The imagery in Jiha Moon’s paintings can thunder with laughter, whisper of legends long forgotten and some yet to be lived, and shed mournful tears of dripping blue and pink paint. Her new exhibition, opening at Saltworks Gallery this Saturday, January 23, is titled Blue Peony and Impure Thoughts. As Atlanta-based curator Stephanie Greene observes in her essay on the exhibition, “Traditional pink or white peonies represent luxury and wealth—the opposite of lotuses, which signify spirituality—but blue peonies don’t exist in nature.” In our interview below, the artist elaborates on her title and her influences and challenges in creating her recent work.
“Where are you from?” can be a tricky question these days. I wanted to interview Moon because I missed her last solo at Saltworks in 2008. (Since then, she’s shown in Washington, D.C., at the Moti Hasson Gallery in New York, and in venues as far as Seoul, South Korea.) The symbol of a peony implies an identity bound to a specific place, rooted in the soil. But choosing the unnatural color of blue shifts this identity out of its familiar context. It’s a nice metaphor for life in the increasingly global twenty-first century.
Jeremy Abernathy: What distinguishes your newest show from previous work? Are these “impure thoughts” more than just a theme, or will we see something different in terms of form or content?
Jiha Moon: “Impure thoughts” is from one of my favorite quotes from Philip Guston’s essay, “Impure Thoughts: On Guston’s Abstractions.” He says, “But painting is impure and it is the adjustment of impurities which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.”
I have long admired Philip Guston for not only his work but also his philosophy and attitude towards the world. Also, I have always thought about this quote whenever I hit problems in my work. It helps me … because most of my trouble begins when I think too much about the balance between abstraction and figuration … and feel too conscious about resolving the problem rather than let the work be itself.
Anyway, so I made observations over what has been going on in my recent work which is “shifting identities and the battle between abstraction and figuration.” [That’s when] I came up with the title: Blue Peony and Impure Thoughts.
You will notice some differences in my work in terms of how I handle paint, color, form, and paper as material compared to my previous works. I hope these new works are more figurative [and] more abstract at the same time. I also started using the color black, which I was a bit afraid of before, as I did not want the viewer to think of Asian calligraphy too much. But now I am ready. I let the color take its own role for each work, whether it wants to be Asian calligraphy or not.
JA: Can you name a few specific Asian influences on your work? That is, where do you look for line, color, symbolism, or relationships between figure and ground?
JM: Well, I look at many things in general, in any form of art or life. I look at Korean folk art (Min-Wha), Chinese landscapes, Tao-Chi (he calls himself an individualist, as he did not want anybody to talk about his influences too much–I love his attitude!), Bada Shanren, Disney cartoons, The Simpsons, Hieronymus Bosch, national flags, commercials, pop culture, youth cultures, Japanese woodblock prints (especially Utagawa Hiroshige), Korean quilts and Bojagi, women’s art-embroidery, Renaissance etching, and sepia drawings, and many more.
JA: What should we look forward to in terms of site-specific details? What have you learned from previous installation work: for example, the collaborative work with Rachel Hayes at the Contemporary or your solo at Moti Hasson Gallery?
JM: It is such a challenge for me to do an installation, because I am such a painter. My main focus and love is on the surface of two dimensions. But once in a while I have a project that sticks in my head wanting to be [released into] real life. For example, in the project I did in NYC, I made a 15-foot-long scroll painting, along with sculptural elements meant to be viewed from all directions … or [another example was] a collaboration with installation artist Rachel Hayes. It makes me use my senses. [It makes me] more intense and awake.
For this installation at Saltworks, I used all my collections and artifacts from my studio. I have [wanted] to do this so bad for a long time. It is a storehouse–an idea box like a thrift store. I have been collecting these things since I started living in US. They are my source materials as well as inspirations. I think just about everyone has one of these kinds of collections at their house, even if they are not artists. Of course, I bet all artists have this in their studios: favorite postcards, correspondence, little paint boogers, and toys. I wanted to make [it] extreme and in my own context, matching with different types of stripes, which often appear in my work. [These stripes] can be [interpreted as a] Korean traditional rainbow but also be national flags. They are sort of in between familiar and non-familiar.
JA: Radcliffe Bailey said to me recently, “Someone asked me the other day, ‘Radcliffe, how do we get more African Americans to come our art spaces?’ There’s a way to invite everybody. … Sometimes I drive out to Buford Highway, and I see whole different worlds out there. And when I see those worlds, I say, ‘You know what’s missing in the Atlanta art scene? The makeup of all these people.’”
If you were in the room and you heard this, what would be your response?
JM: Well, if I was invited to some punk house (with kids fighting, dancing) or a hip-hop place, I would feel the same way. This is a country of all kinds. There is so much to experience and learn. But for me, Korean restaurants and stores on Buford Highway are sort of the tip of an iceberg, which is a bit Americanized. Cultures are quickly blending and changing, which is interesting. My work has so much Asian influence to some viewers, it but appears very Americanized to some others.
The work reveals who artists are, but doesn’t always show their ethnic [background] quickly. That’s what I am interested in. The identities are more complex and layered than what people can think of. I tell people I am a Korean when they ask me where I am from, [but it] doesn’t mean they understand me so much. “Where are you from?” can be a tricky question these days.
Jiha Moon’s Blue Peony and Impure Thoughts will be on view at Saltworks Gallery from January 23 through March 6.