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The Psychedelic & the Tangible: The Paintings of Se Jong Cho

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As a child in elementary school in South Korea, Se Jong Cho witnessed a total eclipse, an experience she remembers vaguely but not with the same propulsive wonder that she saw the partial eclipse in 2017. Now a decorated scientist, Cho viewed that more recent eclipse with fresh eyes. Trained in observation-based earth sciences, Cho instinctively views all natural phenomena in great detail. The moment of an eclipse suddenly and dramatically reduces the way sunlight is cast on the earth, as only part of the planet is receiving solar radiation. Cho explains that moment a few years ago “really transported me out of this world and I was just filled with awe.”

It’s that wonder that has informed her latest body of work, Eclipse: Infinite Ending, which opened this spring at Catalyst Contemporary in Mount Vernon. This exhibition, which closed May 22, was timed to coincide with the vernal equinox, and Cho’s theme of the return of the light after a solar eclipse feels like an apt re-emergence of in-person exhibitions and limited-capacity gatherings as we enter what is hopefully the later stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the natural curiosity of a scientist, Cho laughs that she “gets inspired by everything.” She describes herself as a convergence of art and science, an artist and environmental scientist who wants to blur the boundaries between her fields through her compelling acrylic paintings.

 

Se Jong Cho, Sunset Model, 2015 (detail)

Cho began painting in 2013 as a method to “get away from my quantitative analysis” and shake off the frustrations of the slow pace of research-based scientific progress. The result was a different way of thinking that runs alongside her transdisciplinary career, in which she brings together the social and natural sciences to better inform farmers and policymakers about water quality and environmental issues. She sees her painting brain as a quieter one, a place of contemplation with room for distilling the many texts she reads on a regular basis, her inner and outer life, and drawn perspectives both warped and real.

The acrylic paintings in her Catalyst show range in size and are paired with a window installation consisting of paper butterflies encased in glass that alludes to the artist’s science background. In the eclipse works, Cho combines florals that feel textural with different moments of the eclipse which she renders very flatly. This series is at once a departure from her past exhibitions—which featured perspectival shifts and nudes in disorienting interiors—and utterly in step with what we might expect from her. Consistent with past paintings is her use of color, application of paint, and the domination of repeated geometry, in this instance the circle, representing the eclipse.

 

Se Jong Cho with Butterfly and Moth Collection, 2020-2021, watercolor on paper and insect pins
Se Jong Cho, Sun with Columns (Light Box Painting), 2017, Acrylic on canvas, LED bulb, wood

Brian Miller, who opened Catalyst Contemporary in 2019, says that Cho’s style is playful and highly recognizable for its color palette and brushwork. Miller, who’s also the co-owner of Old Goucher’s long-established Full Circle Fine Art Services, believes it is important to support the development of an artist’s practice over time, so Catalyst offers its selected artists the traditional model of representation, a rarity in Baltimore. The finances the gallery can provide are foundational, he says, emphasizing that his main goal is supporting an artist’s entire career so they can make their work.

Beyond Cho’s aesthetic choices, Miller says it’s her “absolute passion for the natural world, whether it’s botanicals or metaphysical concepts” that sets her apart. He asserts that her paintings address the “connection between macro and micro, cosmic and terrestrial, the human body and the natural body.” What Miller calls the “irrational juxtapositions” of Cho’s canvases have a “psychedelic” bent to them, in which she arranges disparate elements such as female nudes, bathroom fixtures, and landscape elements in a “Tron-like graph world that is about the cosmos.”

 

Se Jong Cho, Eclipse Box (Inside): Partial (detail), Acrylic on canvas
Installation view of Se Jong Cho, Eclipse: Infinite Ending at Catalyst Contemporary, spring 2021

For Catalyst curator Liz Faust, working with Cho has been a priority for some time because her work contains a unique tension that feels “not unsafe, not unsettling,” but offers “a really tantalizing look at these present realities.” Faust adds that Cho’s work is “surreal in the sense that everything is correct anatomically and structurally, but it has this enchanting tension in the imagery and a separation from reality, even though the items presented are things found in reality.” Cho creates another world on her canvases: a place the viewer wants to visit, if only in their minds. “It almost feels like I’m a deity looking down on an entire world that’s been isolated and contained within the 2-D plane,” Faust says.

Aptly enough, Cho considers her paintings to be a “catalyst for retelling memories,” with the result perhaps “telling an entirely new story than I had intended.” These painted fictions are the polar opposite of the facts she derives from her scientific work, and yet she reiterates that her background as a researcher and observer makes her a better artist. “I realized, as a scientist, I keep hitting the limits of how I can make change in the world,” she says. “I think, through painting, I’m cultivating a platform to tell a story to a larger body of people and reach deeper into the people because the knowledge that I gather, the facts I gather, are superficial. But the stories that I can tell with painting can go even deeper.” This allows viewers to draw their own conclusions from the collision of symbols, geometry, and color.

 

Brian Miller, Se Jong Cho, Liz Faust at Catalyst Contemporary
Se Jong Cho, Sunset Model, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, LED bulb, wood

Having taken only a couple of painting classes, Cho considers her artistic training limited and points out that much of what she knows about the art world, its characters, and its history she has learned from reading the New York Times, the New Yorker, and lots and lots of books. She draws inspiration from such texts “because I realize that I exist in this continuum of all these great people. I’m just adding my narratives into my story, into that continuum of human existence.”

Two particular narratives she drew inspiration from to create these new works are those of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, a botanical illustrator and mystic, and Georgia O’Keeffe, arguably the best-known painter of flowers of the last hundred years. Seeing af Klint’s blockbuster show at the Guggenheim in 2018 was a lesson for Cho in repetition and the blurring of representation and abstraction, which blew her away completely. Cho remembers reading a letter O’Keeffe wrote to her friend and confidant, Mary Cabot, in 1941 about looking down from an airplane and watching the landscape turn into a “tapestry of colors in abstraction.” In these new paintings, Cho sought to “harness both those visions by O’Keeffe and af Klint [and] bring them together on my canvas in my own terms.”

In the prime of her life, Cho knows that her age informs her work as well as her ease with making it. “When I was younger, I was just filled with anxiety all the time,” she says. “But now I know if I face a problem or challenges . . . I have tools to solve them. I’m getting older; I can approach life with more comfort. And I think that’s another reason maybe that comfort permeates through my painting, because I’ve become an older and wiser person.”

 

Se Jong Cho, watercolor butterflies
Se Jong Cho, Eclipse: Infinite Ending at Catalyst Contemporary, spring 2021

This story is from Issue 11: Comfort,

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