Polipop and Paintings
A raucous pop-art exhibition paints the town red
Published: June 6, 2012
If Mina Cheon’s current show at Maryland Art Place were a musical ensemble, it would be a marching band complete with crashing cymbals. MAP has temporarily retired the standard white cube of the gallery in favor of bold swaths of primary colors more fitting for the exhibit, titled Polipop and Paintings. Red, yellow, and blue walls amplify the already noisy character of Cheon’s large-scale works to a startling din. Images of Barack Obama, celebrities, and corporate logos shout from the walls like carnival barkers. The scale of the work, in concert with the bright hues and overt political sentiments, makes for an extremely loud presence.
Polipop and Paintings brings together two distinct but tangentially related bodies of Cheon’s work: a new series of digital paintings and an older suite of acrylic canvases the artist painted in 1997-’98 while studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art under Grace Hartigan. The juxtaposition of these two collections highlights the underlying influence of Cheon’s training as a painter on a career that for many years has focused primarily on new media and installation. In 2004 Cheon’s work took a decided turn toward the political. “This shift in my art was not coincidental,” Cheon says. “There was a natural progression that led toward this synthesis of studio practice and research with interest to current events.” ‘Polipop,’ a term the artist coined to describe her unique digital paintings, was the result of this shift.
“Polipop is an art world that intersects politics and pop art,” the exhibition literature explains. “It takes serious discussions surrounding geopolitics of global media culture and livens them up as accessible, eye-catching, fun pop-art.” Cheon cobbles together internet images to create works that deal with race, capitalism, politics, technology, pop culture, and the relationship between Asia and the United States. Rescaled and printed on canvas, the appropriated imagery is often pixillated, and the high-gloss surface of the giclée prints makes for a sort of vulgar, commercial aesthetic. The tone of the work varies, from silly to dire, but what links the pieces is a sustained attempt to address serious issues in an accessible manner, often employing a dark sense of humor.
In the first room of the gallery, a series of works starring Obama in a variety of different guises hangs on a wall painted school-bus yellow. There’s Obama as Rosie the Riveter, Obama as an action figure (based on a real paint-it-yourself toy manufactured by Jailbreak Toys), and a turban-clad Obama posing as a Bin Laden-like specter standing at a podium emblazoned with the words “The Scariest.” Across the room on a red wall is a string of canvases related to Asia, including an image of Tiananmen Square crowned with McDonald’s golden arches.
The dominant tones of red and yellow in this initial space are an interesting choice. Often employed by advertisers, they are the two colors first processed by the eye and sent to the brain. They’re eye-catching, literally. But they’re also agitating colors, which is why McDonald’s employs them. They draw you in but inspire you to leave quickly. (They also happen to be the colors of the Chinese flag.) The effect in MAP is similar—the space is visually arresting, but also uncomfortable.
The tone cools down a bit in the next room, with an accent wall of bright blue and a group of canvases lumped on the calmer end of the color spectrum. A predominantly indigo-toned piece titled “Capitalism and Contest” shows all the contestants from top reality shows in 2011, a goofy yearbook of instant celebrity. “Superwoman Complex” draws audible laughter with a sad but funny list of qualities expected of the obedient Korean woman, including “good in bed while being a virgin.”
The most successful pieces in the series are those that lean toward the hyperbolic. “Remote Your Natural Disaster” is arguably the starkest piece in the show, depicting a flat-screen TV showing scenes from recent catastrophes. It’s a harsh reminder of how easy it is to simply change the channel on the world’s plights, avoiding reality and averting empathy. On the more humorous end of the spectrum, a piece titled “Never Ending Story” shows Obama robed as Jesus, fist pumping and riding on the back of Falcor, the dog-like dragon from the 1984 kids classic.
Engulfing the back room of the gallery, “15 Billion Years of the Traveling Atom” is a 72-foot-by-8-foot behemoth painted nearly 15 years ago with fluorescent acrylic paint. Originally lit with a black light, MAP is showing the work for the first time in natural light (barring a special black-light showing on Thursday June 7 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.). Described by exhibition materials as “a celebration of popular science and a cosmic portrayal of the Universe,” it is psychedelic to say the least. It’s part Carlos Castaneda, part Busby Berkeley, part Lisa Frank. (Those who rocked a Trapper Keeper in their youth will likely experience a mild flashback.) Though it is difficult to make the leap between this twisting, organic composition and the hard-edged, digital works in the adjoining rooms, they share a sense of ambition and aversion to subtlety.
There’s a lot to chew on in this show. Cheon introduces a number of interesting ideas in an entertaining and accessible way. But with so many issues vying for attention, it can feel a bit cacophonous. The sonorous Times Square aesthetic of the show ends up producing an experience something like ringing in the ears. But hey, it’s not a real party without a noise complaint or two.
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