projecting paradise

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Beguiling and bedazzling, grounded in the landscape of Southern California, but tethered to the gauzy realm of the imagination, Won Ju Lim’s multi-layered artworks are not really about utopia, nor for that matter are they about dystopia. They are neither so starry-eyed nor so cynical. But they do obliquely address those longings for the ideal of an idyllic modern paradise that California has come to represent. Employing ordinary, even banal materials, Lim’s works conjure shimmering dreamscapes, in which the built landscape of Southern California is grafted onto the idealized terrain of the imagination and transformed into something at once chintzy and sublime. Yet even as they invoke a tangible sense of longing, her installations also eloquently depict just how elusive, gaudy, shallow, unreal, and precarious those visions of paradise really are.

Lim’s works make no pretense to verisimilitude. Exuding an aura of playful wonder, they suggest the set for a science fiction film Le Corbusier might have designed had he grown up on the West Coast (and worked as a manager at Staples). Highly tactile and often brilliantly colorful, her installations are also-through the use of translucence, reflectivity, and video projection -deliberately mysterious. Glittering and elusive, Lim’s works exude the dreamlike insistence of a beckoning mirage. Which is perhaps the source of their emotive power. While seemingly inspired by the physical and psychological landscape of Southern California, ultimately Lim’s works are more about our projected longings than about reality itself.

Always prolific, this past autumn, Lim has been especially active. An exhibition at the Claremont Museum of Art entitled “Ephemeral: Explorations in Light” prominently featured her work Elysian Field from 2001. Meanwhile, in October 2007 she had her fourth solo show at Patrick Painter Gallery in Santa Monica. Spread out between the gallery’s two separate spaces, it was really almost two separate shows. The West Gallery contained a new multi-media installation titled Ruined Traces, while the East Gallery display, called Broken Landscape, featured several discrete sculptural pieces and a body of found amateur landscape paintings, which the artist then carefully fragmented and reassembled using push pins. In all these works, Lim’s playfulness and inventiveness-both conceptual and material-are clearly apparent, as is her fascination with the interaction of the natural and man-made environment, and the inner realm of the imagination.

“The landscape’s very California to me,” Lim says of the sculpted fragments in her latest show. “When I look out my window, I see these kind of scenarios: rolling hills, flickering lights, sepia skies…”

Born in Korea, Lim came over to the U.S. when she was 8; she has since lived around L.A. for almost all her life, receiving her MFA from Art Center in Pasadena in 1998 (she currently works out of a studio in Highland Park). Since then, she has shown consistently, in such far-flung venues as the Hammer Museum’s exhibit “Snapshot: New Art From Los Angeles;” the Münster Sculpture Biennial in Germany; and the 2002 Gwangju Biennale in Korea.

Her early works-including Longing for Wilmington (2000), Elysian Field (2001), and California Dreamin’ (2002), which she dubs her ‘futuristic ruins’-share numerous points in common, not the least of it being their sheer sense of spectacle married to inexpensive yet seductive materials. Longing for Wilmington features a central structure resembling a model city composed of dozens of modular elements made of white foamcore and colored Plexiglas stacked atop each other to evoke a series of low-rise modernist residential towers. On closer inspection, these units can be seen to depict floor plans of suburban dream homes of the sort laid out by the thousands across so much of the West. Arranged atop each other and on their sides, they form a sprawling labyrinthine complex made all the richer by the colored Plexiglas, which shifts from creamy white to dark translucent red and pale smoky blue. Uniting these disparate elements are video projections of spangled smokestacks and oil refineries recalling the sort of real-world vistas one sees off the 101 and 405 freeways in Orange County or the sort of near-future scenario presented so effectively in Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction epic “Blade Runner.” Bathing the entire room in eerie light, these projections also incorporate the presence of the viewer, making him or her a participant in the diorama: a tentative giant bestriding a looming futuristic horizon.

In Elysian Field-the title is a nod to both the mythical Valhalla and the Los Angeles parkland where Dodger Stadium was built-little modern desk lamps placed around the large horizontal installation create surprising moments of intimacy while multiple projectors immerse the work in a veil of industrial mystery. The colors-white, purple, tangerine-lend the work a jewel-like beauty. California Dreamin’ is the most unapologetically upbeat of the three. With a spread-out sculptural ‘downtown’ dotted with prominent translucent forest-green and lemon-yellow Plexiglas units, the work features a soothing video overlay of postcard-ready views of palm trees at sunset. With their colorful shadows integrated into the projected imagery on the walls, the miniature architectures blend into the background, creating the illusion of a low-tech video trompe l’oeil. The result is an ethereal model of an inviting near-future oasis: the sort of display one could almost imagine the California Tourism Board trotting out as propaganda. In fact, the sense of longing in the work was not feigned: Lim created the work while she was living in Berlin in 2000, during a time that she felt palpably homesick for Southern California.

Not all of Lim’s works are unique to California; for instance, Elysian Field North (2002), created for an exhibition in Vancouver, includes what appears to be a deliberately cool Pacific Northwest palette, with dark green and blue Plexiglas towers; a sister work, Elysian Field South (2002), was conceived for display in Mexico City. A set of monochromatic works continue her exploration of metaphorical form and color: in Ruby (2001), the translucent burgundy Plexiglas gives the work a brooding, blood-rich quality; Blue (2003) plumbs suggestions of oceanic depths; while Emerald (2003) alludes to the fantastical city in “The Wizard of Oz.”

In their alluring evocation of cut-rate spectacle, all these works have enormous appeal and dynamism: It’s hard to resist the quirky blend of Robert Moses-type ambition, post-modern sculptural panache, and homemade diorama-building fervor. Yet despite her architectonic rigor, in the nine years since she got her MFA, she has continued to explore new techniques and strategies, allowing her imagination free reign. “I get really bored, really restless, working on a single body of work,” she explains. “I start breaking off, and that leads to something else. In just the last few years, I discovered that about myself, that’s how I work: breaking off, and coming back…”

In 2005, Lim broke out of the rectilinear box she had built for herself with a series of Plexiglas works that were all about line and gesture, resembling the traces of colored flashlights swirled through space, or the guts of unspooled cassettes, creating a giddy roller-coaster ride for the eyes. She has also built various light boxes. In her “Kiss” series from 2005, rectangular slabs jut from the wall in Judd-like simplicity, containing translucent elements so that their refracted colors interact wit
h each other in glowing grids that seem to draw at once from Mondrian, Josef Albers, quotidian floor plans and ’70s home decor. They are lovely works, shifting between two and three dimensions, fragmenting blunt Minimalist shelves into hovering scrims of nuanced colored light. (In a TV interview, comedian Jerry Seinfeld once described the color green as “blue’s friend.” In Lim’s work, such diverse colors as yellow, green and lavender become more than friends, they are intimates who steadfastly balance and merge with each other.)

If these works seem to parse out architectural fragments into their abstract building blocks, Lim’s “Memory Palace” series, from 2003- 2004, employs the light box idea to very different effect. In these works, the artist appropriates actual pictorial elements from architectural history-colonnades, winding stairwells, vaults and domes, Moorish arches, wrought-iron gateways, even silhouetted trees-cutting and pasting between these snippets of Baroque DNA, composing them into illuminated rectangular collages. Like her installations, these works too feel like shadow theaters: hauntingly exotic stage sets for the interplay of architectural and emotional space, and for the projection of memory and imagination. Although partly inspired by such grand European cities as Vienna, Prague and Rome, Lim deliberately allowed her own faulty recollections of these larger-than-life cities to inflect her rendering of them.

Given Lim’s fascination with conjuring architectural fantasy, it is worth noting that the literary sources she cites in discussing her work are no more conscribed by the limits of mundane reality. Among those works are Italo Calvino’s poetic “Invisible Cities,” in which the traveler Marco Polo concocts descriptions of astonishing societies to amuse the emperor Kublai Khan (categories in the book include such topics as “Cities And Memory” and “Cities And Desire”). More immediately, Lim’s works draw inspiration from the “Memory Palaces” proposed in the writings of the 16th century Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who devised the idea of creating mental ‘memory palaces’ as a way of storing information, associating memories with imaginary spaces: essentially partitioning the hard drive of the human mind via virtual Gothic interior design. In their own tactile way, Lim’s works find in these writings rich historical precedent for the marriage of built architecture and the more poetic, ethereal world of emotion, memory, and imagination.

Another topic close to Lim’s heart is the concept of the Baroque. In particular, Lim’s work suggests the seriality of Baroque interiors, the shifts of scale, and, most importantly, the use of multiple perspectives, which to Lim implies a sense of constant flux and movement as one passes through a space and the spaces in turn overlap and compete with each other. In Lim’s own installations, viewers likewise are not given a single perspective but rather are lured into a series of mysterious, multiple, illusory or overlapping spaces they must navigate individually.

As one example of the sort of contemporary spaces that intrigue her in real life she cites the L.A. region’s vast, gaudy shopping malls and their interiors, places like “South Coast Plaza, Horton Plaza, Ikea…in which, spatially, you as a viewer can project yourself in multiple places. With all the reflective materials used, the glamorous materials, the cavernous spaces… It’s not a Cartesian space any more,” she observes. “I think Baroque architecture has that in common.” Indeed, Lim’s newer works do prompt an odd sensory jolt to a glitzy department store: landscape fragments dotted with homes are encased in Plexiglas vitrines, and one ambles among them like a consumer shopping for a slab of the good life. Even if the good life she depicts often has a visibly raw, hollow or unstable underlayer.

In Many Things To Come, created for the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 2006, is perhaps Lim’s most distressed work to date. In this work, slices of steep mountainsides dotted with little model homes are encased in vertical, yellow Plexiglas. Walking around them, one sees these slopes to be hollow shells made of poured, oozy gauze and plaster. Large ragged dunes made from papier-mâché and crumpled aluminum foil rise between them, amid rough-hewn reefs, drenched by video imagery of iconic Hawaiian scenery. Conflating the idea of tourism with the production of trash, and setting it all in a ticky-tack frame, the work is uncomfortably stark and raw. It is also a shift in that Lim presents actual models, with backs and fronts, instead of mere symbolic abstractions. (“It’s the first time I addressed issues of materials that lie,” she explains).

In Ruined Traces, her recent installation at Patrick Painter, the artist offered five vertical vitrines, containing makeshift mountainsides dotted with daintily eclectic homesteads, encased in blue Plexiglas. Potted plants adorn the gallery floor, while videos of forest views drape the room in verdant artifice. These shots-spanning from close-ups of leaves to sweeping long shots-are constantly dissolving, moving and shifting, like elusive memories, lending the static works a sense of ongoing cinematic motion. Using these video projections to create spatial illusions, to envelope the viewer in fictional worlds, and to tap into the collective unconscious, Lim imbues her work with a highly cinematic sensibility that is also, in its own way, very L.A.

The second half of the show, called “Broken Landscape”, included several simulated hillsides displayed in yellow Plexiglas vitrines or set out bluntly on tabletops. Dabbed with little houses and spongy green trees from the front, from behind these hills become messy caverns of drippy white, pink and orange. Revealing their own falsity, they resemble open wounds, suggesting the raw hollow shell underlying the veneer of paradise. In one arresting work, Untitled (Pepto Bismol) (2007), the artist presents a gloppy rectangle of poured violent-pink plaster beneath which model treetops barely protrude as if the earth has regurgitated a tsunami-wave of bright toxic sludge. And yet, they are also oddly beautiful, with a candy-colored exuberance that belies their dark imagery. The series “Broken Landscapes” features a series of garage-sale-style landscape paintings, which the artist has rather obsessively cut up and remounted with push pins to create a set of frenetic, fragmentary views of pastoralia.

In all these works, Lim flirts with the romantic notion of paradise, yet simultaneously undermines it, revealing it to be unstable, hollow, garish, precarious, or naive. In an age when vast walls of fire spreading across Southern California can force evacuations from lone canyon homesteads and vast suburban tracts alike, when mudslides and earthquakes can literally pull the ground out from under the Arcadian dream, that sort of vision has unusual resonance. In reality, the landscape we inhabit here is one of malls and suburbia, oil refineries and raw rugged nature; and yet California itself remains a scrim for the projection of America’s collective fantasies. That Lim’s vision manages to encompass so many of these complexities, and yet remain so persuasive and seductive, is in itself an impressive feat.

Another source Won Ju Lim cites avidly is a story promulgated by the Spaniard Garcia Ordoñez de Montalvo, centuries ago, who in the first invocation of the term ‘California’ described it as an island governed by women and caked with gold. “It’s totally a projection,” she says. “But that’s exactly what really interested me.” day, California remains an American dream factory, not just a state but a state of mind, where reality and fantasy coexist daily. It is i
n this terrain that Won Ju Lim lives and works. As Lim’s haunting work suggests, it’s where we live as well.

front cover photo and article photo: Fredrik Nilsen