Exhibition Essay by Hyunjee Nicole Kim

iris yirei hu, Survival Guide: joy

by Hyunjee Nicole Kim

Even though the exhibition Survival Guide: joy has been installed for more than a month, the smell of fresh paint still pervades Visitor Welcome Center. A vivid cobalt covers the walls, the floor, and the ceiling of the larger of the two rooms. The same rich blue is painted on all four walls of the smaller adjacent space, but a paler azure is applied to the ceiling. In her artwork the sky, the sun, and the earth are evoked in all their forms and states, as the artist iris yirei hu creates a comprehensive mythology in memory of her late friend emi kuriyama.

hu’s sonogram (2017) partially covers a large window, allowing the occasional shaft of radiant California light to enter the gallery. Upon a rectangular gradient, a curved trapezoidal form stages a dynamic scene with several characters, including a hybrid woman-phoenix who dons a pair of flaming wings. Lunar New Year ushered in the Year of the Fire Cock, celebrating an animal that is “in charge of time.” Crowing at dawn to wake the masses, the rooster keeps its rounds and marks new beginnings. Like the phoenix, the fire cock engenders a cycle of renewal: grief, mourning, and life.

In Survival Guide: joy, hu crafts folklore from writings and images shared between the two friends. Photographs that kuriyama sent from her time in New Mexico are incorporated into the works as subjects, both symbolically and physically overlapped and connected. hu scatters jagged lightning bolts, endless black asphalt highways, and red blazing desertscapes across the hanging tapestries. A James Baldwin with his own set of flaming wings flies across i eat your body and drink your blood (2017). A large circular painting is mounted on one wall, portraying a sunset.

A thin braided rope of red floral fabric is looped through sonogram and, progressively growing fatter, connects with both i eat your body and placenta (2017), a quilted oval rug that rests in the center of the room. On my visit, a friend of hu’s curled up on placenta and spent time contemplating her surroundings, occasionally closing her eyes. There is a ritualistic intensity in the creation of fabric works, and the sewing, basting, tying, and braiding are imbued with the physical labor required of such production. placenta reminded me—though not stylistically—of the hand-stitched and hand-stuffed silk blankets that my grandmothers made to survive several generations.

A gritty tangerine and violet Koreatown sunset descended behind me as I listened to the ambient music by Chatori Shimizu through a pair of hot-pink headphones. Oscillating currents of deep strings were overlaid with tinnier sounds, like wandering radio waves that somehow made it into the desert. The track was paired with The Morning (2017), a painting that depicted a sunrise sinking into the horizon line, a thin strip of hills and valleys against an expanse of pale blue, white, yellow, and pink hues. Comparatively spare in relation to the larger gallery, this room also featured a large simple burlap tapestry surviv|all (2017) with a poem by kuriyama stitched in white block letters. hu’s writing is also embroidered into her work. peanut butter poem (2017) is a silken periwinkle textile pinned above the entrance to the gallery, reading, “peanut butter tongue tell me a story.” The thick, sticky words barely escape the mouth.

In Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, the protagonist Jude dreamily observes of his friends: “He experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with the other people he loved.” Despite the inherent cronyism and wearisome pandering of the art world, genuine bonds and kinships do reify across tired networks. A two-person exhibition at the neighboring Commonwealth & Council in 2014 between hu and Visitor Welcome Center’s David Bell marked the beginning of an organic web of friends collaborating and thinking of how their personal mythologies intersect. The artist laub’s autumn show with Sarita Dougherty at Visitor Welcome Center was also dedicated to kuriyama, and featured a poem that hu had written. A purple textile hanging in the office of the gallery is an ongoing work-in-progress by laub and hu: a living monument to a dear friend that catches the dust of memory and absorbs the constant change of light as the sun comes up and goes down, another day passing.

To read more from Hyunjee Nicole Kim (click here)