New York CityFortnight Institute
January 30 – February 28, 2020
Each of Sally J. Han’s 18 paintings, ranging from 8 × 8 to 20 × 24, are executed in an illustrative style. Their naturalism, conveyed as though from the instantaneously rendered stillness of a snapshot, is at odds with the patient and calculated application of paint and ink, and the feeling of eeriness eking from their atmosphere. The works focus largely on vibrantly clothed figures placed in a pictorial ground of Korean architecture or natural landscape, some solitary, others paired, mostly women. As in Smoking Break (2020) the few figures depicted who aren’t women, marked by their all-white attire, are placed in the distance so as to merge with the ground and disperse into the context.
In Match Play (2020) two women wearing traditional Korean garb play golf in a sprawling green golf course which rises to the top of the painting’s composition so as to nearly appear like a flat background. Hanboks, worn for centuries in South Korea, contrast with the Western golf course, brought to Korea only at the cusp of the 20th century. There are hints of anachronism like this throughout the show: here, one figure readies to tee off with an iron, while the other squats smoking, her head turned away from the viewer toward the cropped horizon of the field.
Many of the women that Han depicts do not show their faces. Some turn their heads, others are enshrouded in smoke or veiled by their own hair. In Ice Fishing (2020), a woman, her face hidden from sight, sits perched with a fishing rod over a hole in a frozen lake. The snow is thick, with several sets of footprints surrounding her in an echo of an absent cohort. A fur lined green vest, a rich red dress, and a deep blue cap draping down her back offer the schematics of her character but do little to inform her personality. She is not withdrawn or empty—she is herself; we just can’t access her. This inaccessibility sometimes comes from the solitariness of Han’s characters, while other times it’s felt more through the composition. Gossip (2019) shows two women whispering to each other outside, thickly framed by the darkened interior of a traditional Korean house. Han places us on the inside looking out, evoking how our inner projections might inflect our interpretation of what’s being shared between the two women.
Notably there are a few paintings without figures that function as narrative snapshots, and highlight the distance the viewer feels by demonstrating that narrative doesn’t need to attach itself directly to a person. The shattered handheld mirror, burning cigarettes, disposable lighter, and long hair pin of an untitled painting from 2019 take on this storytelling project, indexing the past rather than capturing the moment. Cleaning Day (2020), too, is entirely without figures, offering instead a tidy room with a small washing bowl, some folded blankets stacked on a cabinet. The windowsill through which we peer is packed tightly against the margins of the picture, an additional layer of isolation between the space of the depicted world, its persons, and the viewer. The top edge of the painting subtly crops the windowsill, which converts what would presumably have been a portrait view of a window into the square of the painting’s wood panel.
Architecture is playfully incorporated in other paintings, as well: the square shape of Foreplay (2019), after which the show is titled, echoes the depicted architectural beams of a box-shaped room, emphasizing the objecthood of the painting. Caught between views of night and day, two brightly robed women tussle, each pulling at the other’s hair, covering their faces. Han captures a marvelous timelessness in the frenzy of their struggle.
The sober tone of these works is conveyed not by the blending of colors, but through the harmony of their aggregate. The individual vibrancy of each tiny brush stroke, like a work in tempera, is muted from a distance while up close each acrylic mark retains its distinct shape, often outlined in pen. The small size of these paintings encourages intimacy: In order to engage the scene, the viewer must step in close, but doing so disperses the picture into its parts. A balance of conscientious distance must be hit, particular to each individual work.
The uncanniness of Han’s figures, and our emotional distance from them, might easily remind us of surrealism, but my instinct is to fight that description. Surrealism is an intense merging of an artist’s psychology with her process, encouraging the viewer’s free fall into fantasy. But Han’s paintings tenderly use conventions of painting to bring us back. Politely partitioned off, but privileged with a view, we experience the interiority of these women in earnest.