February 13 - March 20, 2020
February 13 - March 20, 2020
Suejin Jo told me the title for this exhibition of her newest paintings is not political. The work she created over the last two years is not about immigration, but migration, she said. She has been thinking about the seasonal, mass journeys made by monarch butterflies or song sparrows. And yet one can’t help but think about immigration too, that cycle of human migration.
Her painting, “Blue Trace” (2019) best evokes this cyclical narrative and exemplifies her direct, intuitive approach to painting. Within the work’s glowing lavender atmosphere shadow traces of individual brush strokes and paint drips appear. They hover just opposite a community of pulsing deep blue and bright yellow spots. A valley becomes a hill and together they form a version of the archetypal symbol for duality and continuity, Yin and Yang.
The color in Jo’s saturated, abstract paintings hums, buzzes and sings with the songs of insects, birds and people in flight. She layers many, loosely regimented brush strokes and dabs, controlled drips, and resist textures in the service of her clear, symmetrically inclined compositions. Contrasting hues and light values intermix between and within the geometric shapes in each mid-size work. Her paint marks vibrate in unison.
“Swimming in Phosphorescent Sea” (2018) feels like the source painting for this body of work. It was inspired by a defining nighttime swim Jo took in Korea as an independent-minded young girl. Jo recalls being mesmerized by the otherworldly light effects in the water created by phosphorescent sea creatures now recreated in this painting. A shimmering array of colors is organized around a dark inverted triangle split with a red line down the center. Paint drips mimic strands of wet hair falling from the central “V” to a striated blue-green background. The work’s unabashed frontal composition signifies the artist’s youthful discovery that — while almost becoming lost in her sublime ocean swim— she found a core sense of herself.
Three “Door to the Sea” paintings, part of an ongoing series, merge Jo’s travels to Salento, Italy with an early memory. A striking vertical break in a high cliff by the Adriatic Sea mirrors a place she visited during her childhood summers by the Eastern Sea near North Korea. Taken together, the “Door to the Sea” works reveal the artist’s compositional innovation. The instinctive expressive power of her paint handling brings to mind the work of British modernist Howard Hodgkin who described his abstract work as “…pictures of emotional situations.” Jo translates into paint the charge of psychic energy created by the sight of the passageway between the side-by-side rock masses and its remembered echo.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to separate the personal from the political, migration from immigration. In “No Stopping Flowing River” (2019) the populations of paint marks sorted by color are divided by a river of interlocking red and blue sinuous strokes. The space enhanced with gold filigree at the top of the painting calls forth a transcendent, safe ultimate destination. Jo’s work in “Migration_Passages” transforms her personal memories into universal stories of identity, sung in a chorus of color. The complex experience of migrating to a new country is the deeper story she tells in this work.
Anne Sherwood Pundyk is an artist and writer based in Manhattan and Mattituck, NY.