The artist talks about creating vibrant celebrations of Asian identity in her large yellow paintings.
By Jiha Moon and Hua Xi
Jiha Moon’s evocative, sumptuous paintings are dynamic meditations on cultural identity. Her Yellowave series invites viewers to reconsider the color yellow, with its supersaturated neons that spill across the canvas in sweeping, freeform strokes, interrupted by detailed drawings of pagodas, trees, animals, and fruit. At once ancient and contemporary, these symbols reference both Eastern and Western culture. They are also a manifestation of Moon’s diasporic identity: she grew up in Korea and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
It is precisely Moon’s openness to using any source that makes her work flamboyant, captivating, odd, funny, smart, uncanny, comically monstrous, and unsettling. And, most of all, over the top.
by John Yau
January 13, 2022
I first met Jiha Moon in 2000, when she was in the MFA program at the University of Iowa. Later, I learned that she was born in Daegu, South Korea, in 1973, and came to the United States in the late 1990s, after earning her BFA and MFA in Korea. At that point, she was working largely in painting and printmaking. In 2012, she was awarded a grant from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, which she used to sign up at a local clay studio in Atlanta, where she has lived for many years.
There are so many references in Jiha Moon’s artworks, it can be hard to know where to begin. In “Stranger Yellow,” her show of ceramic sculptures and ink-and-acrylic paintings at Derek Eller Gallery, I spotted bananas, fortune cookies, peaches and Ukiyo-e-inspired creatures; I saw echoes of Roy Lichtenstein’s “Yellow Brushstrokes,” traditional Chinese landscape painting and face jugs from the American South. This cross- pollination is partly a product of biography: Moon grew up in South Korea before moving to the United States in her late 20s. She studied art in both places and eventually settled in Atlanta.
But it’s not just hybridity that makes Moon’s art so thrilling; it’s the way these sources of inspiration and pieces of iconography coexist and pile up within individual works. Often the results are delightfully absurd and cartoonish, like the sculpture “Peach Mask Face Jug” (2021), which comes alive with thick, grinning red lips and white teeth, while being adorned all over with faces, foods, hearts and more. Sometimes they’re transportingly meditative, as in the 10-foot-long painting “Yellowave (Stranger Yellow)” (2021), whose undulating brushstrokes could represent a seascape, a storm or something more abstract, like tendrils of memory.
Moon’s visual blitz may not be self-important, but it is studied. The key to navigating it here is yellow, a potent color that’s also a slur for Asian Americans. Moon reclaims yellow and weaves it like a thread through her web of signifiers, suggesting that even as our identities become more layered, there’s still a core element that remains.
This Atlanta-based painter and ceramicist, who was born in South Korea in 1973 and has lived in the U.S. for two decades, has developed a strikingly varied vocabulary of forms—elegant, cute, grotesque, and all of the above. “Stranger Yellow,” the title of her appealing, clamorous new show, refers to the color that dominates the works on view, as well as to racist, xenophobic, and sexualized Asian stereotypes and the related dynamics of estrangement and assimilation. Her brightly patterned paintings on hanji (Korean mulberry paper) and her delightfully perverse glazed sculptures mingle images of bananas, fortune cookies, and breasts with botanical motifs and fantastic creatures drawn from Korean folklore, augmented by flowing passages of abstract brushstrokes. The artist’s seamless transition between mediums and her command of symbolic excess make for an absorbing and visually energetic exhibition.
One of the most perplexing questions for museums—and their audiences—during the pandemic is whether there is a difference between “to see” and “to view.” Historically, we “see” exhibitions; visit museums and galleries; connect with artists in their studios. Today, we’re more likely to view them: virtual tours, livestreamed lectures and events, images and reviews.