Mie Yim’s Paintings in “Fluid Boundaries” Challenge the Eye and the Emotions | Art review | Seven days
Mie Yim’s paintings are undeniably strange. Some observers would add “in a good way”. Others might not be so sure. Candy colors and fuzzy biomorphic shapes are playful and engaging, like stuffed animals or cartoon characters. But their large, shiny black eyes, appearing singly rather than in pairs, scare you right away. When you look at a Yim painting, the painting is looking back.
The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center currently houses a dozen large-scale paintings and nine smaller “quarantine drawings” by the South Korean-born, New York-based artist. Yim has created most of these works in recent years, and his images could be said to reflect a period of pandemic dystopia. But, as her website reveals, Yim was on this trajectory long before COVID-19 sent us all to shelter.
“Yim is clearly comfortable with discomfort,” Sarah Freeman wrote in her curator statement. In effect. In this exhibition, titled “Fluid Boundaries,” the artist’s flux between abstraction and figuration—as well as between the realms of her fertile imagination—can leave the viewer “uncertain and off balance,” adds Freeman.
A few older paintings included in the exhibit indicate Yim’s earlier preoccupation with cuter – albeit subliminally dark – subjects. “Puppet Bunny”, from 2004, is a 41 x 52 inch pastel and acrylic composition on paper in a myopic blur. A fantasy, multicolored island hovers in a purple void. At one end of the island, a bluish-white stuffed dog with black ears rears up on its hind legs and holds the titular Charlie McCarthy-style rabbit. Both creatures stare at the viewer with tiny eyes. If a call for help could be adorable, this is it.
“Janus”, a 20 x 16 inch oil on canvas from 2012, is a bridge to Yim’s unsettling hybrid of abstract figuration. Or is it figurative abstraction? Only the disproportionate doe’s eye and the kind of nose suggest a sentient being. And maybe those shiny eggplant-colored appendages at the bottom are legs. Or not. (All reality-based descriptors in this review are purely referential.)
“Tequila Hangover”, a 2013 oil on canvas, has a similar impact. Here, a gingerbread man-shaped creature has a large black eye and a sprinkling of shrub-like green “hair”. Two “ears” – one large, one stubby – rise like pink cacti from the top of the head. This creature’s body is slashed with yellow paint in an embossed pattern. The background is sky blue and diaphanous white.
This painting marks a transition to Yim’s more recent works in another way: size. All of the post-2018 canvases in the Brattleboro exhibit are approximately six feet tall. Needless to say, this scale is powerful.
Two years before the pandemic, Yim painted “Crocodile Tears”. It’s a whopping 77 by 45 inches, and the contents can be nasty if you see reused intestines and misplaced teeth in it. But you might just see pink, green, and yellow tubular shapes twisting and weaving in confusing, Escher-like ways. Yim’s soft focus gives this structure an ephemeral quality; strong horizontal bars seem to give it tensile strength.
Part of Yim’s artist statement might refer to this painting: “I use shapes, lines, and colors that coalesce into metaphysical portraits of pathos, anxiety, and pugnacious hilarity,” writes -she. “I layer soft edges like cotton balls against horizontal and vertical lines acting like scaffolding or skeletons.”
In this oil painting and others, Yim confidently pushes his compositions to the edge of the picture plane. This gives them a sense of challenge, as if normal two-dimensional rulers are weak constraints. This suggestive viewer imagined Yim’s creations bursting after gallery hours; that’s the kind of fantasy his mutant images evoke.
“Rorschach”, painted this year, is by far the most alarming work and is a stylish departure from Yim’s hazier, more colorful forms. The 70 x 60 inch canvas depicts a celestial being defined by dabs of paint that look like electrical fumes in the night sky. Except for the eyes – four of them. Here Yim opts for a couple logically located in the head of the being and another in a second illusory face at the level of the torso. They are human or animal eyes, with whites, which seem to follow the viewer in a disturbing way.
“Napalm” (2021) looks dark, but the 72-by-60-inch painting is more beautiful than silly. Yim uses energetic dots and streaks of paint to represent the fireworks. Below them, obsessive patterns emerge from a deep magenta field, and there could be a big eye popping out of chrysanthemum explosions. Or is it a menacing black hole? If this painting envisions the end of the world as we know it, at least it’s pretty.
The “quarantine drawings,” in pastel on 11-inch by 8.5-inch handmade Shizen paper, are mostly dense, abstract exercises with surreal colors and “plant structures,” as Yim calls them.
She revisits the dialectic of creepy and cute in several large paintings, such as “Gooble Gobble” (2021). This subject has a big eye, big teeth, and a wraparound thing that looks like a zucchini gone rogue. Still, it’s a stretch to call this six-foot oil figurative. In “Fluid Boundaries”, the categories are inadequate; Yim’s visual vocabulary is fiercely original.
“I agree to paint intuitively,” she writes. “Painting this way is like falling backwards without a net.”