JEWYO RHII, Swing Theater (“Movey”), 2014, installation view at “Commonly Newcomer” at the Queens Museum, New York, 2014. Courtesy Queens Museum. 

JEWYO RHIISwing Theater (“Movey”) (detail), 2014, metal mesh, metal pipe, drawing on clear acrylic sheet, LED light and paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy Queens Museum, New York. 

JEWYO RHIISwing Theater (“Movey”) (detail), 2014, metal mesh, metal pipe, drawing on clear acrylic sheet, LED light and paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy Queens Museum, New York. 

Commonly Newcomer

Jewyo Rhii

Queens Museum
Korea, South USA

For nearly 25 years, Korean artist Jewyo Rhii has put herself through the physical, psychological and emotional challenge of making art while living no more than three years in any one location. While not unheard of in the increasingly globalized art world, and the often precarious life of artists, Rhii has allowed for that lifestyle to become not just a means for making her work, but also its content—where she is committed to maintaining a sensitivity and vulnerability towards her surroundings. The aptly titled “Commonly Newcomer,” her recent solo exhibition at the Queens Museum in New York, describes the constant state of being for Rhii’s daily life. The word “commonly” is a fitting way to qualify her seemingly perpetual position as a newcomer. Unlike “always,” which signifies a resigned certitude, and “sometimes,” which is too incidental, “commonly” being a newcomer denotes a situation that is more intrinsic and frustratingly inescapable.

In preparing for the exhibition, Rhii moved into a studio at the Queens Museum in November 2013—a year before the show’s opening—and started installing her works in the 242-square-meter exhibition floor, located just 100 feet away from her working space. Walking into the exhibition, one can almost visualize the movements of the artist, the way a viewer can visualize a painter’s movement by closely following the brush strokes on a finished canvas. Therefore, Rhii’s exhibition is by no means a totality, or something to be consumed as a whole. In fact, scale is deliberately confused in Rhii’s installation. A large slab of concrete is placed on the floor facing a strange, skeletal structure made of wood and pipe. A nearby wall text indicates that this wooden structure is called First Work Table (all works 2014), though it is actually quite big and, thus, more reminiscent of a king-sized bed frame than a work table.

The area where the concrete wall First Work Table are installed is crowded with various other elements, though Rhii’s bare bones aesthetic hardly makes it seem that way. Six different works are in this area: Look Out, where a portion of a metallic fence, a metal chair, piping, bricks, a cinder block, wooden slats and tiles fill a corner; Undocumented Enlightening Object, which is a mound of various objects covered by a half opaque, half transparent plastic sheet and lit with LED light; Wall to Park, which is the aforementioned concrete slab; Swing Theater (“Movey”), a large pendulum-like structure suspended from the gallery ceiling—which is moved side-to-side by a gallery attendant using a pedal mechanism—made of metal mesh, pipe, LED light and drawings on clear acrylic sheets that cast shadows on the wall; First Work Table ; and finally Common Place, a strange apparatus made of wood, house paint, insulation foam, cinder blocks, a fan and a piece of metal.

JEWYO RHII, Waterproof-ed Lot, 2014, wood, protective silver roof paint, tar paper sheet, house paint, metal wire, tissue paper, terracotta planting pot, wheeled wooden board and canvas awning, dimensions variable. Courtesy Queens Museum, New York.

JEWYO RHII, installation view of Black Hideout and Slop, both 2014, at “Commonly Newcomer,” Queens Museum, New York, 2014–15. Courtesy Queens Museum. 

Meanwhile, the other half of the gallery contains: Waterproof-ed Lot (2014), which takes up a large area with pieces of wood painted in silver, as well as additional elements such as a terracotta planting pot on a wheeled wooden board; Slope, a structure that looks similar to a skateboarding ramp made of wood, tar paper, lights and silver roof paint; and Black Hideout, a slightly blocked off, tented area containing a wooden shelf and folding table, with framed drawings, wall paper and lights.

Architecture and urban environment are evidently of great significance to the artist. Much of what she has created for this exhibition is a semi-portrait of her experience living in Queens, New York, and references architectural components of local areas such as Jackson Heights and Corona, which are both densely populated, low-income immigrant neighborhoods. Anyone slightly familiar with these neighborhoods may recognize, in Rhii’s work, the patterns of residential fences, the silver paint-covered rooftops of buildings visible from the local subway train, and the metal wiring and construction materials that are ubiquitous in the areas. Rhii’s work is akin to a very spotty and selective recollection of a physical environment, often involving the artist’s own personal space—which also impacts how she sees her public surroundings.

There is something anti-capitalist about Rhii’s refusal to “make” objects. Her work is elusive and all about passing moments—both blurry and clear. Such moments are quite fragile, and it is primarily up to the viewers’ perception and patience on when he or she will be able to pause and contemplate the concept of Rhii’s work, which is more amenable to searching, scanning and spinning rather than sitting, standing and observing in awe.

On the one hand, details are not too important to Rhii, as her installations do not seem to present attentive craftsmanship on initial view. But on the other hand, Rhii has a way of subtly squeezing detail into her work. Upon closer observation of her works, one’s eyes may stop at the strange pieces of tissue paper on wire in Waterproof-ed Lot, or notice the uncanny way in which every piece of pipe, wire and light in Swing Theater (“Movey”) feels delicately balanced and dependent on each other, like a set of domino pieces. Like almost having word on the tip of one’s tongue, or knowing the melody to a song one cannot recall the lyrics to, Rhii’s installation evokes the sensation of being tantalizingly disoriented. And yet Rhii knows well that disorientation is different from being completely lost; in the former state, one frantically tries to place unrecognizable (or seemingly recognizable) things into categories that one already knows, often without success.

“Commonly Newcomer” is not a tribute to Queens or its inhabitants, though it is very much about the experience of living in the neighborhood. It is, however, about Rhii’s constant feeling of un-rootedness, and the heightened sense of subjectivity that results from not being able to be selective and particular with her surroundings, due to her state of being a frequent newcomer.

“Commonly Newcomer” is on view at the Queens Museum, New York, until February 8, 2015.