fotos

There are so few times that I walk into a gallery and am completely seduced by what I see. Sometimes, like a raccoon, when it comes to art, I can be easily drawn to shiny things, but I try to maintain my criticality, that tricky word that reassures me that I’m still a thinking being.

When I went to the Sang-Ah Choi’s exhibition More, More, More at the Center for Visual Arts at Illinois State University, I found myself swimming through fields of desire and intellect, able to drift through paintings that glittered with diamond dust, resin and holograms, yet they were still loaded with questions about the consumer cultures of the East and West and where they merge.

Choi, born in Korea, came to the United States to pursue her second Masters in Fine Arts. Here at the University, she began to explore her new environment visually while “learning or re-learning,” as she says, American and Korean culture. She graduated from UIUC in 2002.

“Everyday, I started observing the differences and similarities of the two cultures. And I started to play with the icons of each culture in graduate school. Now they appear more mingled and interacting with each other in my paintings,” Choi said.

These icons range from Santa Claus to Sailor Moon to Darth Vader on the cover of Time Magazine. She adopts these images into her own visual lexicon and plays with them on her canvases. Play seems to be an operative term when engaging her art, as these icons repeat and explore themselves while shimmering with glitter.

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Her largest work, “Mutation-Immortality,” fills a wall with 1,023 glittering, handmade cards suspended in plastic card cases that you might use to protect your Pok‚mon collection. Just as light rolls across the surfaces to generate an ever-changing rainbow, Choi takes the 10 Taoist symbols for immortality and mutates them, running through 1,023 permutations and recombination of parts.

The mutant results are somewhat figural, as we may see a cat with a pine tree for a body, cranes’ wings for ears or a rock for a face. Each variation is hand-painted and applied to the holographic paper, so we have a sense of Choi as a Taoist ascetic whose mode of achieving immortality is through a game akin to what children all over the world are hitting their parents up for money to buy – transcendence of desire by participating in a system of desire.

Choi said, “All of my works start with my Korean cultural background. I see American culture through my Korean cultural filter. Both “Sib-Jang-Sang-Do” (traditional Korean painting to wish for longevity/immortality) and “Hee-Rho-Ae-Rak” (human emotion elements; happiness, anger, grief, fun), which I reference in my works, are traditional Korean realizations of more universal values. These values, as they well apply to contemporary living, are implemented in context of consuming culture we live and form. We keep buying things more and more and express our feelings with the acquired commodities.”

Choi’s work is laden with luscious resin, saturated colors, and commodified objects, be they cars, bottles of Absolut Vodka, or models from Vogue magazine ads. At times, the shininess and patterns reference a traditional black lacquered box from Asia and a computer screen.

Aside from paintings, she explores book making, and the show displays several of her books. With the hyper-playful (and occasionally sinister) aesthetic of Asian comics, she presents fantastically elaborate pop-ups in which simultaneously artificial and organic forms blossom out of the pages. A plume of colorful forms, playing off the Taoist symbols of immortality emerges out of a field of young women that look more-or-less realistic (in a fashion-magazine reality), yet their shiny, black anime eyes give them an other-worldly appearance.

Since her graduation from UIUC, Choi has moved from Champaign to Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and now to Portland. She said, “Moving to New York was the most interesting/ nervous experience. Many people from UIUC encouraged me to step up to the new start, and they continue to support my work. I feel very fortunate to have (had) wonderful teachers and colleagues during my graduate training.”

In New York, Choi attended a studio program at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Studio Center in 2002, and she had two solo shows at the Sandra Gering Gallery. Later in 2003, she had another solo show with I-Space gallery, UIUC’s School of Art’s gallery in Chicago. Since then she has been in group shows in Seoul, Korea, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Taipei, Taiwan.

The current exhibition of Choi’s work will be up until November 6th, and it is well worth the drive.

Adam Fotos is a graduate student. He can be reached at [email protected].