Mi Ju Reimagines Korean Folk Art in her Wild, Whimsical Paintings

The young painter Mi Ju says that when she was very small, in her native South Korea, she used to play in the fabric warehouse in which her father worked. With the magnifying glass he used to inspect incoming products, she would pore over the colorful textiles for hours, drinking in their patterns. It’s easy to see, then, how the painter, whose solo show, “Nest,” is currently on display at Freight + Volume, grew up to have such an innate sense for hue and arrangement within her wild, intricate, and whimsical canvases. 

Mi’s candy-colored works are also inspired by her mother, a florist in a Buddhist temple; the artist says she would trail her mother as she decorated the space with lotus lanterns and wild flowers. Although she now resides in Brooklyn, New York, the deeply ingrained inspiration that she draws from Korean folk art is clear. Mi has said that she prefers the complementary colors, thick bold lines, and “exaggerated features” of her birthplace’s traditional work. Working with “fast-drying layers,” she often paints with cut-out pieces of paper that are placed over acrylic, a technique she uses to render psychedelic and compact images with the solidity of a piece of architecture. 

In works such as Rising Star, Falling Dust and Kite (both 2014), Mi’s large-scale constructions are hallucinogenic and recall a kind of sci-fi that’s more dreamlike than dystopic; it’s easy to see why she names Haruki Murakami, patron saint of capricious invented worlds, as her favorite author. Mi also counts back-issues of National Geographic and Where’s Waldo? books among her influences. On other canvases, Mi returns to the form of the textile, hand-painting tiny objects—peaches, insects, faces—that resemble emojis, gridded onto stretched fabrics, a modern retooling of what inspired her so long ago. 

Mi’s profile in the art world has quickly risen since she received her MFA from the Pratt Institute a few years ago—she now shows extensively across the globe. “Nest” marks her third solo show at Freight + Volume and continues a general theme in her work: “Nature could be seen as controllable, appealing, and delightful, yet from a different perspective, natural elements can become overwhelming and destructive,” she has said.

—M. Osberg

Nest” is on view at Freight + Volume, New York, Apr. 16–May 16, 2015.

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