Lyrics in Vases

January 31st, 2022  |  Published in *, January 2022

Kwan Jin Oh’s “Emptying and Filling”, on view at Kate Oh Gallery from January 1 –  30, 2022, teeters on intermedia, balancing formal prowess with poetic lyricism. This is evident in how Jin Oh’s paintings, each of which display ceramic moon jars, cleverly play with dimensionality and photorealism, albeit without allowing for any one facet to overdetermine the work. In this way, the paintings each use painterly impressionism to underscore a poetic sensibility while also proffering object studies in the form of moon jars. Furthermore, the paintings employ an intermedial technique, as Oh adopts a method traditionally circumscribed to pottery—called the “inlaid technique”—by utilizing a sharp knife to create bold lines and carve slits out of the canvas. This produces a photorealist effect, the ceramic jars given such pronounced dimensionality that they appear to swell from the canvas. However, this realism is framed by Oh’s more painterly sensibilities, as evinced by the flowers and fauna that peer out of the jars or around their necks.

Oh’s moon jars are captured via different perspectives and in different environs. One of Oh’s paintings centers an aged, cerulean and ivory white jar, displayed before a clouded dusk of Stygian silver. The realism of the jar and its faded traditional design, featuring a washed out beryl dragon curling around the ash-white porcelain, is in stark contrast with the painterly background and the blonde, tawny-splotched sun that hangs in perfect orbital form above the jar. Another of Oh’s paintings features a light teal jar on a white canvas; out of the jar’s mouth unspools a single black branch that curls around the center of the jar, violet petals occasionally adorning it. The branch resembles a crimped, wispy arm, mauve flower petals lining it’s forearm. Despite the stillness of the environment here, these petals suggest life, interrupting the cold palette in all its quietude.

The motif of a crooked arm-like branch exiting the mouth of the moon jar appears often throughout these works. The branches are at times displayed with the same realism as the jars, and Oh makes repeated use of the blush plum-pink petals that dot them. However, sometimes the branches are more impressionistic—dotted, smoke-like raven brushes at odds with the crisp mouth of the jars. Often, the circular background figure of a sun or moon illuminates the stage, the natural and the constructed set into unity. At times, a light blue or flush pink background will spotlight the jars, reminiscent of a coral sunset ocean floor. Such paintings utilize a “doubling” effect where the moon jar and the celestial moon or sun co-refer to one another, both semantically and representationally. Other paintings also feature a black wooden desk with a golden centerpiece upon which the jars rest. In one painting, a serpentine branch swoops below the desk, reaching through the jar and seemingly becomes one with the charcoal-black altar below. The branches are almost anthropomorphized with their spindly and sinuous reach, suggesting a life of their own.

Oh is especially sensitive to how his color palettes are composed. For instance, one of the paintings features a bright crimson desk, upon which a light bluish-alabaster jar rests. A blanched moon hangs beside this jar, a few inches of empty space separating the moon from it. In this painting, the mirrored moon and jar are connected by a fishing rod-like branch with roseate petals. Both the moon and the petals are reminiscent of the jar and the desk, respectively, as the palettes of the latter present muted hues of the former.

Oh’s mending of realism and the impressionistic—of natural semblance and the constructed stage—parallels a coordination of life and its still, petrified opposite. Notably, the opposite of life is not presented in these paintings as death, but instead as an empty lifelessness that contains life. This theme is underscored by the jars themselves, which are but literal vehicles of containment. On the one hand, the jars quite literally contain life, which is displayed with petal-rowed branches and flowers that unfurl and reach out from the cold, crisp jars. On the other hand, the jars also contain a mode of seeing—the jars center the painting’s composition and, consequently, direct our visual field. Further engaging this theme of containment, Oh’s paintings each also feature a line drawing of a moon jar on the back of the canvas; this is, of course, not public-facing and thus also contained. Oh’s works hence propound an aesthetics of containment while simultaneously illuminating how any act of containment is also an act of framing and interpreting.

–Ekin Erkan

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