Gargoyle faces and witch-like masks adorn the walls of Yoon Ji Seon’s first US solo exhibition, Rag Face, at the Yossi Milo Gallery, New York. Contorted, maimed, and muffled, these bodiless heads beckon as much as they repulse. On closer inspection, it’s apparent that most of these faces, making up the Rag Face series, are Yoon’s self-portraits. Alternating between the traditional use of masks in her native South Korea and Cindy Sherman’s take on constructed identity, Yoon’s works dismantle the concept of self-portraiture.
Contrary to the artist’s statement that “I wasn’t able to think that sewing my face could disturb people,” photographs of her own twisted facial expressions, painstakingly covered with meticulous machine embroidery, are transformed into a world of unseemly spirits and ghosts. Using thread as her paint and the photo print backed by muslin as her canvas, Yoon’s portraits might be seen as a series of masks that recall the shamanistic tradition of warding off evil. Her vignettes of masquerade and role-playing echo what she says of ancient Korean beliefs: “they tell you the story about people from Joseon Dynasty (Korean Kingdom, 1392–1897) who believed that taking a photo was one of the great taboos since they thought it took away their souls.”
In “Rag Face # 15017” (2015), Yoon’s chocolate-brown face surrounded by a thick mat of messy green threads peers out of an apple-green background. Nubby lines of deep-brown embroidery on her face, resembling the henna calligraphy one sees on women in Lalla Essaydi’s photographs, seem to conceal a hidden message. The woman’s exaggerated wheat-colored, ape-shaped mouth, and enlarged left eye dislodge the idea of feminine beauty and turn it on its head. Yoon’s eerily unsettling face stares out of the canvas nonchalantly, daring the viewer to ask her who she is. Imbued with a mysterious power, this grotesque icon confronts the universal obsession with beauty.
Lengthy strands of thick hair around each “rag face” form an ominous halo evoking images of longhaired Magdalenes and martyrs. In “Rag Face # 14001” (2014), cascading golden-yellow hair embroidered on a scarlet-red background billows and surges like a wave with an outstretched coaxing arm. Unlike the traditional depiction of a woman’s seductive tresses, in Yoon’s portrait “Rag Face # 63” (2013), a thick, suffocating black mane wraps around her head. Appearing at once some kind of spooky saint and monster, her bizarre images take on a variety of identities depending on how one looks at them.
Intricately embroidered bandages of pink, white, and beige thread seem to bury, cloak, and gag parts of the artist’s face in “Rag Face # 10” (2012). Yoon references the rampant plastic surgery industry in Seoul that borders on self-immolation. Her inventive use of threads dangling from the surface is pulled to distort facial features and undermine the compulsive need to embrace prevalent norms of beauty. Much like Ghada Amer’s embroidered paintings that access the inner world of repressed female sexuality through portrayals of women stimulating themselves, Yoon’s threaded works address women’s insecurities and social pressures as much as they continue the tradition of female artists who repudiate the conventional practice of painting by formulating their own materials and techniques.
Yoon’s dexterously stitched brushstrokes delivered in a variety of forms, densities, and layers encompass a vibrant color palette of contrasting hues that bring a refreshing dimension of beauty and lightheartedness to the works. Always humorous and cartoon-like, her absurd turquoise and purple-haired characters inspired by anime and comic books suggest yet another perspective to the range of possibilities and meanings in her art.
Her eyes, showing through the photographs hidden beneath each work, look at us like dark portals to awareness. Even as Yoon turns herself into an object, we are always aware that it is she, not us, that does the looking. Although her portraits say “this is me,” we never know who the master impostor truly is. Yet, it is this very unyielding quality that is the most mesmerizing aspect of her work.
Yoon Ji Seon: Rag Face continues at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 10th Ave, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 5.