Jo-Ann Conklin, curator
David Winton Bell Gallery
Brown University, 2008
Imi Hwangbo has created a series of mesmerizing works. These delicate sculptural reliefs elicit awe, inspired by the elegant beauty of their floral and geometric patterns and the laborious methods of their construction. Works from the Pojagi Series, which dates from 2003 to the present, range in size from an intimate 6″ x 8″ to a monumental 11′ high. Made by women, pojagi were the sole creative outlet of Korean women during the rigidly Confucian era of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910). These small square and rectangular textiles are decorated with patchworks of geometric shapes (often in elaborate shapes and sophisticated color combinations that rival works of Op-Art) or with embroidered bird and flower motifs that carry symbolic meaning. Flowers symbolize wealth and prosperity, birds and butterflies happiness and joy, fruit the abundance of material objects and male offspring, and trees the tree of life. The designs are flattened and simplified into abstract motifs, a process that Hwangbo furthers. She asserts that she “transforms the iconography of the pojagi into a more ambiguous statement.” Her adaptation of pojagi carries a subtle feminist subtext: while honoring her female ancestors she draws attention to their traditionally subordinate role in Korean society.
Hwangbo has developed a remarkable working method that straddles several media. Combining drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, her reliefs are equally well categorized as three-dimensional drawing and sculpture and have alternately been included in print exhibitions. The artist begins each work with a drawing done by hand that is later translated into a computer drawing and printed in archival ink on sheets of translucent Mylar. (Hwangbo uses an algorithm to calculate the recession of the pattern onto numerous layers of Mylar.) She then meticulously hand cuts the individual layers, up to thirty layers in each work. Form, shape, and depth are created by aligning the layers.
The most astonishing aspect of Hwangbo’s method is her hand cutting. Hwangbo strives for perfection in her works and succeed to the extent that the artist’s hand is not visible in the finished works. The same visual effect could be achieved more easily by laser cutting. Therefore, one might ask why she cuts the layers herself. In addition to instilling great respect in viewers, Hwangbo’s process connects her work to traditional, time-honored methods and (one suspects) serves the artist as a form of meditation. Hwangbo’s decorative motifs include five- and seven- petaled flowers, simple to complex diamond and swastika patterns, and elaborate filigree designs. Whether individual or interlocking, these patterns are repeated over all or part of the object’s surface. She creates these motifs by removing rather than adding material, and the play of positive and negative space is essential to the series. The dominant pattern in Portal, for instance, seems to change from a diamond at the top to a circular configuration near the bottom, in much the same way as Rubin’s famous figure-ground illustration changes from a face to a vase. Light and viewer perspective play similar tricks with Lepidoptera, causing the value of the work to appear lighter at the base, and the subtle undulation of the surface adds to the visual play: the layers compress near the center of the work and curve slightly away from the wall at the bottom. Lepidoptera contains one of Hwangbo’s most complex and beautiful designs. The motif — a six-petaled form enclosed by a thin circle and separated by a hexagonal grid — is taken from the doors of a Korean temple. The hexagonal and circular elements are cut into the uppermost layer of Mylar only, creating a delicate fretwork that overlays the flower motif.
Hwangbo’s titles, often taken from science or mythology, allude to additional meaning. Lepidoptera, for example, is the biological classification of four- winged insects such as butterflies and moths. Hwangbo chose the title to evoke flight. Mitosis (for Frida Kahlo) references reproduction (and repetition, which is central to Hwangbo’s aesthetic), as it pays homage to a feminist icon. And, Peri and Sylph , small intricate reliefs of overlapping flower motifs, allude to grace and beauty (both words can be used to describe a graceful, slender woman). Peri and Sylph are the most recent works in which Hwangbo used overlapping or interlaced designs. They represent a breakthrough in her method that she plans to explore in future works.