Jiha Moon

Art Papers
By George Howell

The pleasure of Jiha Moon's Symbioland, a small and wonderful exhibition at the Curator's Office [September 10 - October 15, 2005], comes from her adroit juggling of contraries. Moon's ten ink and acrylic works on paper show a quick, intuitive mind creating strange and highly energetic worlds out of the free play of lyrical, abstract painting and enigmatic narrative. Moon is like a storyteller recasting fables that haven't yet passed into the public consciousness.

The tittle, Symbioland, evokes a realm where connected entities negotiate symbiotic relationships. Stylistically, Moon exploits both abstraction's freedom from representation and its roots in landscape and decorative painting. Moon has a realist's love for modeled form and a storyteller's gift for landscape as stage-set. Consider the woozy seascape of Mile Stone, 2005, where cartoon signs wave like kelp caught in tidal currents, or Tie the Knot (Symbiosis), 2005, where loopy lines corset semi-transparent tomatoes and peppers like erotic restraints. Each landscape has a strikingly emotional appeal, but none of these strange worlds will ever show up in an ordinary world atlas.

Moon, a young Korean artist now living in the U.S., has acquired an enormous range of graphic styles to match her deep psychic resources. Asian landscape painting, Western religious art, children's books,, and biology illustrations pervade her work. Clearly, the artist is a creative improviser, reconfiguring a flexible graphic vocabulary into startlingly unique combinations.

Cardinal is a fine example of Moon's synthetic mind. High-keyed, jazzy orange petals morph into brushstrokes, and contrast against a low-keyed background built from swiftly drawn burnt-sienna and carmine strokes on earth-toned HanJi paper. Scrutiny reveals that the illusion of spontaneous overall abstraction is the product of finely controlled drawing. The work nonetheless transcends refined technique. As jazzy brushstrokes gravitate towards the paper's void space, Moon suggests a transcendental longing in this impossible landscape.

This impulse is dramatically pictured in Sunshine Mountain, one of two large works on paper (37.5 x 24.5 inches), where Moon deploys a supple range of techniques, playing a wet-on-wet towering blue mountain against opaque passages of flat blue storm clouds. Technique is always a bridge to the story in Moon's curious universes. Here, a writhing gaggle of organic forms—red tulips, irises, and vines—scurry up the mountain as if drawn by a mystical magnetism. The scene is like a Christian assumption drama played out on an Asian landscape.

Hints of transcendentalism never stray too far, however. If modernist abstraction reflected a search for the real beyond appearance, Moon shows a contemporary skepticism, as though a graphic symbol were, after all, only a representational mode. Thus, as tulips and irises rise up the mountain, they race past small PacMan decals hanging like blossoms on a willow branch.

The most economical and graphically resolved of Moon's works are moderate-sized pieces like Amulet (15 x 22 inches). Dangling from a blue tree by loopy red tendrils, flat pink ovoids invoke mitochondria, he genetic legacy buried in our cells. If Moon isn't retelling the story of a biological gift hanging from the tree of life, the work certainly suggests a myth waiting to be translated.

Jiha Moon's curious landscapes invite speculation because of the strange transformations playing out before our eyes. Moon's fables are about things becoming themselves and something else again. Narrative tension, rarely found in abstraction, gives these charming puzzles the inscrutable, seductive appeal.