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