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Contemplative Paintings and pointed piercings at Gomez

Seognmin Ahn's "Meditation" is typical of the soothing works in her Gomez Gallery show.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 8/15/2001

Paintings by Seongmin Ahn, photographs by Andrew Dunbar

Seongmin Ahn, Andrew Dunbar

Gomez Gallery through Aug. 30

The international art world seemingly knows no boundaries. Many contemporary artists grow up in one country, move to another, and pick up cultural influences from all over. For an East-meets-West example, consider Seongmin Ahn, a Korean-born artist who received her master of fine arts degree from the Maryland Institute, College of Art this year.

In an artist's statement accompanying her exhibit at the Gomez Gallery, Ahn describes her paintings in terms of art that's conducive to Buddhist meditation: "I have been exposed to Buddhism throughout my life. I can still remember the scents in the Buddhist temple, and still see the silent monks who look to empty their mind while making monotonous sounds with their wooden gong. I think that it's in my heritage to look for silent peace within my subconscious, as monks do."

The exhibited result is a series titled "Meditation." Similarly colored and individually untitled, these abstract paintings quietly insist upon being seen as a contemplative ensemble. When I looked at them on a blastingly hot August afternoon, it wasn't just the gallery air conditioning that had me feeling cool and relaxed.

The work itself shows the influence of both traditional Asian and contemporary American art. These watercolor paintings are done on mulberry paper and rely on mostly pale shades of blue that wouldn't seem out of place in Asian landscape painting. The gently modulated blues make one piece look slightly different from the next, further reinforcing the sense of a meditative ensemble. By the same token, the shape and appearance of these paintings conjure up associations with such post-World War II American abstract-art movements as Color Field painting, with its all-over washes of color, and minimalism, with its spare geometric forms, mathematical rigor, and serial tendencies.

The overall effect is calm, orderly. The blues soak into the mulberry paper; there's no sense of brush stroke, much less of paint piling up on the surface. Many of the panels have either vertical or horizontal lines gently drawn upon their blue surfaces, again bringing to mind a contemporary American style of dividing pictorial space into precise, ordered units, an approach fans of minimalism view as conducive to contemplation. Ahn does give the paintings a sculptural dimension by affixing the sheets of paper to wooden panels that typically project a few inches out from the gallery wall. Contemporary artists ranging from Ellsworth Kelly to Elizabeth Murray have explored the possibilities of the shaped canvas, some exuberantly so, but--as you'd expect from a series called "Meditation"--Ahn's simple rectangles eschew any dramatic statement.

The mostly minor variations in shape, coloration, and configuration make for pleasing contemplation indeed, in the form of a single show. But one can't help wondering if it will be enough to sustain the artist in the long run. The world contains so many other shapes, colors, and emotional conditions also worth exploring.

For a cultural transition that might amount to culture shock for some viewers, the Gomez has paired Ahn's gentle paintings with Australian photographer Andrew Dunbar's exhibit of black-and-white shots focusing on body piercing. Dunbar clearly knows this is a charged and potentially distasteful subject for some people and, just as clearly, he tries to present it in an affirmative and even handsome manner.

Whether one admires or recoils from some of these piercings, they're definitely jewelry of a sort. Identified only by their first names, the nude male and female models are beautiful bodies expressing themselves though bodily adornment. Generally tight cropping calls our attention to how a plug covers a belly button here, a ring pierces a nipple there. Metalwork attached to genitalia makes you wonder what this particular model does when going through airport security.

Body piercing certainly qualifies as a lifestyle choice, a point Dunbar nails in photos like the one in which a man with a nail driven through one of his nipples holds a hammer that at least symbolically drove that spike into his body. You may not want to try this at home, but there's no harm looking--and Dunbar undoubtedly knows how to craft an attractive image. In fact, seeing creatively fabricated metal ornaments on bodies that are themselves ornamental seems like great promotion for the body-piercing industry.

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