It’s strange how something could be autobiographical, yet done in such a way that one can be completely unaware of this fact. Whether this makes that much of a difference is a matter of opinion, but upon first viewing Mie Yim’s current exhibition of paintings, Strangers, at Michael Steinberg Fine Art, I was left intrigued. Giant, brightly colored paintings hung on the wall, bearing images of surrealistic beings, which stared mysteriously at the viewer. The images seemed to straddle the line between whimsy and terror. It turns out that these paintings were based on Yim’s toys from her childhood.
Born in Korea, Mie Yim now lives and works in New York City. As a result, she feels a sense of displacement and alienation. By going back to her to youthful remembrances, Yim investigates this with her transformative show.
Yim states in the press release for the exhibit: “This work is autobiographical. Reaching into my psyche, I utilize fragmented images of childhood memories that implode in my subconscious in the form of shredded narratives. I explore the meaning and the integrity of a misfit, even though the line between the center and the marginal has blurred in today’s world. I belong nowhere, so I’m free. I identify myself as a stranger, both to the big Western art boys of the past and present and to vacant, poppy Asian culture.”
Previously, Yim worked with pastels and used similar images, but those figures were set up as dreamscapes and presented a light-hearted theme that contrasted with the sexual content. The softness of the pastels resembled children’s illustrations and conveyed a sweetness which added sugar to the irony.
This time around, Yim is working with oil and canvas; these new works come across in a much more complex fashion. It’s hard to describe something with such bright colors as being ‘dark,’ but somehow an unsettling quality emerges. The seamless blending of color, the radiance of the yellows and the ambiguous expressions in the eyes all morph these toy images into something that is not immediately recognizable. These creatures are painted with no background figures, so there is a starkness that penetrates through the atmosphere of the gallery, almost intruding into the viewer’s space.
I mean all of this in a good way. She’s not a self lacerating goddess of gloom. This is not a painter’s version of emo music; rather, it’s Yim’s skillful use of texture and color that gives off an ethereal vibe while confronting the viewer with a number of contradictory emotions. It’s really hard to put your finger on exactly what’s happening, but subliminally, all is understood.
When she lived in Korea, Yim’s father used to travel to Japan on business trips and return with toys. At the time, South Korea was pretty poor, and these items were rare. When she took them to school a near riot ensued. Somehow, evoking those memories caused these paintings to wield childhood meanings against contemporary surroundings; making sense of the chaos that surrounds them.
Through Feb. 7 at Michael Steinberg Fine Art, 526 W. 26th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 212-924-5770.