By: Glenn Harper, Sculpture Magazine editor
One of the primary subjects of art is, quite naturally, the cultural climate in which the artist finds him/herself. It should be no surprise, then, that one of the primary subjects of contemporary art is popular culture, or that today artists are often drawn to the popular art form that is most saturated with seductive imagery and wish fulfillment dreams: cartoons. For young artists today, cartoon imagery is an inescapable part of their landscape, through television, advertising, and computer games. Cartoons are, indeed, the virtual reality promised by not yet delivered by technology. One of the key distinctions among the artists manipulating these graphic images is whether they embrace them as a universe of discourse, in the manner of what Peter Schjeldahl has called “puerile” art, or use them indirectly, as reference points in their engagement of tangible, as well as virtual, reality. Whereas painting (the work of Sue Williams, for example) and assemblage (as in the work of Annette Messager or Mike Kelley) are the most typical mediums for the puerile approach, sculpture is logically the appropriate medium for the latter approach (the ambiguous objects of Phoebe Adams, for example).
Imi Hwangbo’s “The Waiting Chamber” is a case in point. Her earlier work, represented in her recent exhibition by an excerpt from “Seraglio” (a series of tall shields with skin-like polyester resin surfaces) suggests Post-Minimalism in the works’ oblique referentiality, organicism, and combination of both rigid and messy industrial materials. The more recent work, collectively titled “The Waiting Chamber,” brings a new wit and contemporary reference to pop culture into Hwangbo’s work. The first work encountered by the viewer, “Soft Martyr” (1996), sets the terms of the show. It is a cadmium-red organic form, resembling a beef tongue, skewered by a steel rod that holds the object out from the wall. The form is twisted into what can be taken as a rictus of pain but can also be read as a saucy tongue-wag. The tongue is thoroughly embodied and tangible, inviting touch yet repelling it. The power of the form is not just its ambiguity (a quality shared with “Seraglio”) but also its graphic power; both in the sense of seductive design and in the suggestion of a powerful, and therefore objectionable, pornography). As in much of her current sculpture, this works draw together influences as diverse as Lynda Benglis and Looney Tunes.
The largest work in the show, “Bella (Lovely One)” (1998), suggests a feminist subtext more blatantly than the other works. A large wooden rectangle is pierced at the top by a vaginal opening that is overflowing with cadmium red ooze. Other pieces suggest, simultaneously, balloons (often deflated), and internal organs or cavities, a double reference reinforced by the bright red color that dominates the show. The cartoon-like character of Hwangbo’s tongue is closely echoed in “Folded Chamber” (1996), which might be a heart valve or a balloon, and even more, in “Last Swallow” (1998), a form that might be cast from a body cavity and might equally be a balloon animal or a three-dimensional rendering of Al Capp’s Schmoo from Lil’ Abner. A metal bar suspends the form by the neck, giving the piece and its title a gruesome comedy.
Whereas puerile art has an edginess and provocation that evaporates quickly, work like Hwangbo’s penetrates our world on two fronts. It is graphically powerful and haptically available. The edginess of “Soft Martyr” is materialized in our shared space. It dares us to engage in both a visceral and a tangible relationship with it, as well as an intellectual relationship suggested by the echoes between the object and its title. If this is a “waiting room,” it is an uncomfortable one, occupied by the ghosts of both Luis Buñuel’s “Exterminating Angel” and Warner Brothers’ “Sylvester the Cat.”
The rubber forms are cast from carved and modeled plaster, and then assembled with the steel elements, resulting in hybrid works that display tactile modeling and technological finish. The combination of careful craft, flagrant wit, and cultural resonance is impressive and marks an interesting and original direction for the artist.