Healing in the City

Chloe Hyobin Kwon’s new show at Kate Oh Gallery, “Healing in City” (May 24—June 5, 2021), is a meditative reflection and appraisal of the contemporary moment, scrutinizing New York City as it emerges from over a year of Covid 19-induced isolation. Hyobin Kwon is notable for her specialization in Asian calligraphy and brush paintings, lauded as the first foreigner to be awarded a Doctorate degree in Art History at the prestigious China Academy of Art, where her area of specialization was bird and flower brush painting. The influence of brush painting and traditional techniques are evident in this exhibition, where impressionistic strokes decorate nature scenes and cityscapes, with Hyobin Kwon delicately combining traditional techniques with mixed media.

Albeit Hyobin Kwon’s paintings, such as “Liberty Enlightening the World,” “City in a Jar,” “Summer City in the Bamboo forest,” and “Live in Peace Lily,” make direct architectural reference to well-known New York City indices—most notably, the Statue of Liberty and the George Washington bridge—the cityscapes and skylines that are displayed on her canvases could be any contemporary city. Indeed, Hyobin Kwon’s salient engagement with the architectural mode is underscored in a number of collaborative works with architectural engineer Simon Shim. Hyobin Kwon dexterously amalgamates solitude and isolation with a dash of optimism, scrutinizing the current “in-between” stage as much of the world begins to slowly resign from a year-long isolation. Yet what is most unique about these works is that they are more or less bereft of any actual people. There are no sprawling crowds of shoppers or Broadway attendees eager to return to city life, nor students our for a drink in the West Village, or birdwatchers attentively peering into their binoculars; nor are there protesters from this past year of Black Lives Matter protests, or mask-clad workers. The facelessness of Hyobin Kwon’s works appears to be an intentional choice. This prods the viewer into considering these works as akin to a series of architectural studies of our contemporary moment—indeed, Hyobin Kwon seems more interested in the phenomenological disclosure of our current moment than representational veridicality, utilizing architecture, collage, and abstraction to emotively capture what the “being” of contemporary cosmopolitan life involves. In doing so, Hyobin Kwon’s works achieve something quite unique, capturing “life” and “living” without needing to represent living beings.

This feat is elucidated most starkly in "City in a Jar Summer," a personal favorite of mine. This work displays a Bell jar against a wood-patterned background. The jar, itself, is sealed tightly and contains what appear to be a rocky crag-faced meadow, crooning trees arching and enframing a metropolis of monochromatic city skyscrapers underneath curved branches. This meadow could be Central Park, but, once again, the specific location is not terribly important; more notable is the pervasive anonymity—Hyobin Kwon employs a similar “enframing” technique in “City in the Bamboo forest,” but the branches are here replaced with bamboo leaves that scatter across an array of ghostly, hoary flat cityscape faces. These skyscrapers are the anonymous sites of business, trading, sales, and residency—once again, there are no actual denizens whom we can pick out, nor shopping centers labelled with signs, nor advertisements signaling the ubiquitous flow of commerce. Such familiar flows were interrupted during Covid 19, and Hyobin Kwon captures the interstitial moment between this interruption and the recommencement of everyday cosmopolitan life.

The anonymity of the contained cityscape—a motif which reappears often in Hyobin Kwon’s works, including “City in the Bamboo forest” and “Live in Peace Lily”—is contrasted with verdant green leaves and flourishing grass. Immediately, this juxtaposition signals optimism, a reminder that "life goes on," against all odds. This is the surface reading. However, under scrutiny, there is a more complex reading to be found in Hyobin Kwon’s works: the use of the jar as a visual device ushers a multitude of phenomenological considerations, including the isolation and claustrophobia that accompanied Covid 19 quarantine restrictions for those denizens of every metropolis. Whether it be New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Istanbul, New Delhi, Seoul, or Hong Kong, the claustrophobic “containment” that Hyobin Kwon delineates is cross-cultural, recalling those safety measures that resulted in universal isolation, reaching past all constructed national borders. The Bell jar is, after all, sealed snugly: the jar functions as an analog to a terrarium, isolating a scene which pits human-made artefacts (i.e., the cityscape) against the verdurous park, which itself is neither entirely isolated from human intervention, but also contains seeds that will blossom, regardless of the moment in time that we currently occupy. Thus, despite offering a local study on the contemporary moment, Hyobin Kwon’s works speak to a universal, timeless process.

 

Ekin Erkan

Art Critic

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Live in Peace Lily

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