Sobin Park at Elga Wimmer PCC

Sobin Park, originally from Korea, now lives in Beijing, where she maintains her studio. Her art consists of full-length female portraits, usually unclothed, often in cramped, folded-over positions. The protagonist is then surrounded by wild masses of hair swirling around her that meld with the dragon’s scales to produce graphite waves that unfurl on the gallery walls. The introductory piece on the first wall of the gallery is a box filled with a fraction of the pencils she uses to make her drawings, along with consequent shavings, which show just how materially demanding her art is. The images are sensuous but not necessarily fully erotic; the works may bring about more a portrait of vulnerability, encompassed by the sensual weight of the encircling hair, which threatens her autonomy and even, it sometimes seems, her willingness to live. The Korean society to which she belongs is weightily Confucian; desire is not taken lightly. So, while the nude images can be seen as an invitation toward sexual feeling, it is likely also accurate to see them as indicative of a metaphorical state, in which nudity is a site of fragile emotion as much as it is the origin of transparent lust. This basic theme--the naked curling body surrounded by menacing profusions of hair and a dragon--is repeated in these large works of art, in which a certain density, bordering on black (the result of repeated line expressions in graphite) surrounds the whitened figure of an attractive woman. For this writer, Park keeps both desire and fragility on an equal level, so that she is true, generally speaking, to contemporary women artists’ interest in presenting erotic inclination even as she is likely emphasizing the anxieties of psychic autonomy.

But by inundating the work of art with so much weighted drawing, Park can sometimes lean far toward tangles of black that can seem isolated. In one drawing, called Birth of the New Female (2019), Park has drawn a picture of the female torso bent almost to her knees, seemingly resting on the black coils of the dragon--the show, curated by Dr. Thalia Vrachopoulos, is titled “Dragons and Maidens.” It is hard to differentiate the curving masses of black, although in the upper-left corner we can see a clawed hand. Just above the figure’s body is part of an illuminated cavern--the birth canal?--while on the upper right we see a tangle of hair, likely an allusion to the artist herself, who keeps her hair waist length. The image is close to overstatement, but maybe that is part of the rhetoric of the painting. As the title indicates, Park is borrowing a lot from fairy tales and mythology, with the added intensity of a 21st century, feminist outlook.  In another work, entitled Creation of a New Female Myth, I-IV (2004) Park offers us four variations on a highly eroticized naked woman more pre-Raphaelite than Asian, whose tousled hair and unsheathed torso present a woman on the move, confident in her sexual demeanor. The mouth is aggressive and toothy--perhaps a vagina dentata meant both to promote and offset the dangers of a fully conscious sexuality. Maybe the merger of psychological confidence and bodily assertion result here in a woman half-human, half-god--a maiden exhibiting greatness for the 21st century.

Deep Dream (2019) shows the artist in a vertical but also crouched position, with her eyes closed and her left hand covering her mouth. Around her face and the top of her head, which lacks her usual black hair, all manner of private symbols abound--a gold hand on the left, beneath which is a complicated but unrecognizable image in black, slightly darker than the night sky it seems to merge with; and then above her nude figure, a scythe of yellow light and what appears like blue light seems to be emitting from the depths. It is impossible to dictate the meaning of these objects, but dreams are often enigmatic. The figure’s repose is at once chaste and erotically inviting, so that many viewers would be at a loss describing the content of what they see. When one considers that the best art of the past often offers us more problems than resolutions, then Park’s imagery indeed contains similar paradoxical qualities. In Love V (2013), a pencil drawing on a silk screen engraving, Park depicts a standing nude surrounded by masses of hair, regularly punctuated by silver dots, that twist and turn around her. On the very lower right part of the artwork, a crescent moon/phallus image seems to emphasize the naked body without saying what it represents. This happens on a regular basis in Park’s works: the emblematic meaning of the imagery, while clearly there, cannot be distinguished from the overall dark and sensual feeling of the drawing. But the artist also resorts to sharp dichotomy: the pale flesh of the naked body contrasts with the densities of the dragon’s scales, often seemingly linked to night and darker forces.

In The Birth of New Female (2020), the image is that of a naked woman, that might be read as Park’s self-portrait. We see only the back of the body, and not much of the face, but the firm curves of the woman’s breasts and buttocks cannot escape an erotic meaning. There is a sliver moon on the lower left, and a complicated abstract design on the right, in which patterned polyp-like forms ring the edges of a circle of blue light, to the right of which we can, without too much difficulty, imagine the tousled hair and scales of the mythological dragon. It is wise not to over-read Sobin’s complexities, which can border on figuration and biomorphic abstraction all at once. It is clear she is trying to assess her role as the creator of a female mythology that would lift her out of the hardships of the real world into a place of independence and grandeur. Such a transformation is difficult to achieve for any artist, but it is clear that Park’s attempt is emotionally unambiguous and compellingly earnest.

 

- Jonathan Goodman