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

Arts and CultureArtistsArtReligion and BeliefBarack ObamaScienceKim Jong Il

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.

"I was struck by the way people in the media confused the name Obama with Osama," Cheon said. "And on the Internet, you can find a lot of photos of Obama in a turban. I am not implying in this work that Obama is the scariest or that Bin Laden is the scariest. What I did was the scariest. I couldn't look directly at the image. That's why I had to insert the flash."

These Obama paintings are not likely to make their way to the National Portrait Gallery, but they do make a statement about the man, his presidency and the way some people treat both ("Birthers are scary, too," Cheon said).

The power in these and the other polipop works come from the way they start with imagery we all recognize, then give it a twist. For Koreans or students of that culture, some of the polipop works will hold extra meaning. Several are about Dodko, a tiny island between Korea and Japan claimed by both nations.

"It's just rocks," Cheon said. "It takes two days to get there, and the tides have to be right. When I visited, I kept hearing people say, 'I love you, Dodko.' It's such a weird thing. I am very interested in geopolitical contested spaces, like Dodko and the DMZ, places where the anticipation of getting there is so much greater than being there."

In "Superwoman Complex," Cheon takes on the commonly held attitudes of Korean men toward women.

It's a droll painting depicting two women, one of them high-kicking in a cute military outfit. Scrolled across the bottom of the canvas are desired attributes: "1. beautiful 2. smart 3. modest … 5. bring income … 8. keep household … 10. good to in-laws … 13. know how to make kimchi from scratch 14. good in bed while being a virgin."

That such an absurd list could be applied to many cultures only adds to the sting.

There are jolts to be had as well from the massive "15 Billion Years." Stylistically, it seems at first completely removed from the polipop flavor. It's certainly more serious. Abstract swirls, a starry cosmos and spidery webs fuse in strange ways, gradually revealing hints of what would become human life.

An air of mystery is maintained from one end to the other of the canvas, which is divided into five sections. Originally intended to be viewed under black light, it is being shown here for the first time under natural light, which still allows the colors to jump out. (MAP offered one day last week of black lighting; the subtle glow was transfixing.)

The daunting work came about partly because, in the 1990s, Cheon "religiously read popular science and Einstein, who had the famous line, 'God does not play dice with the universe.' I was questioning where we come from, where we're going," she said. "I felt an urgency to illustrate that narrative, the 'star stuff' Carl Sagan said we were all connected by."

There was another impetus for tackling such subject matter. The artist's undergraduate years were spent in Seoul at a Christian women's university.

"My friends and peers were very Christian," she said. "My way of rebelling was to make art about things there weren't Christian."

Cheon did not anticipate that she would embrace things that were Jewish. She had grown up in a family that did not adhere firmly to one religion. But while a grad student at MICA (where she now teaches), she met Gabriel Kroiz, who was teaching architecture there. When they married, Cheon converted to his faith.

"I'm really honored to be in that community," she said. "There are not very many 'Kews' — Korean Jews — in this world. Judaism is amazing. Part of the thought process in the religion is to question."

Questioning clearly comes easy to Cheon. She regularly challenges the American media's perception of the relationship between North and South Korea, for example. "When Kim Jong Il passed away, there was grieving in South Korea as well. He was not our archenemy, more like a poor cousin or pathetic brother," she said.

Cheon contemplates getting back to North Korea, which she visited once, and doing artwork about North Korea's new dictator ("his physiognomy makes him look like Chairman Mao").

She also hopes to write another book. Her first, "Shamanism and Cyberspace," was published 2009; the next will be about art therapy.

Cheon is thinking of changing her citizenship to American; if she does, she'll likely document that process through her art.

"When I married an American man and had biracial children — they have dual citizenship — identity became a big issue for me," Cheon said.

In addition to identifying as Korean and American, the artist is quick to add the description Marylander.

"My husband was born in Baltimore and will never leave," Cheon said. "I married Baltimore. And I've grown so much as an artist being here."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Polipop and Paintings" runs through June 30 at Maryland Art Place, 8 Market Place. Call 410-962-8565 or go to mdartplace.org.

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