Jiwon Rhie: Error Range
16 Orchard Street, New York, NY 10002
March 1 – March 12, 2023
Along the wall at Chinatown Soup hangs Self Identified, 2023, a group of Jiwon Rhie’s bra sculptures sewn from custom digitally printed fabric showing photographic representations of her life. Included are locks of her hair in different colors, her many student ID cards, losing lottery tickets, a notice that her visa application needed further scrutiny (“Additional processing review is required”), and customs forms that accompanied care packages her mom sent from Korea. It’s as if items from her suitcase or bureau found her underwear and left their image on it.
These sculptures seem to say, “You might want to dress and undress without the intimate reminder that you’re always yourself, the result of your accumulated choices,” but ultimately they remind us that there’s no way around it. If the artist wore a bra like this, she’d look down or look in the mirror and be reminded of her past. Life is like a childhood scrapbook or bulletin board reappearing where you don’t necessarily want it—against your skin, part of what defines you but also contains you or reveals more than you want, even when you try to strike out, cover-up, or blend in. These bras could be cages. According to Rhie, bras are basically mandatory for women in Korea. A woman not wearing a bra is considered immoderate or crazy, a scandal. The artist explained to me on a recent studio visit, “Even after living in New York for six years, I can’t imagine I wouldn’t wear a bra because that’s how I was educated in Korea.”
Rhie describes herself as a good girl. She says at first she was mostly easy to raise. Up to a point, she didn’t make a lot of mistakes. “My mother wanted me to marry early,” she says, “find a rich husband, paint as a hobby, have kids, and raise them in a sweet home. But, I didn’t. I wanted to come to New York to be a good artist.”
On her first trip to New York, Rhie responded to emotionally tormented works by Louise Bourgeois she saw in museums. “I loved Bourgeois right away,” she confides. “Now it’s fine, but I had a very difficult time with my father—so many conflicts and misunderstandings. I love him very much. Even before I read Bourgeois’ writing, I sensed [her work] was about her family, her life, her anxiety, and depression.”
Like Bourgeois’ abstract symbolist sculptures and drawings, Rhie’s works enlist an aspect of what is around them to produce fractured, psychologically suggestive images and disjunctures that might encourage empathy. An untitled sculpture by Bourgeois from 1997 shows a house dress hanging from an upturned, worn push broom. The broom head takes the place of a hanger or shoulders. There is a cautious, slight foot where you would usually hold a broom to sweep. In Rhie’s new work, Everyone is wearing a bra, 2023, up front at Chinatown Soup, you can look into a mirror and see a bra with your reflection. Rhie says, “I imagined a man who doesn’t often express his feelings—for example, my father—looking at my work, and it creates the image of him wearing a bra.”
Towards the back of the gallery at Chinatown Soup, a sensor triggers a motor to open and close a window blind hanging in a metal frame—another of Rhie’s mirror works, Mirror Blind (Conscious Consciousness), 2018. The slats of the blind are both mirrored and see-through. Looking at the sculpture, you can contemplate a striated, shifting, transparent reflection of yourself intermixed with what is on the other side. When we discussed this work in her studio, Rhie compared the viewer’s experience to her own. “I exist as myself,” she explained, “and I exist as a product of the world, of my education, of the culture.” In her writing, Rhie refers to the extent to which “we are always conscious of others, of someone else’s perspective.” For her, the Venetian blind is not just a window covering. It becomes a site of amalgamation, intensely personal in origin and relational in the gallery. All of her sculptures—with mirrors and without—have an agglomerative, multiplying, and disorienting effect.
In one of Rhie’s early works, circa 2011-2012, not included in the exhibition at Chinatown Soup, she stitched the outlines of nude women onto a canvas. Two women sit across from each other, nearly mirror images. They raise convivial cups filled with steaming liquid. Their heads are missing. Their torsos have transformed into faces. Nipples resemble eyes. Belly buttons stand in for mouths. Think here of Man Ray’s Minotaur, 1934, a surrealist photograph of a nude woman, her head lost in shadow. For Man Ray, the woman’s raised arms shift into horns, and her nipples too turn into eyes. In Rhie’s body of work as a whole, the figure—and by extension, self—ranges from monstrous to contained to free, depending, of course, on your perspective.