고상우의 21세기 시각적 논리:
미술에서 형상 만들기는 그리는 행위 자체만큼이나 오랜 기원을 갖고 있다. 닮게 만든다는 것은 한 실제 사물과 관찰된 사물 사이에서 하나의 관계가 시작됨을 뜻한다. 이로써 우리는 우리가 '차이' 라고 부르는 두 사물 사이의 공 간을 깨닫게 되는 것이다. 자기 자신과의 닮은 꼴을 만든 다는 것에는 특별한 뉘앙스가 있다. 그 '차이'의 지각이 관찰된 사물, 즉 묘사되는 자아와 밖에서의 지각이 겹쳐지기 때문이다. 자신을 '차이'로서 지각하는 것은 어느 정도 자신이 자신 밖에 있다는 것 또는 잠시라도 자신과 거리를 둔다는 것을 뜻한다.
세계 한 가운데에서 우리는 존재하거나 보거나 보여지지만, 그러나 신기하게도 우리의 정체성을 주성하는 보통의 몸과 페르소나는 서로 잘 일치되지도 조화를 이루지도 못한다. 그래서 우리의 정체성은 여기에도 있으며 또 저기에도 있고 모든것에 있으면 어디에도 없는 것 같다. 다시 말해 그 경험은 주체이지 동시에 객체가 되는 일이라고 설명할 수 있다.
카메라 발명과 그 초기의 기능은 변형된 정체성을 향해 순간적으로 도약하고픈 인간의 욕망을 불러일으키고 부채질 했음에 틀림없다. 이를 계기로 대상을 생포하려는 환상에 대한 우리의 광적 성향이 즉각 드러났다. 항상 열려있고 언제나 예리한 기계적 눈인 렌즈를 통해서 말이다.
다양한 캐릭터를 손쉽게 연기할 수 있었던 의상놀이를 비롯, 외관으로 진실을 대체했던 모든 방식과 수단은 사진의 출현이후 초상사진으로 흔한 것이 되었다. 포즈취하기, 역할수행하기, 가장하기, 연기하기, 투영하기 등 이중화 작업에 내재되어 있는 연극성은 자기초상이라는 표현영역에서 놀랄만큼 효과적인 대응물을 발견하게 된다. 작가는 주체성과 객체성을 요술부리듯 뒤범벅 시키고, 카메라의 앞과 뒤 모두에서 마치 동시에 어디에나 존재하는 양 작업을 한다.
대단히 흥미롭게도 70년대 중반 처음으로 주체-객체의 이원론적 구조를 붕괴시키는 기호학적 잠재력을 자신들의 정체성 및 경험의 조건으로 인식하기 시작했던 작가들 중 많은 사람이 여성이였다. 누구보다 신디셔먼이 그렇고 안나 멘디에타, 애드리안 파이퍼, 그리고 마리 베스 에델슨이 그렇다. 그들 모두는 카메라를 자기 자신에게 향하게 하고 거울, 화장, 가면, 보철 장치 들의 다양한 소품을 이용하여 실험했는데, 이들 중 일부는 자신의 자아 이미지를 조작하기 위해 또 몇몇 경우는 자아 이미지를 급진적으로 변형시키려는 목적으로 그렇게 했다. 돌이켜 보건데 그것은 각자 나름의 방식대로 여성이라는 '차이의 공간'을 비집어 열려는 시도였다.
80년대 및 90년대의 포스트모던 실천에서도 작가들은 초상 사진의 변형 내지는 이중화 기능을 이용했다. 이는 미술사 전통에 대한 과도-인지 (hyper-awareness)를 드러내기 위한 것일 뿐만 아니라 우리의 일상적인 시각풍경을 식민화하고 있는 동시대 대량생산 상업이미지라는 넓은 영역을 해독하기 위한 것이기도 했다. 20세기 말의 자기 초상 장르에 관련해서도 안정적이며 진정한 자아의 부패를 선언하고 단정하는 많은 글들이 쓰여졌다. 오늘날 합성된 우리의 정체성들은 대중문화로부터 우리에게로 매 순간마다 배달되는 손쉬운 상투형들의 저장고로부터 노골적으로 그리고 대개는 아둔하게 샘플링한 것들도 이루어 진다.
전지구적 시장이라는 새로운 현상만이 아니라 그것이 흩뿌려대는 혼성적 시각언어들과 적당히 다가적인 정체성 들 또한 오늘날 대중적 재현물들과 우리 자신을 동일시하는 상황을 탐구하려는 담론 및 전략의 주제가 되어왔다. 예를들어 우리는 야사마샤 무리무라, 마리코 모리 그리고 백남준을 이런 국제적 작가로 생각할 수 있는데, 그것은 그들이 세계 여러 곳의 미술관과 화랑에서 전시하기 때문만이 아니라 전지구적 대중문화의 시각적 모티프들을 배치하기 때문이다.
우리는 계속해서 자아의 진실성에 관심을 갖고있는 것인가? 아니면 전지구적인 커뮤니케이션 연속체의 상층 위 성감청망 에셜론 echelon 에 거주하는 한, 가장 시각 현실 들을 향해하는데 너무도 익숙해진 나머지 자연과 비자연, 현실과 비현실, 진정한 문화와 진정하지 않은 문화간에는 아무런 차이도 없다고 상상하기 시작한 것인가. 특권적 시점에서 보자면 우리는 모든 시대에 영원히 젊고 제한 없이 존재하기, 그리고 별다른 수고 없이 한 문화적 틀에서 다른 문화적 틀로 비약하기에 관한 다양한 판타지를 음미 할 수 있다.
위에서 언급한 작가들이 오랜 동안 축적해온 수법들로부터 전략을 차용하여 구사하는 가장 젊은 세대의 한 작가가 있다. 우리는 그에게 무엇을 기대할 수 있을 것인가. 고상우가 렌즈를 자기 자신에게로 향할때 그의 자기묘사 행위는 또한 왜곡 행위의 일종이다.
그의 사진 및 비디오 작품은 컬러 음화로 만들어 지는데, 그 결과 거기엔 전도가 일어난다. 즉 어두운 색조는 빛이 되고, 붉은 색은 푸른 색이 되는 등 이와 같이 자기 자신을 뒤집어 보임으로써, 자신은 양화적이 아니라 음화적인 방식으로 드러나며, 그 결과 '고상우'는 사진 밖으로 떨어져 나오고 사진속에는 청색조의 관능적인 백변종 albino으로 나타난다.
그는 말한다. "내 자신을 전도시키기 위해 음화 이미지를 사용한다. 내 이미지의 색을 전도시키고, 남성과 여성을 전도시키며, 동양 문화와 서양 문화를 전도시키다. 또한 나는 현시롹 환상을 전도시키다."
고상우는 의복, 머리 모양, 메이크 업, 제스처 같은 문화적 성별 gender효과들을 변형시킨다. 마치 남성성을 비워서 여성적 형태로 전이하는, 자기 변형 과정을 상찬하려는 듯이 말이다. 미스 아메리카, 마리아, 이브, 동정녀 마리아 등 제목이 지시하는 것들은, 결정적으로 서양 여성적인 것을 향해 기울어져 있지만 고상우에 의한 성 전환적 변형은 남성적 속성과 여성적 속성 모두를 반영한다. 하기는 한국 같은 남성 지배 문화 속에서 자란 그에게 그러한 양성적 측면이 잠복해 또는 억압되어 있을 수 도 있다.
작가의 "비워내"려는 충동과 남성적인 것을 여성적으로 전환하려는 시도는 작가가 사용하는 상징과 상투형 속에서 다시 작동한다. "자아 정체성의 순화고리" 를 연마하기 위해 고상우가 공적 영역의 광대한 저장고로부터 낚아올린 그것은 과거와 현재를 적용할 때 나는 소움의 반이다. 예를 들어 미국 문화에서 마돈나와 이브는 단순히 성 서상의 여성 인물이 아니다. 그들은 매우 대중적이며 패션을 선도하는 가수들이다.
그가 붙인 제목들 때문에 고상우의 여성 페르소나 들에는 특수하지만 애매한 위치가 부여된다. 그러나 그것들은 우리 관람자들이 그것들에 전달하는 경험들, 물론 우리 대다수가 '가정 home' 이라 부르는, 철저하게 매개되고 상품화된 환경의 핵심에 기원을 둔 경험들에 의해 보다 적절하게 채워질 수 있다.
여기서 내가 염두해주고 있는 '가정 home' 이란 단어는 연속적으로 전달되는 이미지들도 가득차 있는 만연한 전 지구적 커뮤니케이션의 연속체의 동의어로서, 수십억의 관객에게 도달할 잠재력을 갖고 있다.
우리가 세계 어느 곳에 있던 거기에는 MTV와 코카콜라와 나이키의 시각적 기업 문화가 있다. 하나의 거대한 시장이 되어 버린 전세계를 한번 생각해보라. 우리는 곧 그 전모를 알게 되고 극도의 불만을 갖게 된다. 농업에 관한 이야기든 육상 선수가 신고 있는 신발의 종류에 관한 이야기든 대중문화의 쇄도는 실로 그 어떤 근본적인 방식으로도 차이 및 다양성을 지지하고 확산하지 못하며 오히려 그 정반대라는 점을 감지하게 된다.
고상우의 변형된 자아 이미지는 전지구적 연속체를 지탱하는 디지털 기술과 상당한 친화성을 지니고있다. 그리고 그것에 연결되어 있는 우리 모두도 이 점에 관해서는 마찬가지 일 것이다. 우리는 핸드폰을 사용할 줄 알고, 팩스를 보낼 줄 알고, 케이블TV를 켤 줄 알고 인터넷에 접속 할 줄 안다.
팽창 일로의 시장수요와 마찬가지로 그 연속체의 기하급수적 성장은 새로운, 낡은, 부가적인, 삭제된, 재 발명된, 절충된, 오염된 등등의 다양한 의미를 획득하고 발산하고 고르고 폐기하면서, 결국은 전지구적인 작용력을 갖게되는 이미지들을 만들어 낸다. 세상의 많은 이미지들이 모든 이들에게 무언가를 의미하는 것이 가능할까? 우리가 어디에 가든 간에 어떤 이미지들이 동일한 의미를 지닌다는 것은 가능한 일일까? 갑자기 이 모든 것은 매우 광대 한 것이 되어버렸다.
공유된 시각 언어들과 전지구적인 형상들, 그것은 다국적 거대기업과 조직화된 종교는 물론 잠재적으로는 더없이 행복에 젖어있는 고상우의 청색 백변종 작품에 의해서 확인될 수 있다는 생각이다.
쟌 아비코스 뉴욕에 거주하고 있는 미술비평가이며 미술사가이며, 아트포럼 국제판의 편집자이다.
Koh Sang Woo: 21st Century Visual Logic
Figurative practices in art are as old as mark-making itself. To make a likeness is to inaugurate a set of relations between a thing--and a thing observed. In so doing, we become aware of a space in between, which we call "difference". To make a likeness of oneself involves special nuance, for the perception of difference is layered with the externalized perception of the thing observed-the "self" one portrays.
To perceive oneself as different suggests being somehow outside of, or momentarily distant from, oneself.
To be/see/be seen in the midst of the world and yet, curiously, to be unattached and lacking affiliation with the normative body and persona that plays host to our identity--that is akin to being here and there, everywhere and nowhere, at once. Put another way, the experience can be decried as being partially subject and object simultaneously.
The invention and initial availability of the camera must have fueled and fanned desire for brief flights into alter/ ed-identities- at very least, it revealed almost instantly our mad propensity to enact myriad fantasies for capture by the ever-open, ever-keen lens of the mechanical eye.
Since the advent of the medium, activities such as costume charades that facilitate switching in and out of character indeed, all manner and means of substituting appearance for truth - have been relatively common to the practice of photographic portraiture.
The inherent theatricality of "doubling"-posing, roleplaying, pretending, performing, projecting-finds remarkable correspondence in the expressive realm of self-portraiture as the artist is active both behind and before the camera, literally juggling the shifting conditions of subject-and object-hood as a function of being everywhere at once.
Interestingly enough, beginning in the mid 70s (though by no means limited to that moment in time), a majority of the artists who recognized the semiotic potential of collapsing the duality of subject-object structures as a condition of their own identity and experience, were women.
The include, notably, Cindy Sherman and also, among others, Anna Mendieta, Adrian Piper, and Mary Beth Edelson. All experimented by turning their cameras on themselves and by using various props - mirror, makeup, masks, prosthetic devices -to manipulate and, in some instances, to radically alter, their own self-images. In retrospect, we can see each, in her own way, attempting to pry open the space of feminine difference.
In post-Modern practices of the 80s and 90s, artists exploited the transformative or doubling functions of photographic self-portraiture, not only revealing a hyperawareness of art historical traditions but, also, able to key into the vast arena of contemporary, mass-produced commercial imagery that colonizes our daily visual landscape.
Then as now, for post-Modern artists the alter/ed or surrogate-self-image often representative of multiples, vagrant identities, fragments of which emerge as a series of disguises that viewers, in turn, recognize and de-code has been particularly useful as a device to address and attempt to deconstruct the glut of media stereotypes and personalized marketing strategies that stream our way every day from the vast world of products and services for sale.
Much has been written about genres of late 20th century self-portraiture that declare and affirm the absence of a reliable, stabilized, authentic self.
Today our synthetic identities are blatantly sampled from a pool of available stereotypes delivered round-the-clock direct from mass-culture to you.
Today, discourses and strategies investigating our intimate identification with forms of mass-representation concern not only the phenomenon of new global markets but the hybridized visual languages and suitably polyvalent identities then spawn.
One may think, for example, of Yasamasa Morimura, Mariko Mori and Nam June Paik as international artists, not only because they exhibit in museums and galleries around the world, but because they deploy the visual motifs of global mass culture.
Do we concern ourselves any longer with the veracity of the self, or have we moved on to become so adept at navigating virtual visual realities that we have begun to imagine no difference-between nature and not, between reality and not, between authentic culture and not - that is, as long as we reside at the upper echelon of the global communication continuum. From a privileged vantage point we savor the fantasies of being "on" all the time, being forever young and limitless, and leaping effortlessly from one cultural frame of reference to another.
What can we expect from a member of the young generation of artists who implements strategies borrowed from the considerably loaded bag of tricks of the aforementioned artists? When Koh Sang Woo turns the lens upon himself his act of self-portraiture is also one of distortion.
His Photographic prints and video works are produced from color negatives, which results in an inversion; dark tones becomes light; red changes to blue, and so on.
Turning figures inside out, revealing in a "negative" rather than a "positive" Key, "Koh" drops out of the picture and there emerges a lusciously blue-toned albino. As he has described, "I use negative images because I am inverting myself. I invert the color of His Photographic prints and video works are produced from color negatives, which results in an inversion; dark tones becomes light; red changes to blue, and so on. Turning figures inside out, revealing in a "negative" rather than a "positive" Key, "Koh" drops out of the picture and there emerges a lusciously blue-toned albino. As he has described, "I use negative images because I am inverting myself. I invert the color of image, and I also invert male and female, as well as Eastern and Western cultures, I am inverting reality and fantasy too."
Koh alters such "gender effects" as clothing, hair style, make-up, and gesture. as if to compliment the process of self-transformation by emptying his masculinity into feminine form. While titular references - Miss America, Maria, Eve, Virgin Mary - are decided weighted toward the feminine, Koh's "transgender" make-overs reflect both male and female attributes; although, it's quite possible that hermaphroditic aspects might lie undiscovered suppressed in a male dominant culture such as Korea.
The "Emptying out" impluse plays again in Koh's use of symbols and stereotypes fished from the vast pool of the public domain to forge "personal identity loop" that reverberate with the noise of former and future applications. In American culture, for example. "Madonna" and "Eve" are not simply biblical figures they are also very popular, fashion towards American Vocalists.
Through the titles he assigns, Koh's feminine personas are given vague degrees of specificity; and yet, they are more aptly "contained" by the experiences we viewers bring to them - experiences, of course, that derive from the core of the thoroughly mediated and commodified environments the majority of us call home.
The idea of home I have in mind is synonymous with the increasingly pervasive and global communication continuum that teems with continuously transmitted images that have the potential to reach billions of audience members.
Wherever you are in the world, there "it" is-the visual culture of MTV and Coca-Cola and Nike. We get the picture all right and immediately begin to hyperventilate; whether we are talking about agriculture or the kinds of shoes athletes wear, we sense that the crush of mass culture is really not about difference or diversity in any fundamental way but, rather, quite the opposite.
Koh's alter/ed images share as much affinity with the digital technology that supports the global continuum as with all of us who are connected to it-that would be anyone who knows how to use a cell phone, send a fax, turn on cable TV, or get on the internet.
The exponential growth of the continuum, together with it's ever-widening reach and enormous market demand, results in "globally active" images that are continuously taking on, shedding, picking up, and discarding meaning: new old additional deleted reinvented compromised contaminated and more.
Shared visual language and global gestalts : it's a thought-hosed by multi-national conglomerates, organized religion and, potentially, Koh Sang Woo's blissed-out, blue albino, too.
by Jan Avgikos
Jan Avgikos is an art critic and art historian who lives and works in New York City.
She is contributing editor at Artforum and has written on various contemporary artist, among them John Baldessari, Maurizio Cattelan, Felix Conzales-Torres blissed-out, blue albino, too. by Jan Avgikos Jan Avgikos is an art critic and art historian who lives and works in New York City. She is contributing editor at Artforum and has written on various contemporary artist, among them John Baldessari, Maurizio Cattelan, Felix Conzales-Torres and Roni Hom.
Koh Sang Woo
A compelling work that constitutes Koh Sang Woo’s eponymous solo exhibition titled Koh Sang Woo: Decoding Women, is a frontal self-portrait where the artist has painted his face similar to that of a clown or nineteenth-century saltimbanque. It is shot in Koh’s signature photographic style consisting of a laborious process, which entails Koh painting his face then photographing it, and then printing the negative with its attendant color reversals. Lush, saturated and palpably chromatic, the dichotomy of transforming the negative into the positive print is not only a formal strategy as it also contains a conceptual dialectic intrinsic to the photograph’s thematic.
The self-portrait as clown conveys a pensive and somber temperament thus being the opposite of what this type of children’s entertainer is supposed to evoke; that is, joy and humor. Further adding to the coupling of binaries, is Koh’s self-fashioning embodied with gender ambiguity. For the work, in short, teases out the masculine as present in the feminine and vice-versa. This is discerned in Koh’s makeup as well as facial and bodily gestures. The facial markings are, on the one hand, reminiscent of a clown, yet the eyes that are closed and look inward are painted over with hearts while his head tilts slightly downwards resting in his hands. The hands that prop the face are iconographic, speciﬁcally in referring to the mental and emotional state of melancholy. Known as the melancholic gesture, it is present in many artworks throughout history including Albrecht Dürer’s famous Melancholia I (1514) engraving; a twelfth-century Frankish woodcut titled Job on a Dung Heap (1170-1175); and a painting by the Mexican contemporary artist Julio Galan. Whereas the previous three examples are rooted in the medieval concept of the four humors that engender an introverted pathos, Koh’s interiority alludes to transcendence of the self that is not bound by constraints of culture including gender; and in the process, reminding us of the malleability of identity. In this sense, what Koh transmits in his work with artistic ﬁnesse and aplomb is what the philosopher Judith Butler coined gender performativity that by its very nature is ontologically ﬂuid and mutable rather than static and monolithic. Koh’s critique of normative gender categories employs an enactment of gender in recent art, though one can link his selfportrait and blurring of male and female as far back as Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy (1921). While Koh’s auto-depiction is concomitantly transgression and playful, there are other works in the exhibition that explore the codiﬁcation of gender in general in a world fraught with anachronism as to what constitutes male and female.
The exhibition titled Decoding Women consists of Koh’s highly luminous color photographs that cull together painting and performance, but the artist will also present a series of collages. The exhibited works dovetail on genres including self-portraiture, portraiture, history painting, landscape, and fashion photography, and expands previous themes of identity and the cultural construction of beauty within a broader thematic purview. The leitmotif in Decoding Women is, of course, explorations of what Betty Friedman coined “the feminine mystique’ but in myriad ways that evince Koh’s artistic intelligence.
Decoding Women (2014), for example, which is the work that gives the exhibition its title, consists of a collage of women’s bodies placed against a skyline. The upright ﬁgure is reminiscent of the Neo-Classical odalisque, yet by placing the historical trope of woman as erotic and exotic within urban space, Koh draws attention to how women have been formed by forces beyond their control. Another work that dovetails on art history and architecture within a political context of gender is Tyranny (2104). The work has an afﬁnity with Henri Matisse’s La Danse (1910-1911) in the way both artists depict women in their compositions; the latter have their hands conjoined together thus unifying them; while in the former the woman are similarly posed but seem to imply a disconnect from each other. Matisse’s painting of women’s unbridled sexuality replete with Pagan undertones is celebratory of nature and feminine archetypes. Koh’s Tyranny also seems to deploy this as well; yet the difference between the two is whereas Matisse’s celebration is set against an indistinguishable bluish backdrop, Tyranny renders its women overlooking Manhattan. The city as locus of culture has historically been associated with men as opposed to women’s alignment with nature, speciﬁcally because of their ability to bring life into the world. Koh’s work problematizes this historical a priori and essentialist construal of women in that for him they are equally “codiﬁers” of culture and urbanity rather than being subservient to it. This, to a degree, is also underscored in other works but their linking to the exhibition’s overall theme takes a many circuitous route.
In Clout in Paper (2014), for instance, the narrative of the nature/culture dichotomy at the nexus of gender is articulated vis-à-vis an “odalisque” situated in nature, yet the bottom half of her nude torso morphs into the business attire of a female urban professional. In another work innocuously titled Join Me There (2014), this narrative takes a slightly more sinister tone located somewhere between Sigmund Freud’s Eros and Thanatos or the libido and the death drive. In this photograph we see a nude women lying down on a bed of ﬂowers while caressing a full-length human skeleton. Does the artist ask us, the viewer, to join them in love or death? This contemporary Vanitas with its attendant memento mori signiﬁer is at once beautiful yet haunting, it is both compelling and disturbing. Other works also engage topics of an equally cathartic nature such as the implied violence inherent in Sultry Arms (2014). This work is similar to the self-portrait addressed in the beginning of this essay. But unlike the earlier rendition of the artist as a kind of clown, in Sultry Arms we ﬁnd the artist dressed as woman. The self-portrayal is also differentiated by a fragmentary effect where the artist appears to be reﬂected in a broken mirror thus creating a fractured self. By masquerading in the opposite sex, Koh implies that lack is not isolated to what Simone de Beauvoir referred to as “the second sex.” For the “second sex” is exceedingly layered and multivalent as any other form of agency. Thus, for example, there was at one time the term used in poplar culture of the “lipstick” lesbian, which refers to women who are the antitheses to the colloquial “butch.” While these descriptions are basically stereotypes, they simplistically underscore the myriad forms of identity within any demographic. Ditto for the heterogeneity of gay identity as well; for gay identity also runs the gamut from the historical stereotype of the clichéd, effeminate homosexual to what in gay culture is known, albeit stereotypically, as “jock” “bear,” “wolf,” “twink.” etc. Even in the so-called “straight” world there are variations as to what constitutes the enactment of that gender including the proverbial “metrosexual.”
In questioning the impossibility of “decoding women,” Koh undoubtedly addresses other aspects that constitute identity such as class, culture, and sexual preference that also indirectly implies the ostensible codiﬁcation of the masculine. In doing so, Koh Sang Woo: Decoding Women, interrogates the normative “coding” of gender by which society has created and sustained an innate asymmetry of power between men and women, and all other forms of subject positions located in between.
New York City
Koh Sang Woo: The Camera Eye/I
Koh Sang Woo’s photographic oeuvre to date spans an array of genres including the still-life, mise-en-scenes of nudes, figures in other worldly landscapes, works that can be characterized as self-portraits, abstraction compositions, and others that are text-based in orientation, and a mixture of these. Examples of this expansive corpus have been brought together in the exhibition titled Wild In Blue and the attendant works are formally characterized by Koh’s signature aesthetic style. In one sense, Koh’s artistry and technique allude to an earlier photographic history and although the work may occasionally evoke the past, it is also very much of the moment.
The contemporaneity of Koh’s photographic practice resides both in form and content. As per the former, this is evinced in Koh’s modus operandi in composing his pictures via a laborious process entailing painting his figures or arranging his compositions in very detailed and precise combinations and then photographing them and printing the negative in color reversals. Lush, saturated and palpably chromatic, the dichotomy of transforming the negative into the positive print is not only a formal strategy as it also contains a conceptual approach to the photograph’s subject matter.
In the self-portraits presented in Wild In Blue, for example, we encounter Koh in a pose with eyes shut conveying a heightened degree of interiority in which pictorial and thematic differentiation resides in each of the figure’s exterior surface. Thus, in Resistance (2017) the artist has closed his eyes and looks within while elements of the U.S. flag are painted over his visage. This image is somewhat iconic and its lineage resides with anti-war demonstrators and protestors who depicted similar elements over their faces to draw attention to political and social issues. At the same time, however, this highly recognizable American signifier can be seen in seemingly more celebratory contexts such as the United States’ Independence Day on the Fourth of July. In this festive date marking the founding of the United States it’s not uncommon for patriotism to be fervently expressed by individuals who may wear clothes with the American flag or even paint their faces similarly to Resistance. But Koh expands on these to include aspects of his own biography. As a Korean-born artist who has made the U.S. and specifically New York City his home for some time, navigating multi-cultural life within urbanity and other areas outside of New York City where the population is more homogeneous, is embodied in his photograph. Other works are no less evocative of the artist’s ability to capture a sense of otherness that is ubiquitous in many countries outside the United States. In Introvert (2016), the artist presents himself in a similar posture with his attention inward; but here Koh has written the words Don’t Fuck With My Feelings over his face. Whereas in Resistance there is a palpable sense of empathy with the persona in the photograph, in Introvert the power of the work seems to go outward, which is somewhat in tension with the work’s title. On the one hand, Koh seems to be in a pensive if not meditative state contemplating his inner life. On the other hand, the very straight forward narrative is addressed without apology to the viewer. Consequently, there is an aggression in the work that captures a sentiment that many of us feel in the face of a confrontational society regardless whether the context of that antagonism may be topical, political, cultural, or personal. In contrast to these is Made in Beijing (2017). Unlike the previous two photographs, which to a lesser or greater degree are provocative yet buoyed by a marked emotionality, Made in Beijing displays a vulnerability that creates a sense of assertion and is poetically melancholic. Koh’s humanization of historical differences between Korea and China are cast in a kind of empowered surrender. In other words, victory is in acknowledging the humanity of the other, whether this be prejudices held by some Chinese towards Koreans, or whether it is by a few Koreans about the Chinese. In these three works one can see a confident artistry and the broad scope of subject matter the artist is capable of conceiving and executing. However, though these self-portraits as well as others in Koh’s oeuvre to date may seem outwardly innocuous, they subliminally embody visual verve coupled with a brutal honesty. They may seem highly personal and originating from experience, but they have an ability to reveal to us much about the world around us. Similar to these are other works in Wild and Blue that seem to have been made in series because of their somewhat unified subject matter, and what is being referred to are photographs of women in which some were made almost ten years apart.
One of Koh’s earliest photographs consist of a voluptuous nude woman that has become akin to a recognizable motif in the artist’s corpus. Composed in various contexts including set within a kind of Garden of Eden backdrop replete with dragonflies, butterflies, and an assortment of flora and fauna as well as a skull, for Wild In Blue the artist has presented two works that seem to incorporate the same model: Proposed Lady (2007) and In Blossom II (2012). Both works are startling because of the intensity of the highly saturated palette; the former with a deep black background in which stands a woman in a blue body topped with cascading gold hair and she holds a large bouquet of red roses. Looking downward and self-conscious and thus conveying a degree of shyness, the woman in Propose Lady also happens to be nude, reminding us with aplomb about the cultural construction of beauty. Not unrelated to Proposed Lady is In Blossom II. Whereas Proposed Lady somewhat alludes to straightforward portraiture with a few nuanced elements to create a narrative element, In Blossoms II is rife with multiple meanings. The bouquet of roses has now turned into nocturnal flora as a woman dreams her future into existence. Mother (2016), on the other hand, is powerful too as a rendition of a kind of feminine archetype. Here, though, the mother holds in her arms a baby, and this composition is situated in the art history of mother/infant depictions often the register of the religious. Is Koh consequently offering his own interpretation of Virgin and Christ child, or possibly something more humanist and outside of organized religion but nonetheless evoking the sacred? Regardless of the permutations the work embodies in encompassing those themes, there is a nurturing quality in the positivity that Mother evokes. Yet there is also a kind of indecipherable specter that haunts this composition. Although the color combinations in Mother are energized and invigorated, there is still something subliminally unnerving in the blueish hue of the figures. Blue has an interesting history in the context of both Western and non-Western art including Picasso’s Blue Period that lasted between 1901 and 1904. The triggering of this important artistic milestone for Picasso was the suicide of his close friend Carlos Casagemas. In contrast to this was Yves Klein and his usage of blue, or what he trademarked as Klein Blue. Within this pedigree of this specific color one should include Proposed Lady, In Blossom II and Mother as well as many other works that Koh creates where figures are dominated by the color blue.
Koh Sang Woo is an artist of his time in his ability to present to us what we often overlook. Reminding us again and again through an exquisite body of work the he not only wields a camera to make his art, but that his inner self is a recorder too, by which the world is filtered through a kind of visionary camera eye/I to capture myriad things including the wild in blue.
New York City