Washington, DC

Jae Ko

Marsha Mateyka Gallery

Jae Ko’s most recent sculptures are more aggressive in their physicality and more complex in their surface treatment than her earlier work. Ko uses large, tightly bound spools of adding-machine paper that she wraps, folds, and contorts like taffy. Her previous exhibitions featured low, largely symmetrical iridescent black or colored wall reliefs—round, ovoid, and square—whose subtle surface modulations suggested labia, the glyphs of Asian signature seals, or topographic models of old, eroded hills. The Washington, DC–based artist, born in Korea and educated in Tokyo, travels extensively in North America, finding inspiration in unusual and extreme natural forms. The wall reliefs and floor pieces in her new show were in fact inspired by the wind-blasted trunks of the ancient bristlecone pines that the artist encountered on a trip to California’s White Mountains.

Ko’s new work is notable for its defter manipulation of her chosen medium, its expanded visual vocabulary of subtle, awkwardly elegant forms, and its greater sense of authority. Ko now forcefully torques and twists the spools, yielding more expressive results. As with Richard Serra’s early thrown lead pieces, these objects make us immediately aware of the artist’s active participation. Compositionally, she fuses the swooping curves of Bernar Venet with the ebullient swerving ribbons of Karin Davie and the efficient expressiveness of Joel Shapiro. The new works suggest tornadoes and the great, exaggerated hair bun that Martha Graham sported in her later years. There’s also a palpable sense of animation, as though these works were bodies in motion suddenly frozen, another point of difference from her earlier work. Untitled (JK 508) (all works 2006) suggests a whirling dervish channeling the rearing motion of a hooded cobra; Untitled (JK 521) riffs on the giant cylinders of a turbine generator; and Untitled (JK 506) resembles a portion of an enormous drill bit or an endless coiling column. Several groupings of works suggested animals, especially Untitled (JK 516) and Untitled (JK 520), which together looked like a bitch and pup.

There’s a degree of spontaneity and imperfection to these forms that makes them convincingly organic, a reminder that they are the results of an evolving dialogue between artist and material. Unlike, say, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s recent sculptures of idealized objects, Ko’s pieces sag and flop in places; they’re mildly ungainly and off-kilter; and there is a naturalness to them that makes them more credible, as though they are experiments gone awry. Untitled (JK 513), for example, resembles a couple of wheels on an axle where one wheel has collapsed, while Untitled (JK 501) appears to be spinning out of control.

Ko’s surface treatments are particularly beguiling: While her earlier works were soaked in traditional Asian inks, the new sculptures are also coated in glue (and the darker-colored ones additionally in graphite). The treated paper’s hard carapace could easily be mistaken for fiberglass, plastic, or ceramic. In its natural state, the mix has a dull, cream color, while the addition of graphite yields a matte, ersatz metallic sheen. Overall, this body of work evinces a combination of maturity, liberation, and self-assuredness that marks a significant shift for the artist, away from an early tendency toward overproduction and irresolution and toward a system of objects that feels both complete within itself and poised for further development.

Nord Wennerstrom