Jenny Cho

Critical Essay for In-Between: Through the Eyes of the Others
, 2011, Jan Van Woensel

Originally from Seoul, Korea, Jenny Cho is a promising, emerging artist in New York City. Cho graduated from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Art and Art Professions in 2008, with a small but intriguing and mature oeuvre that preluded the style, theme and concept of her recent artworks. Her exhibition at DOOSAN Gallery, NY, illustrates the artist’s consistency in her working method and her loyalty to the theme in her artworks. “In-Between” is an extension of her first solo show in 2009, and “explores the relationship between vision and perception through paintings and photo-reliefs.” This essay offers an art critical context to the artworks by collecting thoughts, memories, references and socio-philosophical wanderings.


In Between

No observation is or can be absolute or universal. Between reality and our perception of reality, goes a natural and immediate process of observation, interpretation and personalization. We are subjects moving around in an ever-changing contemporary space and time. We experience our surroundings and their events subjectively. It is probably safe to say that all experience is in itself subjective, everywhere and at all times. As inperceptible our conscious experience of it might be, the process of objective registration (the world as it is) to subjectification (the world as we see it) fascinates Jenny Cho. Throughout history, artists have been intrigued by the impermanent and transitory space in between factual reality and interpretation/representation, personal reality. Partly reacting against the clinical and seemingly effortless registration of photography when it became a more commonly accessible tool, the Impressionists passionately painted the passing of time and the shifting of light to prove that one, single, still image can impossibly translate the nature of the pictured subject. Moreover, at one point, these revolutionary artists remarked that photography keeps the photographed subject captive in a vacuum, a dead space, divorced and exiled from its relationship to the ever-changing, temporary world in which it belongs. Roughly twenty years or so later, another short-lived collective of artists made the relativeness of the appearance of things a permanent element of their favored subject matter. In their paintings, sculptures and prints, the Cubists deconstructed, analyzed and reassembled their subject. They threw all helpful rules of traditional perspective in the trash, preferring to depict their muses from a multitude of viewpoints, which inevitably resulted in complex, abstracted images. Through their artistic methodologies, which were partly fueled by parallel, local artistic and cultural evolutions, both groups of artists literally exteriorized and exposed their psychology of perception. Jenny Cho follows this tradition of artistic awareness or questioning of internalized representations and perceptions.


Architecture of Deception

It may sound as an inadequate statement, but at times I think about Cho’s works as intriguing, introverted acts of architectural deception. Clearly, in the context of her oeuvre, my reference to architecture isn’t about the art of designing and erecting buildings. Instead, it comes with a whole range of psychological connotations and hesitations that I recognize in scattered but recurrent fragments in Jenny Cho’s artworks. In the recent past, the artist has painted her parents’ new house in Houston, Texas repeatedly. By making various studies: drawings, sketches and probably also photographs, she explored the house as in an attempt to familiarize herself with the new, unfamiliar place of home through observation and representation, inevitably. Almost playfully, Cho rearranged elements of the interior in painted images that at first glance look perfectly normal, but then appear to be deceiving and awkward. With thick curtains blocking the view to an adjacent space, similar, curving stairs appearing twice in one image, mirrored rooms, uncanny, semi-dramatic and theatrical perspectives, Cho’s works breathes feelings of detachment and alienation. The house is not her home; She is an occasional visitor rather than an actual occupant. The artist confirms: “The short term visits of the new house during the holidays from New York created unique contrasts between familiarity and unfamiliary, as well as urban and suburb aesthetics. In each work, I inhabit the space as an observer instead of being a member of the family.” When, a bit further in her personal writing, Cho refers to the living room as a stage, it becomes clear that there’s more to her references of theater than just being interesting and appealing comparisons. Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is often said to be interested in showing the inadequacy of life defined by intellectual enjoyment, sensuous desire and an inclination to interpret oneself as if one were "on stage." Extensive written volumes exist about the promotion of the idea that we actually, unwittingly perform life and that our surroundings are our pre-designed stage. Philosophers have dissected and criticized the increasingly unnatural conditions of contemporary life and contemporary man and, probably since the Romantic Era, artists have responded to this irreversible situation in various ways. The most recent, striking example of how life is a constructed condition is undoubtedly the bittersweet, tragic story of theater director Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman’s startling movie Synecdoche, New York (2008). In short, when the gloomy Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffmann, receives the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, he rents a gigantic warehouse in New York City in which he slowly builds a full-scale replica of Manhattan for his new, ambitious, titleless masterpiece: a “theatrical project of bruising honesty and endless self-examination”. The reconstructed city turns into a complex, real life arena in which his actors recreate scenes and characters from his rapidly passing life. Fiction plays an impossible, ultimate game with reality and vice versa. The movie ends in tragedy, exhaustion and total collapse.



It is strikingly interesting to see how well-represented the concept of the stage is in virtually all of Jenny Cho’s artworks, including her most recent photo-reliefs and paintings for “In-Between” (2011). While a visual reference is often clear in her pictures of houses, interiors and gardens, a psychological reference is even more present in paintings like “Nine Picknickers” and “Three Men at a Table.” It’s true that in these works both the table and the grass field function as a stage for undefined, unidentified, random groups of people. Moreover, adding to the psychological and filmic impression of these two works, Cho doubled some of the figures showing them in different poses in the same image. This reminds me of the Cubists’ enthusiasm for repetition and, closer to date, also of a typical Lynchian (and Kaufmanian) way of establishing confusion and deception. On close examination, Jenny Cho’s work shows resemblance to a movie’s storyboard, albeit nonlinear and seemingly unintentional. What other medium is better in stimulating our imagination than movies? The movie director manipulates our emotions through projecting moving images and dialogue, from this take to another, blending passed and present events, detaching the viewer from his or her reality, temporarily and appealing to a more emotional (or intuitive) projection of time and events. The possibilities of the writing process, editing and adapting storylines are endless. Walking through the oeuvre of Cho, I imagine her pictures of houses being the result of weeks of location scouting. Her photo-reliefs are being inventive ways to create absence or voids and unusual perspectives that come in handy for later filming and lighting. The figures in her paintings are possible actors, extras or doubles. Unquestionably, Cho’s works are as mysterious and introverted as the paintings of the Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, another historically significant artist often praised for the filmic and theatrical qualities in his work. Jenny Cho reaches that excellence in her work effortlessly. Faithful to a traditional painting style and correctly applying the rules of perspective, Cho creates strong images that challenge our experience and knowledge of our perceived world. While Cho’s choice of subjects is personal, her images present a sense of shared community. Her paintings have an appeal that is familiar to us and that speaks to our personal environments. Think about the couple sitting (posing) in the living room, but also about the three men around a table and the group of picknickers scattered on a field of green grass. When there is action in Cho’s paintings, it is passive action. Apart from the title of each work, she doesn’t allow unnecessary distraction from the stillness, perfection and serenity of the image. Her decisive staging is omnipresent.


Through the Eyes of the Others

Jenny Cho’s subtitle of her solo exhibition “In-Between” could sound like an escape route away from the prominent position each artist often claims in relation to contextualizing his or her body of work. Modestly, by taking a step aside, Cho allows the work to work without her further interference or guidance. Nevertheless, Through the Eyes of the Others is not the closing stage of her exhibition, but the beginning of a new, adventurous phase of “In-Between.” Cho welcomes what she can’t possibly grasp: the experience and the interpretation of the other, which is always different, everywhere and all the time. While in this stage, the artwork completes its modest mission: to capture the viewer’s attention and to move him with its introverted and mysterious qualities. When that happens, when that moment of fascination and engagement takes place, all further words are obsolete. 




Jan Van Woensel is an independent curator, critic, publisher and musician based in Brussels, Belgium. Edited by Vanessa Albury.