Sugary sweet in color and spiky in its forms, Mie Yim’s art is rife with contradictions. One of her sources is suggested by her artist’s statement:

When making work, I start from an emotional space of the past, my childhood years. Abrupt migration from Korea to Hawaii when I was a young girl left an indelible impression of disconnectedness and longing. Making art is a way to reconstruct some kind of meaning and purpose of fragmented identity […].

After encountering her work on Instagram, I first saw it in person in her solo show Psychtropic Dance: Mie Yim at Olympia in January 2021, six months after the pandemic started and Governor Cuomo shut down New York State. Working in pastel on sheets of colored handmade paper, Yim’s collectively titled Quarantine Drawings and oil paintings were not like anything else I had seen. It was like discovering an unknown country that had been there all along. 

This is how I described that country in my review of the show:

Imagine a constantly changing amalgamation of floral forms, fuzzy stuffed animal shapes, spiky viruses, beady eyes, teeth, volumetric forms, and patterns, and you’ll begin to get a sense of what I see as Yim’s daily drawing practice. In each pastel … drawing she seems to start over, never attempting to make a variation on a theme. She works on different-colored grounds and changes her palette for each drawing. The feeling is one of improvisation and impulse guided by years of devotion to drawing. 

I was curious about how the drawings became paintings, as the two paintings in the show did not indicate what she was up to. Rather than satisfying me — as did the Quarantine Drawings — the painting left me wanting to see more, which is a good thing. 

This led me to see Mie Yim: Nightshade, her debut exhibition at Simone Subal Gallery (April 14–May 20, 2023), which consists of 10 oil paintings of various sizes in the front gallery (all dated 2023) and a selection of works on paper in the back, dating from 2004 to 2022. This terrific pairing showed different paths that Yim had explored in her drawings and paintings, spanning representation and abstraction. 

Mie Yim, “Untitled” (2005), ink on paper, 12 x 9 inches

An untitled linear ink drawing from 2005 depicts an angled view of children’s stuffed bears crowded under a mushroom cap, which brought to mind Mayan mushroom sculptures and that civilization’s use of psychotropic drugs. By bringing together a hallucinogenic mushroom and childhood toy, often understood as both companion and alter ego, Yim suggests we might see her work as an altered state in which all kinds of memories and sights mix together to become something unexpected, unnamable, and not necessarily benign. 

Among the many qualities that Yim has honed by working in pastel — which successfully transfers to her oil paintings — are the blending of color and softening of forms. She can achieve a rich dusty color or juxtapose hard-edged forms with others that appear blurred and slightly out of focus. Her earned ability to capture several different effects within a single painting distinguishes her work from that of many other artists who use oil paint. Another strength is her ability to suggest that a form is living. Once this animism comes across, as in the eye in the upper left corner of “Family Jewels” (2023), it becomes apparent throughout her work. What are the interplays between the organic and inorganic? What can we make of the forms that look like blown-up versions of microscopic things? The work derives some of its power from the instability of not knowing exactly what ground you’re standing on when looking at it. By using oil painting as if it were both dust and liquid, and softening forms to suggest a receding space, Yim pulls the viewer into all kinds of inexplicable situations, where danger may or may not lurk. I wonder if this feeling of precarity is what she experienced when her family moved from Korea to Hawaii and she began to live in a world where few shared her languge.  

This uncertainty is at the heart of Yim’s art. With its long, red, yarn-like tresses, the one-eyed creature in “Howl” (2023) is essentially unreadable. Is it friendly or treacherous? Yet the artist counteracts the terror through her colors and the evocation of soft forms. Her use of color, which is only hinted at in the Quarantine Drawings, is on full display in this exhibition. Purple dominates in “Sheep Wolf” (2023), which I see as her re-envisioning of Jackson Pollock’s “The She-Wolf” (1943). According to Roman mythology, a wolf suckled the twins Romulus and Remus. Later, in a dispute, Romulus killed Remus and founded Rome. In ancient Rome, purple designated someone’s status as royalty, suggesting that the wolf is royalty in the painting, not the twins. At the same time, it is unclear whether the creature is friendly or ferocious. This is what makes the paintings so strong. Just as they hold our attention with their merging of color and form, we are left questioning their meaning. 

Mie Yim, “Sheep Wolf” (2023), oil on canvas, 34 x 42 inches

Mie Yim: Nightshade continues at Simone Subal Gallery (131 Bowery, 2nd floor, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 20. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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