“MORNING PERSON” Doll and painting by Noh Seokmee.
Korean artist Noh Seokmee celebrates the mundane and the playful in "you are so brave!", an exhibit of recent work currently on view at June Fitzpatrick's High Street Gallery and in the front window at SPACE Gallery, both praising and challenging the pursuit of meaning beyond simple pleasures. Her brightly colored handcrafted dolls and acrylic paintings are simple but ambiguous, rubbing against an Art Brut aesthetic. Her childlike renderings harbor a gentle madness too sophisticated for the truly naïve. Bold washy neon strokes battle a sharp illustrator's line and opaque divisions of space in her paintings, while loud patterned fabrics clash in defining the figures of her dolls. Taken together, the works read like a diary, free-associative narratives capturing gestures of landscapes, playmates, lunches, and resolutions. They also possess a quality of unfamiliarity, as though the artist had heard about her subjects but had never seen them.
Seokmee's dolls are arranged in display boxes in the gallery, in groups of five to seven. Aesthetically they are a hybrid of a matryoshka and a Henry Darger illustration, but these dolls are pillowy, their forms basic, with limbs tapering at the ends instead of resolving into hands and feet. Apparently genderless and ageless, the dolls range in size and in detail, size suggesting a hierarchy among them, and implying some familial structure. Each doll is the product of a single day, a face remembered by the artist and painted onto the flat fabric, generally emoting surprise or exclamation, pleasant and unsettling.
Seokmee uses fabrics collected from her travels, and each doll is comprised of two wildly mismatched textiles, the tension between them highlighted by a spectrum of surreal flesh tones: blue complexions and yellow eyebrows, or green hair with pink features. The dolls are painterly when grouped, each box becoming an abstraction of color, like floral arrangements.
Ten page-sized paintings augment the doll displays at June Fitzpatrick Gallery, as brightly hued and offbeat as the figures. Seokmee's subjects here are swollen and fantastical, quickly captured with a wet brush, and often accompanied by non-sequitur phrases or mantras scrawled in caps. A voluptuous leafy tree with shaggy roots is sketched in green in "a real person," before a chalkier warm gray sky harshly cut off by a translucent pink and orange ground. The title is written at the bottom of the piece in blood red, vibrating against the brighter tones in blocky letters, seemingly unconnected, a sarcastic or playful afterthought.
The titles of the paintings suggest a narrative, often unrelated to the imagery. The context injects the work with humor, a sort of personal inside joke with sources too random for the viewer to nail down. In "rice balls" three cool white igloo-like structures quiver in an arid mustard colored valley, mountains like knuckles in the distance. In "penguin" a chunky gray boulder floats in a fleshy pink waterscape, a spattering of green lichen forms beneath it. While the active brushstrokes on the rock make it somewhat zoomorphic, there is no penguin.
While the references and stories wrapped up in Seokmee's creations may be out of reach for the viewer, they are clearly present, and their unavailability makes the work that much more provocative. Seokmee gives full rein to the subjective, unapologetically coding her work without a legend.
Annie Larmon can be reached at email@example.com.
"YOU ARE SO BRAVE!" | paintings and sculptures by Noh Seokmee | through June 29 at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | 207.828.5600 | through July 31 at June Fitzpatrick Gallery, 112 High St, Portland | 207.772.1961