Ever recall being told a good story of great joy or regret or sorrow, and later, on attempting a recall, you forget the entire tale except for the feeling attending the yarn? That's a Jiha Moon painting. Ethereal, luxurious, undulating, captivating, carry-you-away from yourself vivid. Hard nails run soft down your back. Can't remember what you saw, won't soon forget what you felt.
Wander the maze of galleries of the Mint Museum till you discover Turbulent Utopia, an exhibit of paintings by Jiha Moon.
"J Walk" (2005) is ink and acrylic on Hanji paper (bumpy Korean rice paper). Cobalt blue saturates the field of the painting, a painting which resembles on whole an underwater mountain range. Towering cliffs rise left and right, wrapped in green mist carried on a wet wash of salty cobalt and ultramarine blue. Crimson tendrils weave behind the clouds like spectral arteries run through the painting's translucent belly. Fine green lines loop up and drape the midsection, weeping willows springing from the crease between water-wrapped cliffs. Orange and purple fauna litter the weeping vines. Benign storm clouds rumble through the valley between the mountains' rise. Incongruous green and yellow, blue and red geometric fingers, aligned like piano keys, flow in formation, forward from the cobalt ferment at the ocean floor.
Moon's paintings are a foreign language overheard at the mall or on the street, lyrical and captivating enough to stall your walk to eavesdrop, listening without understanding a word, investing your time and culling meaning in sound alone.
"The Winds" (2007), like other recent paintings here, is less likely to incorporate lines between figures and ground, and less laden with hard-edged cartoons than those painted a few years ago. "The Winds" billows pink wisps through vertical green brush; opaque blue creatures -- sparrows and pigs and mice-like -- swim through the ultramarine and violet thicket; pale blue cumulous clouds float like silly putty pillows in bathwater, washes of gray and green bleed behind and over and into churls of watery waves. Green eels swim against the tide.
"The Winds" is simultaneously melodious and stark, fluid and reeling, a naked gypsy dancing light-footed and drunk, captured momentarily in a soon-to-be-lost graceful fugue state. Like Moon's best paintings, this one is about 3' x 3', her optimal working parameters. Within this economy of scale is a world reeling, blustery, tangled and turgid, initially inchoate. Awash with the grist for elective meaning.
Logotherapy is a psychological theory developed by Viennese psychiatrist Victor Frankl. In his seminal book Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl postulates all men's mojo is fueled by a quest for meaning. Freud figured it was sex, Jung favored a spirit and myth dynamic, and Frankl figured we all trudge through this vale in a search for life's meanings.
Jiha Moon's paintings have no immediately apparent inherent meaning for me. There is movement and color and form; thickness, taste and texture, and the occasional coherent or illusive symbol -- but no immediate decipherable meaning. There is meaning for the artist, no doubt, but not yet for me. Victor Frankl urges me on.
Moon tells us this: "I am a cartographer of cultures and an icon maker in my lucid worlds. I want to be a visual interpreter of the mixed cultural worlds of my generation." Moon is both Korean and American. She quests to interpret her generational worlds, and in so doing, she lays out a new fix on our world, her generation, our culture. Moon's declaration lies thin and flat against her paintings. The painting is where our investment begins, in finding our own meanings, or vacancy of meaning, in the image world before us.
Moon's paintings foment a pleasant discord, a tension between the merely decorative and the meatier allusions to our times and lives. Make what meaning you can. Appreciation of the work requires the sacrifice of invested time and a little surrender. A worthy and pleasant labor.
Moon's earlier paintings -- from 2005 and 2006 -- incorporate more outlines, are less ambiguous, and are more storyboard and Disney-like.
In "Sunshine Fortress" (2005), Moon tells her tale with defined lines and explicit fantasy imagery. A rainbow arcs down from top left into a translucent ultramarine eruption of mountainous plumes. A vertical red-lined waterfall rains down with a little army of rolling Pac-Man heads, tumbling with patent hungry mouths into a green linguini vortex of tangled vegetation. The wiggly green and blue lines envelope and consume, or are consumed by, the happy Pac-Man heads.
White lined red tulips, misshapen by watery currents, float through the green tangle. Cobalt blue clouds, outlined and gelatinous, float through the torpid mix as if carried by pockets of air through water. Moon has a story here with an implicit offer to make her story your own -- as long as you're willing to gaze.
This painting -- your adopted story -- is, at its least, a reprieve from whatever was stalking you before you ventured through the catacomb maze at the Mint Museum of Art. At best, it's an introduction into a once unknown and ineffable world made tangible, a gift to be carried out and coddled and perhaps incorporated into your world past the museum doors. Carla Hanzal, Contemporary Art Curator (she curated this show) and essayist, said it better: "Jiha Moon entices viewers to enter these disorienting environs -- bursting with chaos and energy -- where epic journey may take place with a turbulent new world."
What other images float through Moon's iconic vocabulary? Let's see, um, striped ribbons, translucent peaks and valleys, black orchids, miniscule seminal vesicles, crimson sheets in the wind, dragons, copper leaves aloft, cartoon eyeballs, plankton, sea grass, sinew and entrails, floating stairways, fleshy ripe peaches, winged human limbs, opaque prisms, and, floating over gallery walls through each painting, the water and clouds and wind wafting through articulated organic effluvium as solid as a morning mist.
Much grist. Start milling.
Jiha Moon: Turbulent Utopia, the most recent exhibit in the VantagePoint series, runs through July 6, 2008, in the Crist Gallery at the Mint Museum of Art, 2730 Randolph Rd. For more information, call 704-377-2000 or go to www.themintmuseums.org.