By JONATHAN GOODMAN, December 2022
Sook Jin Jo, a mid-career artist from Korea, spends most of her time in New York City, although she travels back to Korea and also to Central America, primarily for art reasons. She paints, but she is primarily a sculptor and installation artist. Several of her most successful recent works involve meditational spaces set within a church environment; these spaces are found mostly in Central America. Jo is particularly good at occupying an area in which her objects and human interaction occur in close metaphorical affiliation. As someone interested in human experience, and, especially, the support of the weak and poor, Jo works toward a spiritual compassion directed toward those whose lives are difficult. Indeed, her strongest sequences in the show at the Wallace Gallery comprise photos taken of people experiencing homelessness in the city, as well as photos of abandoned spaces all over the world. Together, the two series demonstrate the artist’s compassionate recognition for the physical fragment and abandoned people.
In “On the Street” (2020), the series on people experiencing homelessness, the artist first approached the person on the street, engaged in casual conversation, and then asked if she could take a picture. Fortunately, the subjects were friendly and willing to be photographed despite their vulnerability. Their remarkable endurance under daunting circumstances is well portrayed by Jo. Richard (2020) is Korean. Draped in a long, bright blue cape, which contrasts sharply with the single red sneaker we can see, this homeless man looks upward, as if surveying the heavens. His outlook emanates pride and spirituality–a moving combination for someone living on the street. In Richie (2020), a man with a beard sits on the sidewalk underneath metal scaffolding. He wears a red plaid shirt and blue jeans. A large sign attached to his shopping cart announces, “I am worthy,” in capital letters. In front of him, a plastic cup with the injunction “Be nice” stands to receive change. His demeanor, quite somber, must reflect his poverty.
“Traces” (2004-14), Jo’s photographic series of abandoned places is equally melancholic and lyrical. In a picture taken in 2020, World War II Military Hospital, Germany, we see a wall of dark red bricks, with white tiles covering the wall on the right. Rubble is strewn on the floor. To the right a white door, with its middle right panel empty and revealing a hall behind it, stands in a state of neglect. Is the image a visual equivalent for Germany’s defeat, or is it simply one of Jo’s interests, being a poetic treatment of decay? It is hard to say. Korea Workers Party Headquarters (2012), a photo of an abandoned building made of rough brick and stone, is lit through large windows without glass. The trees seen through the windows are leafless; It must be late fall or winter: The building’s two openings provide us with a glimpse of autumnal beauty, caught by light on the left side. Jo’s American audience might wonder at the implicit politics of the image–does “Workers Party” indicate a left-wing bent? We don’t know; instead, we experience the formal beauty of the fragmented building and the naked trees behind it. The image suggests that nothing is permanent.
Jo is known primarily for her sculpture. The second floor of the gallery includes two moving examples. Zen Garden (1998), consisting of more than a few rusted steel turbines randomly arranged, probably refers to the garden Ryoan-Ji in Kyoto, in which stones are placed in a way that one can never see them all at once. But Jo’s version is modern and urban, created with industrial discards. All Things Are Born of Being (1999) conveys a tangibly metaphysical statement: a multitude of tree limbs, three to five feet in length, rise from the floor, into a flat wooden plane, set against the wall. This object is filled with a regular arrangement of holes receiving the other end of the sticks. We know from Jo’s titles that she is spiritually, even devotionally, inclined, and the sculpture’s title, a statement of faith impossible to prove, becomes an assertion of tacit belief. This is not to describe Jo as a religious artist, only to suggest her preoccupations are metaphysical. As a result, her art becomes very moving. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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