Eye-con Series

I certainly hope that the works in my 'Eye-con' series have a good deal of aesthetic, sensual, and visceral appeal, and it was a pleasure on all of those levels to plan and produce them. However, they also function on an intellectual level.

I see these works in cultural terms, and more specifically, as my commentary on the ever-shifting constellation of icons that form idealized Western conceptions of Asian-ness. While the color red in particular is indeed a prominent presence in some Asian settings, Westerners often overemphasize it in their ideas of what Asia is like; they often do the same with other supposed aspects of Asian people's lives. Because the color red is so quick to leap into iconic status for the Western mind in its conceptions of exotic Asian-ness, the overwhelming redness of these pieces symbolizes for me other false (yet standardized) facets of the 'Orientalist' mindset.

I want red to predominate in this series so fully that it obscures perception of potential imagery-landscapes, mountainous scenery, sunsets, birds (or are they eyes?), townscapes, and so on. I want to suggest, then, that when the inner Western eye turns to 'the East,' it can be conned into a certain blindness, if it has not unlearned that which it likes to think it knows.


Interpellation Series

As I create the pieces in this series, I think about turning the tables on those who wield the authority to "take" the fingerprints of us all. The tips of our fingers and thumbs are pressed onto documentation that asserts our individuality at the same time that it claims our connections to and commonality with others. Every fingerprint is unique, yet our prints attest to our "citizenship," our membership in a community of supposedly similar people. Authority has also attached tense, anxiety-inducing associations to the idea: we offer forth our outstretched hands, and they are grasped by other hands that take from us the marks of our selves.

I want the repetitiveness of this work to suggest the taking back of a single fingerprint, mine, but also the taking back of all fingerprints. By recontextualizing this signifier of identity, I hope viewers will see it anew, attaching fresh new meanings of their own to the image and notion of something so simple, yet profound, as a fingerprint.


Artist Statement

I emigrated to the United States eight years ago. I think of myself, first of all, as a woman still in the process of escaping from a stridently patriarchal culture. While America has often seemed to offer less restrictions on my selfhood than Korea did, I continue to find myself subject to forces that try to define who and what I am. I think the ongoing struggle between these past and present impositions and my instinctual resistance to them has been the central animating tension through the many stages of my art.

This tension continues to take new forms, so I see my current series, "Words Become Indigenous," as a natural progression from my earlier work. Having come to recognize that power so often does its work through language, I have gradually turned from images to words to confront societal impositions from another angle. The foundation for these new works consists of copies of Sixteenth Century Korean essays and poems detailing Confucian moral standards. They were written just after King Sejong's creation of the Korean alphabet. Most of the words are now extinct, but the Confucian ideologies they express certainly are not. My next step is to chose certain especially resonant English words and expressions and combine them with lengthy, dialogical ruminations of my own. These free-flowing dialogues tend to concern the ongoing reconstruction of my identity, a process which I feel I must carry out consciously in light of my growing awareness of the social forces mentioned above.

By writing repeatedly over the old Korean words in several layers, I want to recreate the effect of words becoming meaningless through repetition. Both sets of words, then, become separated from their conventional meanings. This breakdown of language represents for me the diminution of the power of these words, of the power of language itself. As I make these works, I continually feel that I am turning the tables on language, wrenching free from its daily control to go to a place where images can take shape without the confining power of language defining those images before they even appear. I hope that in this way, my work builds upon Ludwig Wittgenstien's important insight that despite our impression of seeing the outline and shape of an object in front of us, we are actually seeing the frame through which we see that object. I want to free the viewer from these frames of visual reference by creating, with words forced into senselessness, the effect of imagery freed from the tyrannous habit of interpretation. The final effect I have worked for is the creation of abstract shapes and images that exist beyond language, created through control over language.

Among my earliest work was "The Blueprint Series," which consisted, at the first layer, of actual institutional blueprints which I found lying around the University of Georgia's art building. The next layer, hastily written sets of words in two languages, represents one shallow but necessary part of my self: my attempts to express myself at any given moment in the tongues of my native culture (Korean) and/or my new culture (American). The final layer consists of several depths of color, which I see as a more abstract, visual, visceral representation of my deeper parts, the parts that burst through and flood over the structures, structures which now lie beneath the rawness of another successful excavation.

The next stage in my work was "The Map Series," a more controlled meditation on social forces which impinged on my earlier life. Using maps of various Korean settings, I expressed the shaping influences of several aspects of my upbringing. The overlapping maps--of my hometown, of Korea, of the Korean prison I spent time in for expressing my political beliefs too clearly, of the American town I currently live in, and so on--represent the overlapping forces of the continued power these places still hold over me.

Then came "Some Thing Never Leave a Person," a series of works based on my memories of one particularly imposing figure from my past, my grandfather. He died when I was twenty-three, but my grandfather has certainly yet to leave me. Nor have the tenets laid out in the Confucian texts I once found buried among his clothes. I based each painting on a childhood scene in which my grandfather took part. A former Buddhist monk, he was ejected from the temple for falling in love with a regular temple visitor, my eventual grandmother. A lusty man with multiple appetites, my grandfather still lives on in our village in the repeated tales of his shocking, drunken exploits.

While my grandfather (and his nine wives) often made life difficult for me, his rebellious nature has resurfaced in me. In works based on my grandfather, the torn Confucian texts (our culture's moral blueprints) overlap with institutional blueprints to represent the conflation of our stubborn energies. I want the process of making these works--adding torn fragments here and there, tearing off parts of them, sanding away others--to remain visible as an expression of my energetic inheritance. Finally, the swirling shapes and potential images work to suggest various memories of my grandfather.

Some of my recent work confine within boxes images of my self and of Korea. In one, I express my frustration with complacent labels for my country (such as "The Land of the Morning Calm") by contrasting a typically soothing, tempting landscape with suggestions of the darker reality of Korea--the million who died there a few short generations ago, the barbed wired fences that still ensnares its entire coast, and the brooding image of my photographed self. I am working now, as I think I always have, with "images"--with painterly or artistic images, yes, but as they represent many other mental images--those of my country, of my people and my family, of my new country and its families, and consequently of myself, and of all the unwelcome, imposed images of myself.


Suk Ja Kang-Engles

Written by Rebecca Dimling Cochran, art critic, published in Art in America (1998)

From a distance, the paintings of Suk Ja Kang-Engles appear as abstract patches of color. Light hues fade into dark, the edges blur like faint clouds in the sky. The close-valued or monochromatic surfaces exude a cool intensity. On closer inspection, the works reveal an additional dimension in the form of language. Kang-Engles layers the canvases with paper printed with 16-century Korean essays and poems detailing Confucian moral standards. This support is then covered with paint over which she handwrites autobiographical text using the ancient vocabulary. No longer in use today, the characters read merely as marks running in vertical columns across the surface.

Kang-Engles, who is a student of ancient Korean literature, uses this vocabulary to detail frustrations she feels as a woman and as a Korean who has lived in the U.S. for eight years. In some of her newer paintings, glimpses of these emotions appear as English words hand-painted over the Korean. Collusion IV includes a block of English text, which reads as a one-sided conversation confronting a male subject we cannot see. The words fade in and out of the Korean characters that lie behind, turning complete thoughts into fragments.

In the diptych Didactic III, the word "stillness" repeatedly emerges from a ground of Korean characters like a continuous line drawn on a grid. The minimalistic composition, painted in muted colors, actually serves to reinforce the definition of the word. Yet, through the process of repetition and obfuscation, the expression becomes meaningless. The letters in the English word begin to read much like the Korean characters: merely marks on a page. Adjacent to this complex layering of paint is the diptych's second monochromatic panel. Here, short pieces of yarn are loosely pasted over the entire canvas to create a three-dimensional surface, which is then covered with paint. Formally, the panel does not add to the work. In fact, it may actually detract from the complex striations of the adjoining grid. But for the artist, the presence of the yarn is symbolic of her attempt to sever certain ties to her former life. Just as she repeats words to render them meaningless, the process of cutting thread becomes a type of ritual designed to assuage the pain of the past.


2010 bill lowe gallery  |  site by visualiti