A Strange New World
The Uncomfortable Art of Seongmin Yoo
In Seongmin Yoo’s collage It’s a New World the artist makes an appearance in the form of a fragmentary self-portrait. She is sleeping—perhaps dreaming the scene—in a weird spotted egg that opens to a broadly brushed landscape. Then again, maybe the “egg” is actually a head that just fell off the bizarre pink frog-lady who is in turn overseen by a spotted green male.
Adding to the dreamlike strangeness of the scene is a pink mylar balloon, a shining orb that hovers innocently over the potential violence of the scenario. According to Seongmin, the balloon is a paradoxical symbol, since it is an image of beauty that is maintained by pressure. Like the situation that contains it, the balloon is fragile: it can “pop” at any moment. It is a metaphor for the mix of poetry and latent aggression that the collage so skillfully hybridizes.
Behind Seongming’s bracing originality is personal pain and considerable effort. “It’s hard work to be a woman in the world,” the artist explains. “If you don’t perform your role as a good wife and good mother then you face a lot of judgement.” The urge to generate images—and related performances—that challenge the constraints of gender roles is the guiding force behind her upcoming show at the John Natsoulas Gallery, Bondage to Freedom. Seongmin’s work has a strong conceptual edge that consistently reminds us of life’s underlying tensions and imperfections, represented with a certain odd delicacy and loveliness.
Born in Korea and now working and living in Davis, California, Seongmin’s work has been energized by cultural shifts to develop a new array of forms, shapes and surfaces. Most notable are the blotchy, reptilian skins that she has covered herself with in performance, which are associated with the frog-like characters inhabiting her paintings and collages. “My performances and collages both involve using a lot of different materials.” she notes. “I use things found in nature, different types of paper, embroidery thread, etc. Much like my body, the materials allow me to do things but they are also limiting.” The skins that she wears in performance suggest shedding and transformation as well as the artist’s self-conscious need to shield her own beauty.
Skins and layering play important roles in Seongmin’s varied meanings, allowing her to present both visible and shrouded symbols interacting with each other. The complex, overlaid symbols help illustrate her conviction that women are rarely allowed to express anger or frustration in substantial ways since they so often play the role of “peacekeeper.”
The overlay of flowers, fluid strokes and fragmentary bodily images that appear in Miss Her weave poetic sentiment and suggestions of conflict into a interplay of meanings. Although Seongmin let’s her own life and emotions flow into her art, she also likes the idea that they carry universal meanings that others will grasp. She puts it this way: “I think a lot of people can relate to feeling that they have to act a certain way, or that they should feel guilty when they aren’t good enough.”
Some of the sensations and formal values that Seongmin explores have been explored by some notable predecessors—including Eva Hesse and Kiki Smith—but not in a Surrealist framework. Setting her Neofeminist imagery in a context that recalls Salvador Dali’s dreamscapes gives the artist’s work added resonance. Full of conflicting sensations and somehow both innocent and empowering, Like Dali’s early paintings, Seongmin’s art and performances are intentionally uncomfortable.
It is respectable to show strain and hurt. I try to represent human struggles through my art. A concept I am trying to project through my work is that we are humans but we are still animals. My figures are not perfect like you see in a lot of fine art. I don’t want to see that. I want to see humans as they are; with claws, marks and ugliness. So that is how I depict them.
Seongmin Yoo: Bondage to Freedom
August 4–26, 2021