February 24, 2009

Concert, Commerce and Creation Collide

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Art Made Money Made Art is a flashy exhibition in the best possible sense of the word. Installed in Tjaden Gallery from Feb. 16-20, it consists of two opposite walls of beautiful, labor-intensive lithography prints and slick painted-over-printed canvasses. The show is immediately eye-catching and ultimately visually and conceptually complex. But unlike some flashy contemporary art, these works can hold an audience long after their first dazzling impression.
The artists responsible are Yujin Lee ’09 (the lithographer) and Eugina Song ’09 (the photographer and painter), both senior thesis students in the art department. Lee and Song seem to have solved the age-old question of how to share a gallery space — that is, how to collaborate with another artist on an exhibition by creating works that are like-minded without being too much so. Lee’s and Song’s works are thematically and visually symbiotic, but not dependent; together they ask, respond to and leave unanswered questions about their mutual conceptual concerns. The show’s strongest aspect is the constant dialogue between the two artists’ works.
Lee’s prints, all identical and laid out in a large grid, occupy the first wall one sees upon entering the gallery. Each print is actually made of two pieces of paper hung with their sides touching, and required eight separate 15 prints in total. Did I mention they were labor-intensive? The process behind the prints, which is evident enough even to a viewer who knows nothing of lithography, is relevant to Lee’s concept. She took the smallest Korean bill denomination (recently replaced by one of a different design, and fallen to a worth of about 80 American cents) and made it, as she said, “something bigger than it is.” Her prints glorify outmoded, arbitrarily-valued paper money to point out exactly how randomly we determine worth. The hours Lee spent preparing drawings and printing these works suggest the hours a Korean craftsman might have spent designing this small bill.
Song, on the other hand, is interested in what money facilitates: the fulfillment of human desire. Desire, in her own words, is the “fundamental emotion that separates us from other creatures,” and the commodity is a perfect example. Her paintings use luxury beauty products as a tool to explore desire’s workings in the specifically female mind: stimulated by advertisement, a person may blur the line between what she needs and what she wants. Song’s self-aware inclusion of herself in this classification saves her paintings from becoming mere critiques of American commercialism. What’s more, her select application of oil paint over printed canvas reads as tongue-in cheek: she treats her canvas with paint like consumers treat their faces with products. Song is very clear about the fact that she is making, not imitating.
The artists’ works are able to speak with each other because they address related subject matters. Other factors, such as their shared horizontal format and formal qualities, help facilitate this discussion. However, this tennis-match conversation between prints and paintings excludes Song’s sculpture, installed against a perpendicular wall. A small slit near the top of a rectangular box allows the viewer to peek inside a mirrored interior filled with the consumed subjects of her paintings. Dozens of empty cosmetics boxes clutter the inside, reflected on all four sides. It’s a bit alarming to look into this container, filled beyond its literal capacity with the detritus of consumerism, but the viewer can’t help but overlook it in the grand scheme of the exhibition. Song’s paintings are ultimately the best vehicles for her investigation of human emotion.
Lee and Song have put up a thought-provoking show that avoids the easy fallback of lamenting the situation of the consumer market. Rather, it posits its own theories about currency and commodities to explain the bigger issue of human behavior. Why do we spend countless hours producing something whose worth may be irrelevant to the labor that produced it? Why can other things, made in a moment, be invaluable? What makes us make distinctions between need and want? To create art that leaves us with more questions than it answers is difficult, but Lee and Song have succeeded.