Questions of cultural appropriation abound in Jiha Moon’s “Foreign Love Too,” her second solo exhibition at Ryan Lee Gallery (formerly Mary Ryan Gallery) in New York. In paintings, works on paper and ceramics, pop culture, art historical references and icons from the East and West collide, often fusing into hybrid symbols. These visual signifiers become inextricably linked, indicating that when cultures meet, rather than clashing, they meld, raising complicated issues of complicity.
Moon utilizes a variety of mediums, each of which showcases different aspects of cultural melding. In her paintings, Helen Frankenthaler-esque washes are layered with cartoon characters, Dutch iconography and Chinese ink-painting marks. Peach Mask 4 (LOVE) (2014) exemplifies this, bearing a confluence of marks and icons. A piece of Korean hanji paper cut into a peach shape—a reference to Moon’s home-state of Georgia as well as a symbol of longevity in many Asian countries—forms the body of a red Chinese dragon, alongside logograms of tie-dye fabric. Though the logograms read as Chinese characters, they also resemble the letters L-O-V-E, bringing to mind the iconic Robert Indiana sculpture.
Layers of iconography compound in Moon’s work. Light blue peaches morph into Angry Birds, while blonde hair like that of a Roy Lichtenstein heroine radiates from graphic paisley shapes. Moon’s mutation of visuals reveals their malleable nature.
The eye motif is prominant in this body of work, referencing the wide-spread fetishization of eyes, especially in Asian societies. This iconography also serves to flip the gaze onto the viewer. Eyes, from reptilian to cartoonesque, adorn a range of faces. Some of the paintings have holes cut in them, enabling them to serve as masks as well. In this way Moon’s work implies that the viewer both perceives the works and is being perceived by them. Recognizing the assimilation of images, he or she is complicit in this mutable exchange.
This sense of watching and being watched is more playful in Moon’s ceramics. Peach shapes and eyes lend a variety of vases and plates personification. Her norigae series—works which take the form of a traditional Korean amulet comprising a central object, tassels and beads—is particularly complex, incorporating synthetic hair, ceramic and a variety of colorful accessories. Sarah (2013) features a large ceramic plate painted with daisies, eyeballs and a demon face. Thick dreadlocks of synthetic hair are woven throughout; an intricate knot of black hair laced with cowries and red, yellow and green beads is perched at the top. Sarah explores the cultural significance of hair—from the sophisticated bead and shell braids of Caribbean cultures to the thick, knotted dreads of hippies. It also examines the Asian desire for more Western-style coifs. Moon’s cultural appropriation, therefore, is all-inclusive, acknowledging that the manipulation of signs is in fact a pervasive global phenomenon.
Foreign Love Too is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery through March 8, 2014.
Lilly Lampe is a writer based in New York.