By mashing up common cultural touchstones, South Korean-born artist Jiha Moon explores our national psyche 

American Jiha

American Jiha

Contemporary visual culture is the ultimate melting pot. It lumps together an assortment of images, slogans, brands and ideas that we unwittingly absorb until the blurred line between image and reality becomes the definition, not the regulator, of American identity. South Korean-born, Atlanta-based artist Jiha Moon navigates this chaotic system with a sophistication and familiarity that comes from a life spent straddling worlds. In her art it is possible to see the mirror image of everyday American life, crowded with ideas that swarm against each other with equal parts opposition and harmony.

Moon spoke with the Scene about how she used her experience as a navigator of contemporary culture to create the work in her exhibit at Cheekwood, Jiha Moon: Colliding Icons. She explained that in Korea there is no real cultural diversity, and everyone shares a common heritage. Upon moving to America, Moon became fascinated with finding out about the various cultures that are uniquely American, and "how one culture arrives in another country and blends in, becomes a hybrid." She was drawn to what she found in Amish markets and Korean-American grocery stores, places where race and ethnicities have become a kind of subculture under the larger umbrella of American identity.

"Big Pennsylvania Dutch Korean Painting I" exemplifies her style as harbinger of the new American identity. The painting is printed on hanji — traditional Korean paper handmade from mulberry trees — which has been cut in the shape of the handheld fans that are popular in Asian cultures. On its surface Moon has swirled Pennsylvania Dutch imagery, pop cultural signifiers and Korean text. Pennsylvania Dutch is the culture that grew around descendants of emigrants from southwestern Germany and Switzerland who settled in Pennsylvania in the 17th and 18th centuries to form a uniquely American culture — one that, as Moon described, began as a German-Swiss-Pennsylvanian hybrid, but blossomed into American tradition. In this painting, Pennsylvania Dutch symbols like the distelfink bird mingle with children's stickers, found embroideries and a sideways-smiling emoticon, and a large tie-dyed smiley face grins atop a lotus blossom. In works like this, Moon proposes that hybrid cultures are nothing new. In fact, the traditional mode of American cultures are based in such practices.

For all of its psychedelic qualities, there is an earnest cheeriness to the work. Moon does not comment on American society with a wink or an ironic detachment. She represents American culture with an enthusiasm that seems to define her as both an explorer of the world and its cartographer. Moon spoke with the exhibition's curator, Jochen Wierich, about her cross-cultural style. "I often talk about my work as cultural maps that are dealing with everyday life concerns," she said. "The images I use are commonly experienced. ... I make these icons less recognizable with many layers, and draw the audience into these weird positions where the images feel familiar, but they can't name them quickly. In this sense, the maps that I am building are more of a 'mindscape.' "

One such mindscape is "Butterfly Dream-Springfield," a long horizontal scene that incorporates ink, acrylic, fabric and embroidery patches, as if a rock had been rolled through a day in the life of an everyday American, then imprinted onto Moon's hanji paper with surreal insight. Above it all is the Chiquita banana lady, redrawn to have Georgia peaches and ocean waves tumbling out of her iconic headdress, as the MSN butterfly logo flutters among the painting's many butterflies. Among the cascades of brushstrokes you can find Marge Simpson's bouffant, and the jagged outline of Bart's silhouette. The familiar blue-and-yellow color palette transforms from atmospheric to cartoonish with the realization that the landscape painting is a representation of the Simpsons' hometown of Springfield, which has gained mythical status, and is here deconstructed and re-presented as a new definition of America. If America created its own gods, why wouldn't the Simpsons, Chiquita lady and MSN butterfly be some of the first to be sainted? And isn't it already kind of like that anyway?

These visually challenging worlds-within-worlds overpower the smaller pieces in the exhibit, which seem diminutive by comparison. The Temporary Contemporary space is difficult to curate, because it acts like a small gallery inside a large museum, and Wierich's task is a difficult one — to present work that's already as crowded as Moon's without crowding the space it inhabits. It's a good problem to have, like exhibiting Kara Walker's giant silhouettes alongside her sketches, but a problem nonetheless.

Moon makes art about America's image-laden culture that goes beyond simply combining the high with the low, the foreign with the domestic — she ignores such barriers entirely, as if they had never existed in the first place. And after sitting with her work, you might come to agree that there really isn't much difference between, say, The Simpsons and the Pennsylvania Dutch — they are both very real representations of America, presented without classification, like a forest that takes its identity from its gnarled oaks just as much as from its daisies.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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