KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Jiha Moon’s colorful mixed-media works are in the collections of the Asia Society in New York and the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, among other US institutions. Solo museum exhibitions, residencies, and a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant also figure on her resume. Cannily drawing upon a mash-up of global cultures, Moon’s art is represented by galleries in New York and Atlanta (where the Korea-born artist is based).
Moon’s densely collaged paintings, mixed-media fiber works, and rainbow-hued ceramic pieces are featured in Jiha Moon: Double Welcome, Most Everyone’s Mad Here, a touring solo show currently at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (it travels next to Salina, Kansas). With its title channeling the rabbit hole down which Alice tumbled, the exhibition features some 60 objects and spans Moon’s production from 2010 through 2015, with the majority of objects produced in 2014. The presentation is part of a national tour of mid-size venues and is accompanied by an essay written by Lilly Wei, an independent curator who holds an MA from Columbia University.
The essay refers to Moon’s engagement with such contemporary concerns as “international culture,” “the other,” and “kitsch and facile stereotypes.” It describes the featured materials as an “ironic mélange” and emphasizes the knowingly absurdist and decidedly non-ideological nature of her work. Thus, Moon is vetted and endorsed as an artist of merit, whose work bears witness to diversity in a visually gregarious manner.
However, I was not particularly engaged. Little of what I saw or read resonated with me. Such lack of enthusiasm on my part was a real revelation about personal taste, and its bearing upon critical opinion. I realized that I prefer work that leaves room for reflection — rather than pulling me into polemics or, in Moon’s case, a surfeit of celebration. From the get-go, my prejudices were in play and nothing on view budged them. If I can articulate this struggle at all clearly, it would be to say that Moon does not sufficiently differentiate her pop culture “mélange” from the raucous visuals that are featured on the woven plastic tote bags at my local hipster shop.
To be clear, it’s not her crafting of the works that I question. Moon has great facility in a wide range of media. The issue is what she does — or does not do — to elevate her visual ideas above countless other artful and witty commodities. This is where my taste in art is not ready to embrace her overall production.
There were quieter pieces here and there that stood out from the general hilarity due to their relative absence of polychromy, texture, and pop-cultural references (some of which, like the Angry Birds faces, no longer possess the relevance they once did). A ceramic work called “Small Peach” (2013) serves as an example. The peach symbolizes immortality in China and, along with the Sino-American kitsch of a pair of appended fortune cookies, suggests a judgment on that immortality. Thankfully, the object is finished with a softly diffused, brownish glaze that allowed my eyes to linger on nuances — such as the way that darker areas of glaze accentuate the definition of form.
That said, a couple of madly decorated clay pieces work very well, one of them being “Mexican Korean Blue Willow Face Jug” (2014). It visually mixes at least four different cultural references from almost as many periods, but in such a way that each evocation of a civilization engages in edgy conversation with the others. Maybe it’s the repetition of leering smiles around its circumference that pulls it together. Maybe it’s the direct reference to unsettled and unsettling face jugs from the Southern US. Or perhaps it’s the tangential relationship the piece shares with lucha libre masks. But, along with a handful of other objects, it has a cohesion that very few others — both two- and three-dimensional — in the exhibition even attempt to claim. With respect to the balance of works, Moon seems content to create not so much multiple juxtapositions as pile-ons that are noisy without saying anything.
Perhaps my criticism (or bias in taste) is this: meaningful work needs to do more than simply acknowledge diversity and cue into popular culture. It needs to do more than invite diverse cultures to a party and celebrate them — or to simply let them all party down. It needs to coax them into engagement with one another. It’s evident that Moon is capable of doing so, it’s just not happening in the works in this exhibition.
Jiha Moon: Double Welcome, Most Everyone’s Mad Here continues at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (314 South Park Street, Kalamazoo, Michigan) through March 6.