Questioning identity 

A friend spoke up recently, confident he had the Museum of New Art figured out. “It’s all him, isn’t it?” he said, in revelation and doubt.

But that’s what’s interesting — it’s not always about him.

Museum of New Art director Jef Bourgeau has a reputation that sometimes overshadows the impact of his exhibitions. Known for creating and selling his artwork under assumed names, Bourgeau’s antics both charm and annoy the public. But no matter where you fall, it’s easy to see that Bourgeau is trying to use the museum as a venue for institutional critique. His shows question the curator’s role, the validity of artistic “integrity” and the relevance of museums in the information age. These are lofty goals, and Bourgeau tackles them with varying degrees of success.

Occasionally, MONA is also simply a noncommercial exhibition space for new art. The current exhibition, Gang of Five + 1, curated by Detroit artist Hyun Jung Kim, focuses attention on the South Korean diaspora. Kim and five other South Korean female artists from New York, Chicago, London, Los Angeles and Detroit present work in painting, sculpture, collage, printmaking and installation. The show is in two parts: Downstairs, Artoaster’s Toast is a one-person show by Kim; upstairs is the group show, Sweet Talk.

In her curator’s statement, Kim writes that in the ’90s, “the South Korean art market benefited from a protectionist currency policy aimed at keeping money at home by imposing stringent taxes on outgoing funds. This, along with a deeply ingrained respect for art and culture, has created a thriving market for contemporary Korean artists within the country.”

Much of the work in this exhibit transcends clichéd cultural references, showcasing a contemporary awareness of East Asian art. In Artoaster’s Toast, Kim uses hot glue to an almost fanatical degree and her reliance on the clear, gooey and sticky mass is bewildering. In one room, two large, fish-shaped wall reliefs of hot glue on plastic mesh don’t have much to offer, but a series of small, framed pieces in an adjacent room is another story. Collages of iridescent fabric, magazine ads and plastic mesh are covered in swirls of glue, duplicating the shapes and patterns on consumer packaging.

There are standouts in the Sweet Talk group show. Hee Kyung Chun’s paintings, collages and prints are hybrids of narrative imagery and graphic design, resulting in delicate yet powerful pieces at their most successful, and decorative pastiche at their least. Hyun Seon Kang’s large digital print is a self-portrait of the artist peeking through blue fabric. Her piece is surrounded by blue walls. It’s a fun and playful investigation of space that, through the use of commercial materials and processes, flirts with advertising design, although it is definitely fine art.

Unfortunately, this exhibition, as a whole, falls short of developing any profound dialogue between its constituent parts — installation and tone make the exhibition seem disjointed. Perhaps this was partly an attempt on the curator’s part to give each artist her own space. It doesn’t help that the truncated network of halls, rooms and open spaces at MONA make most shows seem incomplete.

But, even with its shortcomings, Gang of Five +1 still manages to represent a part of the contemporary art dialogue that, as Detroiters, we’re not regularly privy to. Contemporary East Asian art is some of the most compelling and challenging work being made today, and even if this show isn’t awe-inspiring, it is an honest attempt by a local artist and institution to introduce an important part of the global art community to a deserving public.

 

Through Oct. 29, at the Museum of New Art, 7 S. Saginaw, Pontiac; 248-210-7560.

Nolan Simon writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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