"SYMBIOLAND," the title of Jiha Moon's exhibition at the Curator's Office, pretty much says it all. Suggesting not just the term symbiosis, which describes an interdependent relationship between two often disparate entities, but a rough fusion of the words "symbol" and "land," the name neatly sums up several of the artist's abiding interests.
Perhaps first and foremost, Moon is fascinated by the marriage of opposites -- represented by a stew of symbols drawn both from her native Korea and from Western pop culture, and delineated in an inventory of mark-making that spans both the quick spontaneity of painterly abstraction and slow, careful drawing of the draftsman. She is also a practitioner of that most retrograde of genres, the landscape, if only the kind of landscape that shape-shifts from vaporous to cartoonish in an instant, and whose effect on the mind is as inscrutable as it is seductive.
While the show at Curator's Office is small -- the "micro-gallery" is, quite literally, someone's office -- additional works by the artist can be seen at Creative Partners Gallery in a showcase of the 10 finalists for the Trawick Prize, a contemporary art contest in its third year, and whose $10,000 best in show prize was recently awarded to Moon. Juried by Olga Viso, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Thom Collins, director of Baltimore's Contemporary Museum; and independent curator Andrea Pollan (the curator of Curator's Office, as it happens), the Trawick Prize is a prestigious and well-deserved honor for a young artist whose work I have long admired and yet always approached with a mix of trepidation and curiosity.
Part of the reason is that Moon's works are slippery and dense. They resist easy analysis, yet hold the allure of the unknown. Like a jungle, they are overgrown with visual information: stormy cloud forms, ribbons and vinelike tendrils, branches and swirling brush strokes compete for prominence with trees and other vegetation. Rocky islands protrude from watery pools of color, along with flames, mythological beasts, PacMan figures and cutesy rainbow- and heart-shaped doodles lifted from the back of some middle school student's spiral notebook. For quasi-landscapes, they are confoundingly difficult to gain purchase on. What am I looking at? From what vantage point? And why?
That unsettling sense of mystery is deliberate, according to Moon, who abandoned her previous interest in figurative painting -- portraits being too "obvious," she says, too easy for the audience to "read" -- for the emotionally murkier territory of the psyche. While she describes her pictures as self-portraits of a kind (a not uncommon analogy for artists to make), they are also Rorschach tests of a sort, and function as much as mirrors into our souls as windows into hers.
To the extent that we recognize any of it, however, what we see is, as often as not, unpretty.
Or not conventionally pretty, at any rate. Moon's fusion of hot and cold tones, fast and slow marks, silly and serious iconography, representation and expressionism, tight lines and loose washes, flashes of volatile weather and chunks of terra firma, can add up to an explosive mix. Her art typically feels full-to-bursting, restless, busy, and sometimes seems to want to fly off the page. It can be, in a way, exhausting to look at.
Yet there is a kind of symbiosis, if not harmony, that results from this constant tension. Independent curator Lauren Ross, the former director of New York's White Columns gallery, which has shown Moon's work, writes for "Symbioland" that "the clashing of strange forces paradoxically can be familiar and comforting."
Personally, I wouldn't go that far. Nor do I think that the artist would find that description especially accurate. If she wanted her work to feel like an old armchair, I think she would have stuck with faces.
Rather, there seem to be miniature wars going on in each of Moon's pictures. Storms, explosions, bursts of smoke and energy arise right and left. Her images crackle with urgent static, beneath which the strains of sweetest music can be faintly heard.
As for what the ultimate reading of Moon's artworks may be, or what feelings they are meant to evoke, I remain convinced that, as with the language of dreams, the message is only discernable if you pay as close attention to the ugly distortion as you do to the beautiful tune.
SYMBIOLAND: WORKS BY JIHA MOON -- Through Oct. 15 at Curator's Office, 1515 14th St., Suite 201 (Metro: Dupont Circle). 202-387-1008. www.curatorsoffice.com. Open Wednesday-Saturday noon to 6. Free.
THE TRAWICK PRIZE: BETHESDA CONTEMPORARY ART AWARDS -- Through Sept. 30 at Creative Partners Gallery, 4600 East-West Hwy., Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda). 301-951-9441. www.bethesda.org/arts/trawick.htm. Open Tuesday-Saturday noon to 6. Free.