Washington, DC

Jiha Moon

Curator's Office

Jiha Moon’s lyrical ink-and-acrylic paintings are, at their best, remarkable balancing acts that choreograph a maelstrom of lines and shapes to conjure imagery that is both familiar and alien, abject and beautiful. Superficially, the Korean-born artist’s work usually recalls classical Asian landscapes, and she reveals that the current series, “Line Tripping,” which is saturated in rich blues and greens, was inspired by Chinese painting of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). Moon’s landscapes, however, are purely notational and have a transitory feeling that reflects the artist’s own experience of East-West travel. The breadth of her visual language is complex, embracing Dada, Surrealism, fifteenth-century Netherlandish painting, and 1950s abstraction.

Each painting here is based around a broad, liquid flourish of acrylic on, in most cases, Hanji, or handmade Korean mulberry paper, which has an earth-toned, ruggedly textured surface. On this base, intricate linear compositions billow, cascade, and flutter. Moon’s methodology thus represents a wedding of opposites, a melding of “exquisite corpse” spontaneity with scrimshawlike precision. Moon’s style is also consistent with her desire to, as she puts it, “bridge the familiar and the unfamiliar” and explore the connections between “spooky and bright, representation and abstraction, personal and global, happy and melancholy.” Her paintings recall the tempestuousness of Julie Mehretu’s, though the environments she evokes feel more intimate, even in large-scale pictures such as Beaufort Gorge (all works 2007).

Here, as in other works, Moon’s floral clusters of red lines, derived from flight routes on airline maps, are the connective tissue that link discordant pockets of activity. Beaufort Gorge suggests the theatrical clouds in an Italian Baroque religious painting (a “Conversion of St. Paul,” perhaps, or another subject with a similarly chaotic and epiphanic moment), but one in which putti, saints, and angels are replaced by dragons’ tails and sinuous blue ribbons that morph into waterfalls. Hazy references and the flow of one image into another are hallmarks of Moon’s work. The green acrylic washes of Persica Route suggest Ron Mueck’s Boy, 1999, while tree branches in Typhoon become lightning bolts.

Moon generally eschews the warmed-over Pop imagery that characterizes some contemporary Asian art, which makes the appearance of the technologically antediluvian Pac-Man in Typhoon arresting and amusing, a discreet but effective cipher for unbridled cultural cross-pollination. More expected perhaps are images of eyes, a recurring Boschian motif reflecting the artist’s observation that “no matter where you live there are always things looking and listening” (a reference, perhaps, to the balancing act between civil liberties and national security). Moon’s reputation for combining complex mark-making with layered references is already established. What distinguishes this body of work is the artist’s greater comfort with her visual vocabulary, a confidence that allows for a more incisive examination of her central themes: travel, transition, and the global nature of contemporary culture.

Nord Wennerstrom