Time Between, Line Between
Essay for exhibition catalog
Jose Veronica Torres and Seongmin Yoo: Masters of Art in Studio Art Candidate Exhibition 2021
April 26 – May 28, 2021
University Library Gallery
California State University
44 pages, paperback, 9" x 7.5"
University Galleries, California State University, Sacramento (May 2021)
I believe that the fundamental building block of art across discipline and media is the essential mark of a line. The line can take many forms – from a painter marking a canvas with the stroke of a paintbrush, to a printmaker engraving a copper plate, to a choreographer sequencing gesture and movement through space, to a textile artist weaving weft threads in and out of warp threads, to a poet considering the line break on the page, to a composer transferring melodies in their head to notes on lined staff paper. One of the first gestural marks children make are lines. Drawn with a stick in the sand, markers on paper, chalk on the sidewalk, or crayons on a wall, the impulse to define space with line markings is a part of human nature. Lines add up to create structure, figures, compositions, and landscapes. Lines form shapes and bodies, creating vessels in which to situate how identity is constructed and carried forth into the world, and repeatedly reconstructed and adapted with the passage of time. The line is indispensable as both artistic method and conceptual strategy for communicating with others in the world.
We are inclined to perceive entire patterns and configurations, not merely individual components. We tend to see a table first, and subsequently the component parts delineated by lines in space: four table legs, a table top, side stretcher bars, the box apron. Gestaltism predicates that we need to organize what we see in order to make sense of the world. Popularly understood as “the whole is something else than the sum of its parts” (often incorrectly quoted as “more than”), gestalt theory can serve as both an empirical and lyrical lens to engage with the 2021 Masters of Art in Studio Art Candidate Exhibition installed in the Library Gallery at California State University, Sacramento by artists Jose Veronica Torres and Seongmin Yoo. Each artist employs similar tactics in working with material – accumulating and assembling, deconstructing and reconstructing, unweaving and wrapping – to assist in organizing individual parts into a whole that is something else than the sum of its parts. Vibrant, animated, and without hardly a straight line in sight, Veronica Torres’s and Yoo’s work in the gallery establishes a paused moment, an opportunity to observe gestures frozen in time and space, and a glance to deduce possible directional movements forward. What futures are created by such material reconstitution and which directions are they pointing toward?
The core of Veronica Torres’s and Yoo’s work is situated at the intersection of two areas of conceptual inquiry: the body and memory. Rooted in kindred sculpture and installation strategies, their work positions the body as an instrument and metaphor to generate an ever-shifting visual index and narrative of experience, retention, endurance, and ultimately transformation and growth. Serving as both a fundamental instrument of lived experience and a metaphor for the larger socio-political body that forms communities and countries, the human body is how we primarily navigate through the world. Both artists immigrated to the U.S., bringing with them volumes of life from a different time and space. For many, the fragmentation and dislocation of the immigrant experience is deeply felt on a corporeal level, as the body becomes a site where these experiences are intimately, and deeply, inscribed upon (oftentimes in a language that is worlds apart from one’s own native tongue). However, this is not to say that Veronica Torres’s and Yoo’s work be viewed reductively through the immigrant experience. We all embody the specific particularities of our own histories making each of us a unique configuration of experiences. The immigrant experience, although pivotal in fully understanding Veronica Torres’s and Yoo’s work, is neither deterministic nor definitive in how the work should be viewed. Rather it is another complex layer with which to consider the body as the primary vehicle for how we navigate through space and time.
Whereas Veronica Torres’s sculptures and installations evoke the human body through scale, gesture, and reference to biological forms that comprise the flesh and muscle of the body, Yoo’s sculptures and installations summon the body through repetition, movement, and residual evidence of calligraphic composition. The pursuit to determine present and future directions of how the body navigates through one’s own life and the world is a complex, sometimes never resolved negotiation with the past. However, the quest is one predicated on necessary survival, growth, and the ability to accurately live one’s truth. Embedded in the textile and organic material of Veronica Torres’s and Yoo’s work are deeply intimate stories of doubt and confusion, and ultimately shared chronicles of resilience, tenacity, and hope.
Veronica Torres’s and Yoo’s work also addresses the concept of memory and re-engaging with the past through reflections on the passage of time, the separation of space, and things left behind. At its best, memory serves as a record of past experience that can help guide future action and behavior. At its worst, memory can be malleable, corruptible, fleeting, and when we need it the most, frustratingly and embarrassingly out of reach. Memory exists on both a personal and collective level, and in many ways occupies an unique space that belongs neither completely to the past nor to the present. It tends to expand and flourish later in time, as the mind is given ample opportunity to calibrate and recalibrate emotions and thoughts connected to past experiences of places and people, smells and sounds, tastes and textures. Memories are never permanently fixed, they remain pliable and ever changing. This is even more so for communities of the global diaspora, who not only have time as a point of measurement, but also physical distance as an index of reference, often ranging thousands of miles.
Themes of isolation and connection loom prominently in Jose Veronica Torres’s work, deftly articulating an exploration of the tension that exists between states of being and becoming. Centered in the Library Gallery is a lone free-standing sculptural figure Tower (2021), composed out of deconstructed items of clothing, patterned fabric, and tree branches. Surrounding the human-height Tower on the adjacent walls are three sculptural works, Fruit, Crouching, and Mamona (all 2021), composed of similar materials and positioned in various poses aiming back to Tower. Each work, though physically isolated from each other and referencing different parts of the human body both explicitly and abstractly, focuses a gestural gaze towards Tower. This notion of focused gestures towards the lone figure speaks of connection and hope, how even in moments of isolation the opportunity for cultivating a sense of belonging and becoming part of something greater than oneself can still exist. The work takes on qualities that make us human – full of doubt, revulsion, and rejection, yet simultaneously full of assurance, beauty, and acceptance.
Veronica Torres’s use of tree branches in his sculptures and the literal compositional framing of a tree in the large video project Escarlata (2021) references a natural phenomenon that also provides a lens to better understand the conceptual choices Torres has made with these materials, both as sculptural object (such as Fruit) and as character focus (such as Escarlata), and also a narrative choice made with the positioning of these works throughout the Library Gallery. Veronica Torres references the annual phenomenon of large vaguely fruity-looking objects clinging to the branches and leaves of oak trees during the summer/early fall, commonly called oak apples or oak galls. These small balls are an occurrence caused when the oak tree reacts to non-stinging wasps laying their eggs on its leaves, branches, twigs, or flowers. These insects inject a hormone into the oak’s plant tissue, causing it to grow abnormally and enclose the developing wasp larvae, providing an ideal environment for incubating the larvae, whether a single offspring or dozens. The oak tree is in essence coaxed into generating large amounts of soft, pillowy tissue inside each apple or gall, on which the wasp larvae nourish themselves as they grow.
The natural phenomenon of oak galls is one that inhabits the push and pull balance between softness and disgust, cooperation and cooptation, agency and passivity, attraction and repulsion, interior and exterior. Veronica Torres captures this effectively in Escarlata, where the artist positions himself within high branches of an oak tree gesturing to the viewer that hovers between acceptance and invitation. The caressing motions of Torres’s hands on the tree, unexplainably clothed in saturated full arm-length pink gloves, simultaneously evokes comfort and apprehension, desire and disgust. Where does acceptance and rejection lie? Is rejection just a protection mechanism?
Veronica Torres’s exploration of the tension that exists between states of being and becoming parallels Seongmin Yoo’s search to find a meeting ground between her background as a traditionally trained Korean brush artist and recent experiences working in contemporary forms and ideas. Similarly, she seeks to define a visual vocabulary that ties together past to present, with an intent to identify a clearer path moving into the future. Whereas prior compositional methods were strategized and resolved on a two-dimensional surface, Yoo currently composes in three-dimensional space, creating works that infinitely evolve and shift depending on where the viewer positions themselves in relation to the work. These are works that have no defining moment or point of view. The intentional expanse of structured chaos is reflected in the titles of the works, all referencing the body – Breath, Meeting Eyes, Rising Voices (all 2021). This constantly shifting perspective buttresses what Yoo may also feel transitioning into a vibrant new practice after years of working within artistic and conceptual methods dictated by decades and centuries of tradition.
Yoo’s material choice and methodology of process are also indicative of embracing a position that doesn’t fully let go of tradition, yet embraces the possibilities of full deconstruction and reconstruction. She painstakingly unveils component parts of store-bought baskets by meticulously repurposing individual vines for future use, and then swaddling them each in layers of silk thread, known for its properties of strength, flexibility, and adaptability. This process demonstrates an artistic intuition to claim agency over how the past can continue to inform the present, yet be totally invisible to the eye. Reflected conceptually as well, Yoo’s decision to use the basket as a primary artistic material points to labor-intensive work traditionally done by women categorized as craft is often invisible to the eye – unrecognized and undervalued. She complicates whether the end of something, such as tradition, should be viewed as a mourning or rather as a celebration of a new beginning, even if yet undefined.
From the intriguing presentation of work by Jose Veronica Torres and Seongmin Yoo for the 2021 Masters of Art in Studio Art Candidate Exhibition at CSU Sacramento, I hope viewers can see that their works ultimately inhabit layers of meaning that supersedes the sum of its parts. By taking time to really look at how multiple lines congregate to form each of their respective bodies of work, we can fully consider how they all point to fundamental ideas of the body and memory.
Kevin B. Chen is an independent curator, visual artist, and educator. Currently serving as Resident Curator at San Francisco State University’s Fine Arts Gallery, he has curated projects for Headlands Center for the Arts, Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, and San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art amongst other institutions. His curatorial projects have been reviewed in Art in America, afterimage: the journal of media arts and cultural criticism, Sculpture Magazine, Art Papers, and New Art Examiner.