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PHILADELPHIA — Each scuff is a story, and the sole of a shoe carries the history of its wearer. Jean Shin emphasizes that mass produced objects are imbued with meaning through use, and by accumulating and altering these objects, she makes portraits of the communities that use them. For her, representation requires grounding in authentic material. Shin is a master of simple gestures poignantly enacted; her work contains no unnecessary verbiage.
Though the artist has worked with varied objects such as recycled keyboards, soda bottles, and ceramic tile, Jean Shin: Collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art focuses on things that are worn, covering the life cycle of the garment. “Spring Collection” (2016) is made from leather scraps donated to Materials for the Arts by designer Marc Jacobs, and “Hide” (2004) from worn shoes. Together, these pieces look at clothing production and the animal origin of leather. They express a contemporary contradiction: there are more clothes now than ever before, and yet the layperson has never been so removed from its production.
“Unraveling” (2006–18) and “Armed” (2005–9) investigate how clothing can represent community. Being an artist and being a veteran have at least one similarity — when walking down the street, these identities are invisible. Shin pictures both identities as large communities with shared experiences. “Unraveling” represents a network of Asian American artists visually mapped through donated sweaters, and “Armed” is made of deconstructed military uniforms, presented like a monumental mosaic. In contrast to these pieces, “Worn Soles” (2001) looks at crowds as a diverse selection of people: the apparent differences among the shoe soles speak to differences in class and gender.
My favorite piece in Collections is “Penumbra” (2003), video documentation of Shin’s installation at the Socrates Sculpture Park. Here, Shin stitched together dozens of umbrella tops that were blown away in a storm. Together, they’re a multi-colored, fluttering canopy anchored in the trees, high overhead. I’m glad to view it in its original context even though it means I can’t see the material in reality. It is comprised of wind and dappled sunlight as surely as umbrellas, and I can’t imagine it trapped within the museum’s white walls.
Jean Shin: Collections misses opportunities to emphasize that which makes her projects really special: site specificity and tangible relationships to communities. Still, a few nods are given to this end: For this exhibition, “Unraveling” has grown to include sweaters donated by Philadelphian artists. But overall, I’m unconvinced by the curation. It’s unclear to me how military uniforms worn through trauma and conflict relate to the Marc Jacobs brand, and their placement together feels like a matter of spatial necessity rather than a conceptual choice.
I am most skeptical of “Pattern Folds” (2009), which consists of pastel-colored bolts of cloth with crisp clothing patterns cut out. These pieces of fabric have been stiffened and manipulated into elegant swathes of color and geometry, and are draped midair in beautiful, formal compositions. This work was originally commissioned by Calvin Klein for display in their flagship store, where these bolts of fabric had an obvious connection to the items for sale. There, customers would have also been viewers seeing their own bodies reflected in the negative shapes of Shin’s sculpture. “Pattern Folds” would have called to mind a process of production often unseen by the consumer. In this exhibition, the power of “Pattern Folds” is made primarily decorative given a lack of relevant context, and neutered by a gorgeous museum setting.
Shin has numerous public commissions under her belt and a long history of conceptually rich locations. I find myself longing for the magic of her projects which embody community relationships rather than illustrating them, like the centerpiece of her exhibition at MoMA, “Cut Outs and Suspended Seams” (2004), a large installation visually similar to “Armed Forces.” There, Shin used donations from the museum’s employees, making viewers consider the labor hierarchies within the very space they were visiting.
Jean Shin: Collections is a great introduction to the artist for those who do not know her work, but encounters the pitfalls of recontextualizing public art for museum settings. Perhaps some of these issues could be addressed through expanded wall text that emphasizes her practice as a public artist, or the more prominent inclusion of photographs in situ — a few images are printed in the gallery guide, but nonetheless feel divorced from the curation of the space. I’m excited to seek out her public commissions. When encountered in life, Jean Shin’s work is a delightful intervention, a moment when an art project can be truly transformative.
Jean Shin: Collections is on view through July 15th in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman Building – located at 2525 Pennsylvania Avenue. After a taste of her work here, the viewer can see more through August 17th in Then and Now: Commemorating Asian Arts Initiative’s 25th Anniversary, located at Philadelphia’s Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine Street.