Joo Lee Kang works with ink. She creates portraits of animals: incredibly detailed, Audubon- or Durer-like. They’re so precious and — dare I say? — cuddly that you want to pet them. It’s not the medium that’s unique here: ink has been around for centuries. Nor is it the subject matter. Animals rendered in ink have figured as subject matter since at least the time of ancient Greece and before that, in caves. What’s unique is that Kang uses a ballpoint pen to transport the ink to the paper. Here, a pen by any other name- Biro, Bic — would work as well.
Born in South Korea and educated in Boston, Kang’s point of view is urban. That doesn’t necessarily explain the subject matter but it does explain the compositions. From a distance these menageries are lyrical if not ornamental. Some are called “Festoons,” “Wreaths,” and “Bouquets” If you didn’t know better, you’d say they looked like Victorian wallpaper.
But you do know better, on closer examination. For one thing, the animals may appear to be aw-shucks Instagram-able. In fact, some of them are mutants. Co-joined squirrels, six-legged pigs and two-headed turtles: they co-mingle with their fresh-off-the-Ark colleagues. They go about their business, oblivious to the fact that they’re the product of either some environmental disaster or else a genetic experiment gone awry. For another thing, these portraits sometimes form part of an installation. Upon portraits she puts directly on the wall, Kang hangs framed ones. Off to the side, she places crumbled paper sculptures that resemble diabolical aeries. These nests don’t only contribute to the verisimilitude of the piece. They also suggest a looming environmental/genetic disaster. Interestingly, these sculptures go by the name of “Chaos.” If this work doesn’t serve as a cautionary tale, then nothing will.