Ji-an Kwon, the K-pop star also known as Solbi, has had her fair share of controversy. In her current exhibition — “Systemized Language: Humming,” at Paris Koh Fine Arts in Fort Lee — she takes her critics head-on.
When she branched out from music into the visual arts a decade ago, critics questioned her artistic abilities, baiting her with remarks such as “can you draw an apple?”
More recently, there was the cake controversy on Instagram. Ironically, she was accused of plagiarizing convicted plagiarist Jeff Koons and his piece “Play-Doh.” This caused a social media dust-up when she ate her Koons copy-cat cake on Instagram, inspired by Andy Warhol’s 5-minute video performance from 1982 in which he scarfs down a Burger King hamburger. This brought on more accusations of intellectual theft.
Even if she can’t draw an apple (for the record, she can), Ji-an Kwon is well-versed in art history and public relations. She is also an advocate against bullying, particularly online bullying, which she suffered during these and other disputes.
The 16 works on view in Fort Lee were made during a month-long residency at the gallery. Reading like a rebuke to her critics — fueled by the apple and cake controversies — Kwon displays drawings of the offending fruit and highly textured paintings that resemble dessert. Kwon also created a video piece addressing cyberbullying. The multi-media show, though ambitious in scope, holds together visually and thematically. This is even more remarkable given the short period leading up to the show.
The all-important motif of sound, specifically humming, winds its way through this visually compelling show. The seven-foot-wide triptych “Humming NY_01,” with its neutral white surface, is a busy expanse of textures, reliefs and blobs of silicone and paint that read like an archipelago anchored on the left and right sides by volcanic forms. Between these masses, jagged lines move along horizontal axes. Referencing sound waves, the lines also conjure associations like EKG readouts or ocean waves — metaphors for the interconnectedness of all things.
For Kwon, humming symbolizes the unity of life. It is an approximation used when words are unknown — a universal form of communication that transcends specific meaning. The artist describes humming as heartfelt, an inner reservoir of emotion. This notion of a well is echoed in the volcano-like forms in the upper left and lower right of “Humming NY_01.” These recessed forms reference a hidden interior, though one can sense a well-spring of feelings and emotions simmering beneath the intense surface. The work seems autobiographical — a concentrated level of conspicuous surface energy hiding something within that is private and inaccessible.
A final satisfying and potent detail which adds even more complexity to the work is the way Kwon extends the waves from “Humming NY_01” to the other white paintings in the gallery. These lines also read like cake frosting — thickly applied ropes of paint that connect one canvas to another like a confectionery umbilical cord.
“Melting Apples,” a series of mixed media prints on pearlized paper, confronts cyberbullying. Perched delicately on metal supports, the unframed prints are installed serially in a six-across, three-down formation. Each piece features a different arrangement of seductively cute apples, capped with dripping silver.
The prints seem benign, but are actually coded messages in cryptogram form. The differently colored apples each represent a letter of the alphabet. The apples refer to computers and social media and the notion of “bad apples,” and also represent also a dig to her detractors who questioned her artistic abilities and integrity. The prints are accompanied by a legend for viewers to decode the work. Those who take the time will read the responses of celebrities to cyber trolls.
Ji-an Kwon’s cathartic solo exhibition is a purifying foray into the topics of bullying, resilience, interconnectedness and the limits of spoken language. Her emotionally charged works are softened by her use of monochromatic colors, mesmerizing textures and overlapping symbols and signifiers.
Sometimes a cake is not a cake, an apple is not an apple, and a pop star can be a good artist. Ji-an Kwon gets to have her cake and eat it, too.
“Systemized Language: Humming” by Ji-an Kwon will be on view at Paris Koh Fine Arts through May 28. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday and Monday hours are by appointment only. Visit pariskohfinearts.com.
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