Prints liberate objects from the real world

Show: An exhibit of monoprints recalls the definition of ideal art.

March 22, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In a 1912 review of the Iberian Artists' Exhibition in Madrid, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset vigorously defended the young modernists whose works had been attacked for departing too sharply from the "realistic" tradition:

"Herein lies the difference between the showcase or shop window and the picture-frame," Ortega observed. "Through the former are seen things subject to universal gravitation; within the latter are seen forms liberated from existence."

The liberation of aesthetic forms from their attachment to objects in the real world was, for Ortega, the hallmark of true artistic achievement. Art does not consist in a slavish copying of nature, he insisted, but in transforming nature to express an ideal.

I was reminded of Ortega's defense of ideal art during a visit to the Montage Gallery, where an exhibit of prints by Korean-born artist Youngmi Song is currently on view.

Most pieces in this show are monoprints, a process that involves drawing or painting with sticky inks directly onto a plate and then transferring the image onto paper in a press. Since the paper absorbs almost all the ink during the pressing, the resulting image is unique and can't be duplicated without repeating the entire process.

Song's monoprints are dreamlike collages of memory and desire, whose forms seem magically liberated from the heavy tug of gravity.

Inside the picture frame, all sorts of objects - plants, doorways, ladders, railway cars and human figures - uninhibitedly float across the field of view, their relationships defined by some mysterious yet vaguely familiar subconscious logic.

It's impossible to say what these images are "about" exactly, only to suggest that they are reflections of an inner landscape shaped by the artist's experiences as a mediator between the cultural traditions of East and West.

In previous shows at Montage, Song's imagery was clearly indebted to the long tradition of Asian landscape painting, a form of ideal art that itself greatly influenced European painters of the late 19th century. But where Song's earlier works were delicate abstractions that recalled the forms of Asian landscape while tentatively exploring her new American environment, in the present work she seems to have taken firm holdof the bi-cultural experience and used it to boldly re-imagine the possibilities of her life as an artist and a woman.

In "Open Perspectives," for example, the shapes of houses at the bottom the picture suggest a view from a city window through which we see the forms of trees, railroad cars, ladders, poles and other objects projected against the sky.

In the center of the picture is a black grid suggesting another window, perhaps a reflection of the one we are looking through. Behind its panes we glimpse a nude human torso, the head of a cat, another seated nude and various jars and bottles.

The green shapes to the left may represent trees or some kind of staircase leading to a yellow door with a red knob. Another door perches above the window in the center of the picture. Three round, organic shapes near the picture's edges may be sliced fruit or the cross-sections of trees.

The collage is a metaphor of spiritual wayfaring, filled with conveyances, portals and steep ascents. This is the Way of the Artist, but it also perhaps describes the difficult adjustments Song has had to make as an Asian woman living and working in America.

I once asked Song what she "meant" by her images. By way of reply she dabbed some inks on a small plate, inserted it into the press and squeezed the paper onto it. In a blink, she created a picture, which she handed me with a shy smile. I realized then that the process was all that she could describe; meaning that wells up from the subconscious cannot be put into words. Her movements were swift, automatic, natural and supremely assured. And the picture was, well, perfect - it had wit, energy, humor and style.

These are the qualities I find writ large in her newest pictures. Song has arrived at an original point of view, an "open perspective" that integrates East and West, past and present, illusion and reality in a synthesis uniquely her own, and that is a great achievement, indeed.

Exhibit

What: Prints by Youngmi Son

When: Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through April 14

Where: Montage Gallery of Federal Hill, 925 S. Charles St.

Call: 410-752-1125

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