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At Gallery Panhwa to Oct. 31
On predominantly Latino Mount Pleasant Street, there is a restaurant called Dos Gringos where white 30-somethings congregate. If it weren’t for the name, the place would be easy to make fun of as the white spot on the block, the Chlorox stain, Cancun, and so forth. But the name takes care of that. Saved from self-consciousness by what the moniker so baldly admits, white people contentedly buy their goat-cheese salads and set up their laptops just a few feet from mango-hawking Salvadoran women out on the sidewalk.
I mention this restaurant because tucked into Georgetown’s tiny one-room Gallery Panhwa there is an exhibit of photography by Chicago-via-Korea artist Jee sung Lee titled “Navel.” The 19 photographs are nothing more than a bunch of very, very close-up pictures of fruit stemsor, rather, not stems but the places where they attach to the fruitas well as navel orange, um, navels. So it’s the same ideacalling a spade a spade.
It’s also calling into question a preconception. That being a navel-examining artist is somehow wrong, just as being a gringo in Mount Pleasant is somehow out of place. And it’s a challenge: “Here are some cool navels,” says the title. “Navel gazing is actually quite edifying, a beautiful experience.”
Inherent in the challenge is the requirement that the artist prove what she’s just implied. It’s a tall order, but it’s also intriguing. What navelty has Lee found to exhibit? Plenty, according to her artist’s statement: “In each fruit, I see my own body. I compare the peach’s skin with my skin. I see my pores on the surface of oranges. I find the pear’s scab to be just like my own. Most of all, I witness the site of detachment…from the mother’s umbilical cord.”
The exhibition is an unadorned, direct depiction of this idea. Housed in the shoebox-sized gallery, Lee’s photographs are divided along opposite walls into two series, Navel I and Navel II. Compositionally, the pictures are all alike: shots with the fruit “navel” in the center, magnified so that the stemless scar and the inch or so of surrounding space fills each roughly 10-inch square.
But this repetition also highlights the individuality of each fruit. The smooth skin of an orange becomes nearly crater-filled; the spokelike stripes splaying out from an apple navel recall Fourth of July fireworks. Through subtle manipulations of light and color, Lee is able to turn what could be a series of botany textbook illustrations into interesting variations on the ideas of the navel as the beginning of life and the navel as trauma-produced scar.
In Navel I, an orange looks vulvic next to a maroon-and-black apple. Another orange sports a huge outtie that resembles a little boy’s pecker. There’s an anuslike peach navel couched in the crevice between the fruit’s cheeks. And there are the sweaty lips of that orange, opened just enough to reveal the flesh beneath. The undulating reds and dark folds Lee emphasizes in the series recall both porno mags and the posters pro-lifers wave outside Planned Parenthood on Saturday mornings.
Navel II is darker in color and more somber. The navels it depicts are decidedly more scarlike. Aside from one tomato, the fruits in the nine photographs of Navel II are more difficult to recognize, even though Lee takes a far more straightforward approach. In Navel I, Lee exaggerates lights and darks, intensifies colors, and slicks up surfaces; in Navel II, the designs made by nature are the emphasis: There are no cavernous depths, the fruit doesn’t shine, the textures are more jagged, and the weird bumps, ridges, and blemishes made by growth are shown unadorned. These are the marks of experience, and the individuality of each picture reflects the uniqueness of each life.
But because Lee’s ideas are simple, and her photographs rather unoriginal (Edward Weston’s famous photograph of a corporeal-looking bell pepper languishing just this side of sweat-soaked sex was taken back in 1930), it might be easy to dismiss her entirely. Lee’s depictions of fruit navels, viewed one after another, are all more or less alike, and little more than interesting decorations. But this very simplicity also gives her work a touching, childlike innocence.
Photographs of anthropomorphized fruit are not new, but neither is asking why the sky is blue. The wonder of discovery Lee conveys through her giant details, her minute examination of each previously unnoticed fruit navel, gives the viewer the urge to find a mirror and take a good gander at his or her own stomachjust the way talking about flowers with a 5-year-old makes you want to look at a perunia more closely. CP