"The Best Art In The World"
Hanna Hur, Laurie Kang, Maia Ruth Lee, and Zadie Xa
Galerie L’inconnu, Montreal QC
February 3 – April 30, 2018
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, FEB. 2018
This beautifully dovetailed exhibition presents telling works of four artists who speak meaningfully to fluid morphologies, fluctuating internal states -- and liminality. Hanna Hur, Laurie Kang, Maia Ruth Lee, and Zadie Xa are eloquent and equally matched poets of transformation and mutable identity who understand the nature of transience, the continual necessity for change, and are not afraid of exploring the dark spaces that exist between the inner mind and the outlying urge, immaterial and material, memory and its referent. Through spirited industry and handmade facture, these artists open up a fertile thought space that transports us to an extravagant outside.
Morphosis and morphogenesis rule here. Each artist seizes on the liminal, the numinous, even the uncanny, and acts against taxonomy in pursuit of rhizomatic meanings too often left to lie fallow, beyond the ambit of the seen and the touched. For instance, Maia Ruth Lee’s scrap iron altars are demonstrably more malleable as receptacles for ceremonial rice that not only softens hard surfaces but also generates cleansing atmospherics. Hanna Hur’s translucent drawings on silk, executed with an almost otherworldly grace, deliver an ephemeral but healing message. In and through Laurie Kang’s subtle interventions on photosensitive paper and associated sculptural elements, the tactile is indistinguishable from the visual and the textures of light speak of other places, other times and the shape of organic things to come. In Zadie Xa’s sewn propositions, symbols harvested from her personal and collective histories fructify in semiotic chains that take root in transformative clothing that is also shamanic regalia.
A provisory wall inside the principal exhibition space reads as modular and improvisatory. It is not about partition but interpenetration, allowing Hur and Kang to explore chiasmic dialogue in close juxtaposition. Twin sisters, whose bodies of work are equally sophisticated but very different in kind, they use the ‘wall’ not to keep something segregated or out – but to hold something more closely in. Porous, because perforated, this minutely worked metallic scrim – notably titled by Kang In Form and Ruin (2018) -- bifurcates and trifurcates the exhibition as an environmental volume and is its abiding point of fulcrum, a hugely haptic surface that seizes the voluptuous eye that moves restlessly across and through the myriad interstices in its surface. It is also something of a protective carapace for the other works exhibited, and, in the case of Hur’s Mother II, a copper chainmail spider that lovingly evokes Louise Bourgeois’s arachnoid matriarchal deity, offers a nurturing ground or potential nest as it seemingly crawls contentedly nearby. Hur’s work, and other work in the exhibition, too, reminds me of Italo Calvino’s assertion that (in The Path to the Spiders' Nests): “We all have a secret wound which we are fighting to avenge.”
The inordinate delicacy and diaphanous mien of Hur’s coloured pencil drawings with their pale, beguiling palette, leads us across a wide dark ocean of hurt to something like sanctuary, a liminal territory; here is a threshold space between incommensurable realities: the world of the rational and the world of the Other, the domain of the numinous and the liminal. The shadow spider outlined beneath the lunar motif in Fever II (2017) harbours no malevolent intent even as it hovers on the brink of dematerializing altogether. But these works on stretched silk and linen surfaces are clearly cosmogonic in meaning and hauntingly elliptical in their mien. The alchemical black suns in Endless Spring vii (2017) rise, calling the adjacent figure back to life, even as the silken surface on which the motifs are drawn seems to prophesise their very diaspora.
Kang’s photosensitive surfaces are as intricate, delicate and evocative in their own way as Hur’s drawings on silk, and they are both highly tactual surfaces that effortlessly drawin the embodied eye of the beholder. The attachments in Soup I and Soup II (both 2017) read as excrescences of the porous membrane to which they are attached like ganglions or nerve fibres on living tissue, tremulously stimulating that membrane like dew on a spider’s silken web in early dawn light. Abstractionist Kang is not afraid of getting her hands dirty, and leaving resonant traces of her process on the surfaces of the work. These ghostlike markings resonate with traces of her subversive thinking. She has always been interested in disrupting photographic conventions in order to see what the ruptures might yield, and she collides the organic and inorganic here with her usual brio.
Zadie Xa’s hand sewn clothing with its symbols of yin-yangs, knives, lucky numbers and restless optics, opens up a repletely evocative sigilistic or semiotic space anchored in the artist’s own personal history and Korean mythology, as in The Rabbit, the Knife and the Year of the Pig (2017). Like transcendental integers of Asian identity, they somehow take flight from the fabric, float luminously above and beyond the material, and live on in our minds. This fabric-based work demonstrates the artist’s ongoing preoccupation with the uncanny and the occult, ritual and identity performance. These articles of clothing celebrate freedom above all else and are linked to the numinous domain as in the shamanic tradition, suggesting avowal, overcoming, healing.
Raised in Nepal by Korean Christian missionary parents and Bible translators, artist Maia Ruth Lee has mined her past formative experiences in Sherpa villages, and she is also sensitive to performance and ritual. In Mother’s Knot (2018, named after the searingly honest memoir of motherhood by feminist Jane Lazarre that moved her so), she demonstrates a rare facility for investing lengths of scrap metal scavenged from Gowanus, a notorious industrial neighbourhood in Brooklyn, with extraphysical meanings and intimations that lift it to another plateau altogether, that of the liminal, a site of withdrawal where orthodox limits to thinking and being are lifted. Mother’s Knot is then both personal altar and a palpable threshold which promises wholesale transformation. There is something like bliss and purification and empowerment at work here.
Mention must be made of Sarah Chow who wrote a superb monograph on the participating artists. Finally, gallery founder and Director Leila Greiche deserves kudos for bringing the work of four gifted maverick artists together in a show which plays to their strengths, spurns and effortlessly shreds an increasingly attenuated patriarchy, and creates radical new zones to feel, think and imagine in. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.