In Melora Kuhn’s exhibition “The Edge of a Surface” in Seoul, Korea, the artist presents a series of new works which capture the moment of concurrence of different worlds — temporal, visual, psychical, historical — and the touching, blending, clashing of these separate yet coexisting realms. Kuhn’s paintings, sculpture and installation all seize upon the mystery and fragmented poetry of detail, which evoke an imagined whole that is present yet unknown.
The show is divided in two floors. On the upper floor, Kuhn uses and subverts the code of portraiture to explore the boundaries of inner versus outer, exterior versus interior, physical versus psychical aspects of a human being. Captain’s Daughter is a romantic portrait in rich colors of a young woman in an Ingres-esque gown, set against the black and white image of a shipwreck. Is the background a story from the subject’s past or a metaphor for her tempestuous inner state? The viewer is left to reconcile the juxtaposition of these two visual planes.
The imagination of the viewer and the artist play a central role in Kuhn’s work in this exhibition. The portraits are all based on “found photographs” — upon which Kuhn bases her color foreground figures. These figures are then set against a background, often black and white and often an image of disaster — shipwreck, hurricane, bombed out house — which adds a new layer to the “portrait” and at the same time overturns the conventions of portraiture where backgrounds are usually confined to serene landscapes and architecture. The inner life or history of the subject is imposed, and re-interpreted by the artist. Only the combination of these two visual worlds — stately figure and stormy background — can form a true portrait.
Kuhn takes her exploration of classical portraiture a step further in her installation of a 19th century photo booth, in which the artist interacts with the viewer, dresses the viewer/subject in costumes of her own design and stages a photograph. The final piece is based upon the constraints of random circumstances in a given moment, then submitted to the imagination and interpretation of the artist and then to that of the viewer.
The forest is another important metaphor for Kuhn of worlds touching and colliding. In the paintings, Crossing the Perimeter, and White Knight the lush image of foliage and entangled trees is again a portrait of tempestuous inner life, a place pregnant with possibility and mystery for a woman standing with her back turned, or the backside of a horse with a knight astride.
These fragments — the back of a woman, the rear view of a horse — are so evocative of what is hidden, what mystery lies ahead, that it is precisely the unshown that gives Kuhn’s work the dark and light magic of fairy tales. Kuhn uses fragments again and again, in a synecdoche, a part representing a whole that the viewer is left to complete. In Hand holding dress, a woman’s fingers hold her dress in a gesture of sexual suggestion, the lush fabric reflecting the light, adding depth to an otherwise simple act. Birdhouse reveals only the feet and red shoes of someone who is coming and going from one world, one psychical realm to another evocative of Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz.” From details, from fragments, an either lost or potential world emerges, as in the feet and hands of the sculpture of a woman lying on the floor, Fallen.
Finally, Kuhn’s paintings depicting the collisions of different layers of reality are unabashedly beautiful. The folds of a dress as complex as the waves of the ocean, the back of a woman’s neck as she crosses into the unknown of the forest, the full lips and dark eyes of a young man with bombs exploding around his head — all reveal the hidden poetry of inner and outer worlds precariously juxtaposed.