My grandfathers (a tailor and a carpenter) came to America from Lithuania in the late 1800s. I’ve been thinking about their journeys lately, as immigrants from Central and South America dare to dream of futures here. These days, immigrants from Asia make up the largest share of new U.S. arrivals. And a Korean American artist in Los Angeles is capturing the experience of immigration in works that capture my attention and admiration.
Kyungmi Shin was born Christian in Buddhist South Korea and emigrated to the U.S. at age 19. Now 57, the art she makes — on view at the Orange County Museum of Art in Santa Ana, Calif. — shows, in exquisite and haunting ways, the crossings of East and West, the residues of colonialism, clashes of cultures, and the fact that our stories may change, but our histories stay with us.
Shin went to China last year, to the town where fine porcelain was first created (around 600 C.E. it is believed). In Jingdezhen, the epicenter of porcelain production, she created portrait busts of herself and her father. Their personal histories, and the artist’s themes, are in their faces.
Set in front of oval pieces of Chinoiserie — Europe’s take, in the 1800s, on Asian intriguing patterns they bought up and tried to imitate obsessively — Shin imprinted the patterns on the white faces.
“Whatever is hidden has been brought to the surface,” she says. Their roots. Their history. I find the effect beautiful and unsettling. The patterns both enhance and mar the faces. (Well, please understand I’m just getting used to tattoos!)
Shin’s father was a Calvinist Protestant minister. His children were brought up strictly: Sundays were sacred — no money could be spent, no public transportation taken, no studying allowed. Shin’s Buddhist friends thought she was “exotic.” So different from them. Coming to America, the Shins were outsiders once again. It took about 10 years for her to start thinking of herself as Korean American.
“Art is a way,” she says, “for me to investigate issues of my own identity.”
In her search for roots, in addition to porcelains, Shin makes paintings that use old photos of her father. Her themes — colonization, cross-cultural impacts, immigration — are layered in these painted photo collages.
In the background, a graduation picture: her father and classmates, finished with seminary school in Korea. Layered on top of the black and white image, she paints and draws a scene from a medieval illuminated manuscript — men in crowns and headpieces around a table (I see echoes of The Last Supper). On the right, a scene of war — invading soldiers, a dead body. To the left, a priest and merchants on a boat, carrying porcelain to Europe — exporting culture from East to West.
“The picture,” Shin says, “captures all the movement that has happened in history.” Its title, and the title of the Orange County exhibition, is “Father Crosses the Ocean.”
In this one, Reverend Shin sits on an ornate sofa he and his wife bought in the U.S., at a time when Baroque Italian design was all the rage in Korea. David Hyun Shin wears a suit and tie. “He always dressed formally,” his daughter says. “Very proper. Very Old World.”
Behind him, the detail of a photograph Shin manipulated on her computer — a Chinoiserie painting she saw in a Paris museum. On top of that, she draws decoration from an antique Portuguese royal carriage. A note of colonialism: Chinese and African subjects, kneeling behind the carriage.
Finally here, Reverend Shin on a picnic in 1960s Korea. Picnics weren’t casual family gatherings then. They were special occasions. Which may explain why Reverend Shin still wears a suit and tie. And holds an umbrella against the sun.
The photo is layered over an 18th-century outdoor scene by François Boucher. Known for his zaftig nudes, Boucher’s women are properly clothed in “The Chinese Garden” — the painting that appealed to Shin. He was less restrained in his taste-making opinions. Mr. Google quotes him as saying nature is “trop verte et mal éclairée.” Really? Too green and badly lit?
David Hyun Shin died a month before his daughter’s exhibition was scheduled to open in Southern California. But he is present in her work.
In the end, it’s photographs that spark our memories of times passed. Kyungmi Shin has reclaimed family memories with these photos and porcelains, and deepened them with her art.
Art Where You’re At is an informal series showcasing lively online offerings at museums closed due to COVID-19, or at re-opened museums you may not be able to visit.
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