She brings floating dreams to reality

Youngmi Song gives images life in origami, paintings and prints with elegance and delicate precision.


March 24, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The Japanese artists who created the famous woodblock prints of the 18th and 19th centuries called their images ukiyo-e, literally "pictures of the floating world" of everyday life.

The magical works of Korean-born artist Youngmi Song -- on view this month in the exhibition Flashes of Insight at Montage Gallery in Federal Hill -- pay homage to that ancient tradition but give it a modern twist. In her prints, paintings and paper sculpture, Song depicts a world in which dreams, memories and desires, cloaked in the forms of ordinary, everyday objects, float serenely across our field of view.

At 28, Song, who will graduate this year with a master of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, is already an accomplished artist who has had several shows of her works in local galleries. Her show at Montage is an extended landscape of the heart, an evocation of the colorful continuum of life for which the artist serves as both medium and messenger.

After arriving in Baltimore from South Korea to study at MICA in 1996, Song began creating sculptures inspired by her study of origami, the ancient Asian art of folded paper. She experimented with different forms and designs, trying to push her ancestral tradition as far as she could toward a new realm of aesthetic possibilities.

Where traditional origami employed soft papers, Song tried folding pieces of clear acetate, which reflected and refracted light in ways the older art could never realize.

Later, Song began working with rice papers that her father sent her from Korea, painting one side of the paper, then turning it to the wall and illuminating it from behind to create delicately luminescent surfaces that seemed to shimmer and dissolve.

Out of the subconscious

"She is a marvelous artist," said Leslie King-Hammond, dean of MICA's graduate program, who has followed Song's evolution over the years. "Her work is very fresh, very inventive and also very exacting and disciplined. She knows the level of quality she wants to achieve and works until she gets it."

Song's methods are indebted, at least in part, to the ideas promulgated by the surrealists and other avant-garde artists of the 1920s and '30s, who called for a new art generated directly out of the hidden recesses of the subconscious. The surrealists greatly valued such techniques as automatic writing and free association as tools to tap into the subconscious as a source of inspiration.

Song's pieces in the Montage Gallery show are all monoprints, one-of-a-kind images that depend on quick, intuitive judgments and absolute spontaneity of execution. (A separate exhibition of her paper sculptures goes on display Friday at the MICA's Decker Gallery in the Station Building.)

Monoprints are produced by drawing or painting directly on a printing plate with sticky inks, then quickly transferring the image onto paper in a press. Since the paper absorbs almost all the ink on the plate during the initial pressing, the print that results is unique.

Song has refined the basic technique by printing several layers of images on a single sheet of paper. Sometimes she uses two or more plates in rapid succession to superimpose one image over another while the inks are still wet. At other times she may print one image, then clean the plate and draw a second or even third image on it to print on top of the original.

Song's monoprints are dreamlike collages that include images of everyday objects, snippets of landscape and nudes, personal memories and collective myths drawn both from traditional Korean culture and from contemporary Western society. Much of the artist's efforts aim to reconcile these quite different orientations toward the world.

Reflecting experiences

In a recent interview, Song said all of her prints are in some sense autobiographical.

"Each one has a different story that led to its creation," she said. "The prints don't retell the stories, but all the things in them grow out of particular experiences I have had."

In "Lilac Nude," for example, swarms of abstract marks that seem like stylized insects flutter across the image.

The print grew out of an experience last year, when Song and a friend were meditating quietly as dark clouds gathered in an early morning sky. Suddenly, hundreds of red, blue and yellow butterflies flew into the room through an open window, apparently disoriented by the approaching storm.

"It stuck in my head, it was so beautiful, so vivid," Song recalled. "For a long time afterward I tried to capture the experience, but something wasn't right. Then one day, it was like someone was telling me exactly what to do. It was late at night, all the other students had gone home, and suddenly it just came out, and it was perfect."

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