After years of practicing realistic portraiture, Korean-born artist Shin Young An decided it was time for a change. Her work was once focused on depicting her subject as faithfully and realistically as possible. She now moves beyond the surface and aims to engage politically with the viewer and motivate introspection, even action.
Still maintaining elements of her previous style, An portrays photorealistic hands and feet engaging in everyday activities. She paints them over a background of newspapers reporting on current world events. Two hands pick apart a garlic clove over headlines about the Taliban. A hand gives her feet a pedicure as they rest atop news about conflict between North and South Korea.
Some of her subjects — whose identities are always wholly out of reach — engage more with their backdrops. Hands scroll down Osama Bin Laden’s face on a smartphone. They light red candles, perhaps to summon good luck during a difficult time. However, An’s subjects are still aloof. The world’s suffering is ever-present on the newspapers in the background. With this depiction, An criticizes the average person’s indifference, but she does so with a note of understanding. She depicts her subjects at peace, quietly clipping their toenails or indulging in a slice of pie. It is, of course, easier to carry on this way than to enter the turmoil.
Her latest work follows a similar theme, but the action she places into our awareness is not a mundane task. It is instead the very act of looking at her art. The actor is not the person behind the hand or foot, but is us, the viewers. When we look at her work Peace? from afar, it appears as an abstract and colorful peace sign, a pleasant and uncomplicated image. As we move closer, however, the details emerge. The red center is really a candle. The blue circle is a teardrop in the shape of a question mark. The purple circle is traced by photographs of dead soldiers. An directly — and somewhat uncomfortably — commands our self-reflection.