I emigrated to the United States about a dozen years ago. I think of myself, first of all, as a woman still in the process of escaping from a stridently patriarchal culture. While America has often seemed to offer less restrictions than Korea did, I continue to find myself subject to forces that try to define who and what I am. I think the ongoing struggle between these past and present impositions versus my resistance to them has been the central animating tension through the many stages of my art.
(1994; 24" x 36")
Among my earliest work was "The Blueprint Series," which consisted, at the first layer, of actual institutional blueprints which I found lying around the University of Georgia's art building. The next layer, hastily written sets of words in two languages, represents one shallow but necessary part of myself: my attempts to express myself at any given moment in the tongues of my native culture (Korean) and/or my new culture (American). The final layer consists of several depths of color, which I see as a more abstract, visual, visceral representation of my deeper parts, the parts that burst through and floodover the structures, structures which now lie beneath the rawness of another successful excavation.
(1994; 18 x 25)
The next stage in my work was "The Map Series," a more controlled meditation on social forces which impinged on my earlier life. Using maps of various Korean settings, I expressed the shaping influence of several aspects of my upbringing. The overlapping maps--of my hometown, of Korea, of the Korean prison I spent time in for expressing my political beliefs too clearly, of the American town I lived in at the time I made the works, and so on--represent the overlapping forces of the continued power these places still hold over me.
Seoul Prison: 83.4.21
(1995; 18 x 39)
Then came "Some Things Never Leave a Person," a series of works based on my memories of one particularly imposing figure from my past, my grandfather. He died when I was twenty-three, but my grandfather has certainly yet to leave me. Nor have the tenets laid out in the Confucian texts I once found buried among his clothes. I based each painting on a childhood scene in which my grandfather took part. A former Buddhist monk, he was ejected from his temple for falling in love with a regular temple visitor, my eventual grandmother. A lusty man with multiple appetites, my grandfather still lives on in our town in the repeated tales of his shocking, drunken exploits.
While my grandfather (and his nine wives) often made life difficult for me and the other members of my family, I think his rebellious nature has resurfaced in me. In the works based on my grandfather, the torn Confucian texts (our culture's moral blueprints) overlap with institutional blueprints to represent the conflation of our stubborn energies. I want the process of making these works--adding torn fragments here and there, tearing off parts of them, sanding away others--to remain visible as an expression of my energetic inheritance. Finally, the swirling shapes and potential images work to suggest various memories of my grandfather.
Other Words That Got Me Into Trouble
(1995; 18 x 26)
Some of my subsequent work confines within boxes images of myself and of Korea. In one, I express my frustration with complacent, touristic labels for my country (such as "The Land of the Morning Calm") by contrasting a typically soothing, tempting landscape with suggestions of the darker reality of Korea--the millions who died there a few short generations ago, the barbed wired fence that still ensnares its entire coast, and the brooding image of my photographed self. In another work, I display myself as "bottled," an aggresssive exaggeration of the limited conceptions of myself that I continue to face wherever I go. I worked in such pieces, as I think I always have, with "images"--with painterly or artistic images, yes, but as they represent many other mental images--those of my country, of my people and my family, of my new country and its families, and consequently of myself, and of all the unwelcome, imposed images of myself.
(1996; 13 x 13 x 4)
Suk Ja Kang-Engles is an independent artist living and working in Urbana, IL. Some of her actual efforts are on display at Lowe Gallery in Atlanta. She can be reached via email by clicking here.