Saturday, July 5, 2008

Art Exploration in Chelsea

(Yi Whan-Kwon sculpture)

On and off, for almost twelve years, I’ve lived in New York City, and I’m now just starting to figure out why this town can be one of the most exciting places on Earth. In spite of the crazy and frenetic proclivities of its residents, who, more often than not, feel the constraints of being enclosed in cramped quarters on an island only 13 miles long and a couple of miles wide, there can often be moments of sheer calmness, where the human experience totally makes sense and people commune to understand one another.

It’s rather ironic, no? All this craziness and calm, together in a place that rarely makes sense? But sometimes, in the dullness of life (yes, even New York City can seem dull sometimes!), great things come out the city’s extremes, including its art.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I had a full Saturday set aside to explore the gallery district in Chelsea and made some marvelous finds that were all both inspiring and exciting to the senses.

Unfortunately, now over, the Chinese Contemporary gallery’s (535 W. 24th Street) solo showing of the work of Xue Song entitled “New Life” was a delicious feast for the eyes. For fans of mixed media, Song meticulously creates collages, many of which find their inspiration in the Chinese Political Pop School of the 1990s. His works, however, go beyond the typical usage of Mao’s image in bright colors. He presents the iconic leader with a certain “playfulness” all the while the “elements of the collages recall his personality, his preferences and his deeds.” A resident of Shanghai, Song has witnessed first-hand all the poltical and social changes that China has experienced since the 60s, and he ties those elements into his work. His skill lies in reconciling the past to the present in a remarkable way.

(Xue Song)

A seeming departure from the avant garde for Song, one of my favorite pieces was a set of 3 panels depicting traditional Chinese scenes, each available for purchase for a mere $45,000. Most engaging of his works was a piece that incorporated 10 rectangular panels with numbers that all have significance in the Chinese culture. Various events and ideas were conveyed through graphics incorporated with the numbers, including one panel, which depicted the burning of his studio in 1980. All the panels were collages that included torn paper—some untouched and other pieces burned along the edges—from moderate to blackened ash, inspired by the catharsis he experienced as he made art from the remnants of objects and possessions after his studio burned down. Song’s solo show closed on June 28.

(Xue Song)

We made the trek from contemporary Chinese art to Korean by just turning a corner. Since I live in “Little Korea” and personally know how lively, vibrant and cutting edge this burgeoning culture can be, I was excited to stumble upon Gana Art located at 568 W. 25th Street. Most compelling were the 3D sculptures by Yi Whan-Kwon in Gana Art’s current show entitled “Real Illusions: Young Korean Artists,” which runs through July 26. The space is open and airy and Whan-Kwon’s stretched and elongated sculptures provide an optical illusion as you enter the gallery. I felt a tad disoriented as I looked at the sculptures, which, by their placement, are impossible to avoid looking at first. Whan-Kwon’s sculptures are “modeled after digitally altered photographs that portray distorted figures as they would appear on a wide-screen TV,” and are unlike anything you are likely to experience. This is why Gana Art is such an exciting gallery space.

In addition to Whan-Kwon, the show features seven other artists, including Lee Dong-Jae, Back Seung-Woo, Kim Nam-Pyo, Do Sung-Wook and Park Ji-Hyun, What-Kwon and Ahn Sung-Ha, whose colorful oil paintings of “everyday indulgences” such as candy and cigarettes brings Korean pop art to life in pieces that explore the dualism of good and bad. In derision of “the rushed production of art during market booms”of pop art in Korea, Ahn uses a technique of careful layering and blurring. Visit

(Alison Elizabeth Taylor
Wonder Valley, 2007-8)

Finally, our art-filled adventure ended with an exploration into the American mainstream and “its fascination with large vehicles, sex, guns, video games, religion, hunting and the military,” through the new works by Alison Elizabeth Taylor at the James Cohan Gallery. Taylor takes the exquisite art of wood inlay to another level that is unlike anything I have seen before.

At the heart of the exhibit is an architectural installation called “Room.” Reminiscent of the large wood inlay projects that were commissioned by wealthy patrons, during the Italian Renaissance, to showcase their wealth and power by depicting their possessions and not themselves as subjects, so too does this free-standing piece by Taylor. In this case, “Room” is “a trove of objects, both fascinating and mundane,” according to the exhibit’s curator. From a US Army helmet, along with a hand gun displayed together prominently in a case, to a menagerie of stuffed animals, the environs hint that its occupant is living on the edge of society, as do the other panels in Taylor’s show.

Particularly sexy and stimulating is Taylor’s provocative piece “Slab City (2007)” that depicts “society’s dropouts” who headed West in “refuge of an alternative lifestyle.” A couple of the pieces incorporate the same character, which has the spectator asking the question “why?” Taylor’s work leaves many questions unanswered and interpretations up to the individual, which is the kind of art that gets my blood pumping and my heart racing. This show closed on June 21.

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