Trees reveal hidden aspects to an artist

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Trees reveal hidden aspects to an artist

Trees are revered in Korea. In ancient shamanism, they are the houses of spirits. In modern times, they are living creatures that nearly became extinct under the Japanese occupation and the Korean War.
President Park Chung Hee initiated a reforestation effort in the 1960s that turned trees into phoenixes, rising from the ashes of a desolate land. Seoul has three forested mountain parks in its center, the result of conservation. Trees have stories to tell in this city, and one artist is listening.
In “TreeSong,” Lori Medina, a poet, writer and painter from the Philippines, has produced a mixed-media exhibit showing an aspect of trees we rarely perceive. The works, which Medina calls “crafted photographs,” will be on display at Le Saint-Ex, the French bistro and gallery in Itaewon, from Sunday.
Ms. Medina has lived in Seoul for several years, working as a writer for UNICEF, and later for a couple of Korean agencies. She has also lived and worked in Bangladesh and in the United States.
She is now devoting herself to art, honing a new mixed-media form from the materials and subjects she finds here. She has walked around the city center, especially Yonhui-dong, Gwanghwamun and Dongyo-dong, near where she lives, and photographed the bark of Oriental plane trees, a relative of the American sycamore. Not the whole tree, only its bark, a patch of skin blemished with dark nodes, variegated colors or the thoughtless carvings of passers-by.
The plane tree and sycamore shed their bark, and at stages may appear blighted, then clean and smooth. Older trees often develop lumps or warts as they shed, creating blemishes and dark blotches. Ms. Medina saw aesthetic potential in these trees.
At first, she viewed the photographs of tree bark as finished art works ― complete studies in line, form, texture and color. Some of these unaltered photographs, showing intricate patches of tree skin in various shades of green and ochre, are on display in the exhibit.
But then, she says, she discovered something intriguing in the bark: A depth of imagery, a catalyst for her imagination. She looked more closely at the photographs and found the suggestion of something hidden in the crevices, in the varied colors of the bark, or between the nodes. Out of these forms, Ms. Medina has fleshed out female nudes, autumn wildflowers, a woman's hanbok, a handcrafted pojagi, ancient ceramic vases, a goddess. When she finds the hidden image, she applies ink to the photograph until she has revealed the full form.
The results are fully conceived paintings of rich, earth-toned colors: red, orange, yellow, ochre, green and blue. To the naked eye, the photographs are no longer recognizable as those of tree bark, yet the organic origin is evoked. Because the ink is laid across the crevices and relief of the bark, colors seem to move in textures, swirls, and subtle gradations of tone. The texture and color leave some of the paintings feeling ancient, the way old parchment fades and takes on dark blotches through oxidation.
In her nudes, she has represented human skin by leaving the bark untouched, so that the skin retains the texture of bark. Other characteristics of the bark form the foundation, as well.
In “Nude 1, Torso,” a dark node becomes a nipple on one idealized breast, while a small dark patch where the bark has fallen away mars the other. Like that nude, many of these works are intense, emotional expressions, sometimes with angst, but also with whimsy and playfulness. Many contain paradoxes of the idyllic amid decay. There are Jungian anxieties of sex and death in some of these works, particularly in “Nude 2, Dream.”
One of the hallmarks of postmodernism has been the assertion that entropy, the cycles of decay and growth characterizing nature, can provide aesthetic material. The works in Ms. Medina’s exhibit acknowledge the power of entropy. They remind us that we can find a profound aesthetic experience even in objects that seem decayed to our untrained eyes. She reminds the viewer to embrace what at first seems blemished. In that embrace, we find freedom to see what was previously unseen and ignored.

by John S. Grimmett

“TreeSong” runs until June 26. For more information, call (02) 795-2465.
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