Migration and pandemic drawings


On March 20, 2020, Governor Cuomo ordered the shutdown of New York State.

As quoted in the New York Post (March 2020):

The restrictions take effect Sunday night at 8 p.m. and will shut down all non-essential businesses across the state, leaving only grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential operations open. All non-solitary outdoor activities, such as basketball and other team sports, are also prohibited.

The lockdown also forces all non-essential government and private sector employees to work from home.

For a lot of artists I know, who work in studios separate from their homes, adjustments have had to be made. As I wrote in my article on Anton van Dalen last April, an artist and widower who lives alone on the Lower East Side:

What does a man in the early 80s do with his time, especially in this time of self-isolation and social distancing?

My interest in what artists are doing during the pandemic – especially when they can’t make it to their studios or, in van Dalen’s case, forced to work in extreme isolation – is one of the reasons why I was motivated to see Psychotropic dance: Mie Yim in Olympia (January 2 – February 6, 2021).

Installation view of Psychotropic dance: Mie Yim in Olympia, New York

I first learned of Yim’s work from a friend who told me I should check out his website, which I did. I learned that she couldn’t make it to her workshop and worked from home. I didn’t expect to see his works in person until I got an email informing me about the exhibition.

Part of what caught my eye when I looked at Yim’s work online were the many examples of what she calls “quarantine drawings” done in pastel on colorful sheets of handmade paper measuring around 12 inches. x 9 inches.

I wondered what they looked like in person, that is, the materials and his obvious dedication to drawing made me want to see them up close. There was something contradictory about them, which I will cover later in this review.

On another gallery site, I read this statement from Yim:

When I do work, I leave an emotional space from the past, my childhood years. The brutal migration from Korea to Hawaii when I was a young girl left an indelible impression of disconnection and nostalgia. Making art is a way to reconstruct some kind of meaning and purpose of a fragmented identity. […]

At a time when many artists are encouraged to pursue or are defined by an essentialist identity, Yim’s statement suggests that she is taking a different path.

Mie Yim, “# 67” (2020), pastel on Suizen paper, 11 x 8.5 inches

The exhibition features 27 pastel drawings on colorful handmade paper pinned to a wall, living room style. Two large oil paintings measuring 70 x 60 inches, both dated 2020, hang on the adjacent wall. A row of seven framed pastel drawings spans two adjacent walls, and a large, irregularly shaped painting – somewhere between a rectangle and an oval – has been done directly on the wall adjacent to the staircase leading to the gallery. It was a lot to absorb standing in a small gallery space, hoping that no one else would enter that space until I had a chance to look at everything intently. It wasn’t a show you could see quickly, which won me over right away.

Imagine an ever-changing amalgam of floral shapes, fuzzy stuffed animal shapes, spiky viruses, protruding eyes, teeth, volumetric shapes, and patterns, and you’ll start to get a feel for what I’m considering like Yim’s daily drawing practice. In each pastel drawing (dated and numbered, from # 16 to 1200) she seems to start over, without ever attempting to make a variation on a theme. She works on backgrounds of different colors and changes palette with each drawing. The feeling is one of improvisation and impulse guided by years of dedication to drawing.

Installation view of Psychotropic dance: Mie Yim in Olympia, New York. Left: “SPQR” (2020), oil on canvas, 70 x 60 inches; right: “Mudang” (2020), oil on canvas, 70 x 60 inches

“# 68” is a portrait of a pink, fuzzy creature with a large head, a row of large, widely spaced incisors, and short, jointed legs, but no body, against a purple background. What is the green pickle-like shape falling from the space between the head and the legs supposed to represent?

Drawn on a red background, “# 77” represents an elliptical face, pink, with soft edges containing a parallelogram in which we see an ocean and a horizon. A red teardrop hangs from the top of the parallelogram. Two fuzzy blue and turquoise ears point upward, while the pink head is directly connected to a cluster of chunky pink protrusions.

In these two animal-like drawings, Yim brings together the sweet and the evil, the familiar and the mutated, to create an animated creature whose purpose escapes us. What childhood memories do they awaken?

In “105”, Yim draws black lines and elongated semicircles, descending – like feathers – from the top of the paper, evoking the scales of an unspeakable animal. While she seems to have started with an abstract shape in the other designs I have described, in this one she seems to start with abstract markings.

Mie Yim, “# 105” (2020), pastel on Suizen paper, 11 x 8.5 inches

In such a large group of designs, you can expect some repetition, a return to the same shape or branding, but that is not the case. Yim is continually expanding his vocabulary; it pushes brands and shapes beyond what it has already done.

Another strength of the designs is the way Yim combines the legible and the opaque. In each composition, whether it is as simple as “# 68” or as dense as the largely red “120”, made up of superimposed lines and clusters of circular contours, its configurations force us to look at it with new eyes, to open up to the places of our imagination and our memory where the work could transport us. Comfort and discomfort coincide in the soft-colored creatures that the artist evokes with pastel; they seem vulnerable, innocent, alienated and made of mismatched pieces. Since we have no idea what world they exist in, it seems – like a turtle – that they carry with them the house they live in. This feeling of isolation goes beyond the physical to the imaginary.

Psychotropic dance: Mie Yim continues at Olympia (41 Orchard Street, Manhattan) until February 6.

His witchcraft is mischievous, aimed at deceiving the viewer into a rather fragile enchantment.

Mode Brut at the Museum of Craft and Design wants to change people’s perception of what fashion can be.

Ai Weiwei’s childhood memories are strikingly violent.

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