Maryland Art Place showcases Mina Cheon's provocative 'polipop' art

Exhibit highlights Korean-born Baltimore artist's digital paintings

  • Artist Mina Cheon, in front of part of a large painting called "15 Billion Years Of The Traveling Atom."
Artist Mina Cheon, in front of part of a large painting called… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
June 09, 2012|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Mina Cheon is used to seeing things from multiple perspectives.

As a child in South Korea, the artist was exposed to two religious philosophies — Buddhist on her father's side, Christian on her mother's — and embraced a third as an adult, converting to Judaism when she married a Baltimore architect.

When she started studying in 1997 with the celebrated abstract expressionist Grace Hartigan at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Cheon focused on traditional painting methods. Today, her favored medium is digital painting, which opens up a whole new range of vantage points.

"The medium of today's world is the Internet," Cheon said. "The process I use is to take tons of images from the Internet. They lend themselves to becoming a piece. I'm playing with the idea of art vs. reproductive culture. Warhol took pictures from Life magazine and photocopied them; he did what I do with the Internet."

Different sides of her visual world are arrestingly displayed in "Polipop and Paintings," a solo exhibit at Maryland Art Place that spans more than a decade in the 38-year-old Cheon's career. All of the material reveals, in one way or another, her knack for approaching familiar issues from unexpected angles. These are large, even confrontational pieces that can stop you in your tracks.

Measuring 72 feet by 8 feet and occupying almost all of one galley is "15 Billion Years," Cheon's last major hand-painted project, a yearlong effort created for Hartigan and finished in 1998, when it was last displayed publicly. Painted with fluorescent acrylic, this is Cheon's fantastical vision of evolution, inspired by her readings of popular-science books.

Two other galleries at MAP are devoted to the very different work Cheon has been doing lately in a style dubbed "polipop" — a fusion of politics and pop art. Here, the artist confronts not just current events, but the way we learn about, or mislearn, those events through print, electronic and cyber media.

"Polipop" was coined by Sue Spaid, former director of Baltimore's recently closed-for-rethinking Contemporary Museum.

"Sue blurted it out when she saw the work I had been doing," Cheon said. "I immediately appropriated it. She said it rhymes with 'lollipop,' which I thought was great."

Such a cheeky term easily fits the large-scale digital paintings (each piece is 8 feet by 5 feet), which focus on politics, international relations and popular culture. Done in bold primary colors and often containing bursts of text, these items suggest propaganda posters, especially Communist ones. They deliver messages that are no less direct, if also witty or sardonic, and occasionally subversive.

Pamela Haag, the author and cultural historian, has described Cheon as a "mad scientist-artist" who conjures up with polipop "a world where your news comes with its own brand, slogan, motto and logo."

One of the digital paintings in the MAP show, "Remote Your Natural Disaster," depicts a Samsung TV with a four-part split screen, unsettling images on each. Your eye automatically switches channels.

In "Pokeman," Cheon references the Pokemon video game to poke a little fun at the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, as he appeared in the computer-generated action movie "Team America: World Police."

Using a computer, Cheon manipulates the found images in painterly ways. The computer file is then processed, blown up to full size and stretched on canvas by a firm in Korea. The result looks as if it has all been done by hand.

Cheon's polipop creations have drawn considerable attention. They were featured earlier this year in an extensive exhibit of the artist's work at Sungkok Art Museum in Seoul; there are plans for a showing next season at New York's White Box.

"It is wonderful to see women artists involved with technology, which is very rare," said White Box artistic director Juan Puntes. "Mina uses technology with social and political elements, as well as elements of beauty and desire. It's a very strong project."

The most provocative of Cheon's polipop pieces are those centering on President Barack Obama. Reality, distortion and myth all collide here.

"DIY Obama" riffs off an actual doll — "An Action Figure We Can Believe In" — that came white, ready to be painted. Cheon uses that object to cast the explosive racial and post-racial divide in a new light.

In "The Scariest," Cheon pushes more buttons, to bracing effect. It's a piece she started right after the president's announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The artist has depicted the scene at a White House lectern through a fisheye lens. A flash bulb has just gone off, obscuring the face of the president, but not a turban on his head.

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