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