- "Gooble, Gobble"
Mie Yim's paintings are indisputably strange. Some observers would add, "in a good way." Others might not be so sure. The candy colors and soft-focus biomorphic forms are playfully appealing, like stuffed animals or cartoon characters. But their large, glossy black eyes, appearing singly rather than in pairs, creep you right the heck out. When you look at a Yim painting, the painting looks back.
Brattleboro Museum & Art Center currently hosts a dozen large-scale paintings and nine smaller "Quarantine Drawings" by the South Korea-born, New York City-based artist. Yim created most of these works in recent years, and her imagery could be said to reflect a time of pandemic dystopia. But, as her website reveals, Yim was on this trajectory well before COVID-19 sent us all scurrying for cover.
"Yim is clearly comfortable with discomfort," Sarah Freeman writes in her curator statement. Indeed. In this exhibition, titled "Fluid Boundaries," the artist's flux between abstraction and figuration — as well as among realms of her fecund imagination — can leave the viewer "uncertain and off balance," Freeman adds.
A few older paintings included in the show indicate Yim's previous preoccupation with cuter — if subliminally dark — subjects. "Puppet Bunny," from 2004, is a 41-by-52-inch pastel-and-acrylic-on-paper composition in a myopic blur. A fantastical, multicolored island hovers in a purple void. At one end of the island, a plush bluish-white dog with black ears stands on hind legs and holds the titular rabbit à la Charlie McCarthy. Both creatures stare at the viewer from pinprick-tiny eyes. If a cry for help could be adorable, this is it.
- "Quarantine Drawing 172"
"Janus," a 20-by-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 outsize doe eye and sort-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," an oil on canvas from 2013, has a similar impact. Here, a creature shaped like a gingerbread man has one big black eye and a shrub-like spill of green "hair." Two "ears" — one large, one stubby — rise like pink cacti from the top of the head. This critter's body is slashed with yellow paint in a waffle-like pattern. The background is sky blue and diaphanous white.
This painting marks a transition to Yim's newer works in another way: size. All of the post-2018 canvases in the Brattleboro exhibition are approximately six feet high. Needless to say, this scale is potent.
Two years before the pandemic, Yim painted "Crocodile Tears." It's a whopping 77 by 45 inches, and the content might be distasteful if you see in it repurposed intestines and misplaced teeth. But you might just see pink, green and yellow tubular shapes winding and weaving around in confounding, Escher-like fashion. Yim's soft focus gives this structure an ephemeral quality; strong horizontal bars seem to give it tensile strength.
A part of Yim's artist statement could refer to this painting: "I use shapes, lines and color that gel into metaphysical portraits of pathos, anxiety and pugnacious hilarity," she writes. "I layer soft edges like cotton balls against horizontal and vertical lines acting as scaffolding or skeletons."
In this oil painting and others, Yim assertively pushes her compositions to the edge of the picture plane. This gives them a sense of defiance, as if the normal rules of two dimensions were feeble constraints. This suggestible viewer imagined Yim's creations busting out after gallery hours; it's the kind of fantasy her mutant images evoke.
"Rorschach," painted this year, is easily the most alarming work and departs in style from Yim's fuzzier, more colorful forms. The 70-by-60-inch canvas depicts a celestial being defined by dashes of paint that look like electric emanations in the night sky. Except for the eyes — four of them. Here Yim opts for a pair logically sited in the being's head and another in a second, illusory face at torso level. These are human or animal eyes, with whites, that disturbingly seem to follow the viewer.
"Napalm" (2021) sounds bleak, but the 72-by-60-inch painting is more beauty than beast. Yim employs dots and energetic streaks of paint to depict fireworks. Below them, obsessive patterning emerges from a deep magenta field, and there might be a big eye peeking out from the 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 handmade 11-by-8.5-inch Shizen paper, are mostly dense, abstract exercises in surreal colors and "vegetal 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 head-wrapping thing that looks like a zucchini gone rogue. Yet it's a stretch to call this six-foot oil figurative. In "Fluid Boundaries," categories are inadequate; Yim's visual vocabulary is fiercely original.
"I embrace putting paint down intuitively," she writes. "Painting this way is like falling backward without a net."