Landscape: about space and time

North View Gallery, PCC Sylvania, Portland, Oregon, 2019

Linda Tesner

The Ford Family Foundation Visual Art Program Catalog essay

A consistent theme in the work of Sang-ah Choi is a pair of closely related questions that she poses to the viewer: What do you see? And what do you perceive? As a Korean artist living and working in the United States, Choi is imminently aware that the answers have much to do with the viewer’s own cultural influences, including ethnic references and pop influences. Choi has made an expansive practice of playing with dual meanings in both large and small scales.

We See What We Want to See (2019) is a splashy, candy-colored painting on paper—23.5 feet long, divided into three panels—that reads almost like decorative wall paper—or a vertiginous landscape of pattern. Choi’s work most often refers to the history of Korean painting, specifically Sip-Jang Saeng Do, a tradition which includes the depiction of ten symbols of longevity. These symbols include: the sun, mountains, water, bamboo, pine trees, mushrooms, clouds, cranes, deer, and turtles. In this painting, Choi transmogrifies these symbols into hybrid characters that seem simultaneously Korean and American, and both sacred and profane.

Choi says that she includes all of the Sip-Jang Saeng symbols within this painting, but it takes some serious investigation and even imagination to locate the symbols within the painting—the fractured picture plane has a serious “Where’s Waldo” sensibility. The painting is a triptych; each panel has its own subtitle that cues the viewer to the tension and dichotomy between what the viewer sees versus perceives.

The left panel is called Rise/Fall. Literally, the construction of the patterns in the painting confuse the viewer—are the lighter elements in the bottom half of the painting floating upward? Or are the darker components drifting downwards, percolating toward the lower edge of the picture plane? The images within the panel are ruptured and not necessarily identifiable. This is due to Choi’s process, which involves painting images, then taping some of them off and painting over the exposed parts over and over again, so that the finished painting is similar to a flattened Photoshop file, with the various stages and fragments of Choi’s painted images compressed into a single plane, with many shapes and icons hidden from the viewer. But careful observation reveals interesting remnants of the longevity symbols, only here westernized into American commercial emblems. For example, a circumspect viewer will discover orchid-pink Bambi-like deer shapes, as well as blue birds that replicate the ubiquitous Twitter logo.

Similarly, the central panel is subtitled Invisible/Visible. The red/yellow/black “poppy” form that scatters across all three panels was inspired by the California poppies that were in prolific bloom during the time that Choi was working on this painting. Choi was fascinated by the notion of endless fields of blossoms (which, even in a photograph, confound the viewer in regard to the horizon line). Then there is the allusion of poppies and their association with hallucinogenic opium varieties (remember the scene of Dorothy and her friends being lulled to dizzy sleep in the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz?). In Choi’s painting, the “poppy” pattern creates a camouflage effect and assists Choi in playing with perspective. There is a horizon line in the painting—actually, many horizon lines—as the poppies, bigger here and smaller there, serve as formal elements that confound the viewer.

I originally, naively, interpreted the tents in this panel as a visual allusion to the shell of the turtle’s longevity symbol—Choi contends that this was not her intention, but my “mistake” reinforces Choi’s persistence that we see what we see. Instead, the tents evolved from Choi’s experience of confronting homelessness in San Francisco, an urban element that one can’t ignore, but paradoxically often one tries to not see because of the uncomfortable feelings that homelessness generates. Within this panel, too, are passages of writing—those black “squiggles” are portions of the words “Good” and “Evil” in both English and Korean, a reminder that sometimes we see something as one thing, but it could just as easily represent the opposite.

The third panel, on the far right, is subtitled Fiction/Nonfiction. Choi was working on this panel during the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination in 2018. While working in her studio, she was listening to the confirmation hearings on the radio. She was thinking about the phenomenon of how and why people lie, noticing that truth and untruth are often intertwined yet, most times, people need to make a decision which “truth” to believe. In Fiction/Nonfiction there are three fanciful deer-like creatures playing what seems like a flute, but which could also be read as a lengthening nose, suggesting a Pied Piper or Pinocchio figure, underscoring Choi’s theme of what is truth and what is a lie?

In combination, the format and orientation of We See What We Want to See is reminiscent of traditional Korean landscape painting, but it is deconstructed and conflated into a joyful explosion of color and form. Choi’s traditional imagery morphs into collapsed and ambiguous patterns. This puzzling aspect of We See What We Want to See is purposeful, as Choi intends to challenge the idea that any single reading of anything—a news story, a fairy tale, a corporate logo—is subjective and slippery. Absolute truth is an illusion. Eventually, and for better or worse, each of us has to choose a version of “truth” for oneself.

Photo by Stephen Funk