Pops of Uber modernity peek out from Jiha Moon’s paintings. There’s the familiar if grimace-inducing lowercase “f” of the Facebook logo tucked into “Forever Couplehood” (2014), for example, or the Starbucks siren hiding behind a cloud in “Double Bless” (2012). Scores of icons compete for the surface of Moon’s paintings. Most of them hail from impossible realms. Picture the serenity of a late 19th-century Korean landscape painting invaded by a hostile force of 21st-century #brands and that might approach the level of manic fantasy that Moon sustains throughout her latest survey.
Double Welcome, Most Everyone’s Mad Here is a fitting title for a show that starts and ends through the looking glass. Her paintings swirl with figures borrowed from other genres: a chubby-cheeked leopard stolen from a medieval illumination, perhaps, or a cotton candy monster maybe borrowed from Adventure Time. Paintings such as “Traveler” depict a maelstrom of ancient and contemporary influences, captured through both modern and traditional techniques. Along with the occasional Angry Bird.
As with most of Moon’s paintings, “Big Pennsylvania Dutch Korean Painting” (2011) makes use of Hanji, the traditional mulberry paper favored for Korean landscapes and calligraphy. Along with ink and acrylic, the dueling mediums in her paintings, Moon also employs stickers and patches of embroidered fabric. This particular painting takes the shape of a quilt, referencing both Korean and American textile traditions, and the pool of imagery that the painting depicts is just as diverse—from calligraphy scrolls to happy-face stickers. The piece is finely calibrated, a portrait of hyphenated thinking.
“Yellow Dust” (2012) might be the exhibition’s standout, the painting with the greatest tension between background and foreground; it’s as if the artist completed one painting, let it dry, then kept right on going. Viewers who know the artist’s work from her time as a D.C. resident may recognize the interplay between illustration and realist painting. Yellow ribbons look like Roy Lichtenstein comic brushstrokes painted directly over a somber mountainscape. But the background is more than backdrop; any and every part of Moon’s painting cascades in a sequence of further layered images on closer investigation.
Elsewhere in the show, low-slung tables, ceramic teapots, and pillows for seating add another dimension to Moon’s work—not just the third dimension of sculpture, but a vector for critique. The artist has recreated a sequence of norigae, blending painting and found objects with traditional costume elements. Ceramic fortune cookies point a finger at the commodification of Asian cultures; the gesture is perhaps a bit overdone in contemporary art, but it’s awesome to see an artist translate her mark-making strategies so seamlessly from ink and acrylics to clay and textiles. “Smiley Gook” (2014) deploys a derogatory slur to make the point explicit, but the overall installation, with its embrace of coy cultural cues, is no less subtle as a broadside.
Moon’s work only has one volume, and it’s a roar. That works for this show (which was assembled by the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina). Humming with vibrational energy, Moon’s paintings scale down to the level of detail of Hieronymus Bosch. Her compositions scale up to the sweep of the Joseon Dynasty landscape painter Jang Seung-eop. Big and small, majestic and giggly, Moon’s work dwells there, between the two.
At American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center to May 27. 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. (202) 885-3668. american.edu/cas/museum.