How Jay Sae Jung Oh Gives Lowly Materials High Concept Treatment

Through ultimate acts of upcycling, Jay Sae Jung Oh creates art from industrial components and high-end design from humble materials, turning out sculpture and furniture that upends notions of value and skirts distinctions between art and design. Korean-born Oh was first trained as a sculptor, but, observing that she could communicate to a wider audience through design, she didn’t so much switch fields as take on another, cultivating a practice that moves fluidly between disciplines, while prioritizing the ideas central to each project.

Running through Oh’s work is an interest in value: what is deemed valuable and what is considered worthless. For Oh, questions surrounding value are also related to social and environmental responsibility, which she sees as fundamental to design. “Unlike fine art, design comes with more responsibility to provide better solutions,” she explains. “Most of my design inspirations are derived from the awareness of social issues like sustainability and abundant waste.” The intersection of these concerns is the starting point for Oh’s furnishings, rarefied objects constructed from the detritus of consumer culture. 

For an early experiment on this theme, “Animal Mirror,” Oh repurposes cast-off goods as building elements, remarking that “finished products are the newest raw materials.” Framing a mirror with a parade of plastic animals coated in black resin, she converts cheap children’s toys into high design and cheekily underscores the shift in perception that occurs when materials coalesce as a product.

Oh continues her meditation on value with the “Savage” series, a collection of tables and seating made from an agglomeration of mundane objects—lawn chairs, gas cans, golf clubs, a skillet, a rocking horse—that are carefully arranged so that each object is identifiable, and fused through a tight wrapping of jute twine. Each piece not only involves a labor-intensive, multi-step process, but takes several months to complete. The finished pieces are thus conceptually layered, begging reflection through their juxtaposition of the natural and the man-made, and their transmogrification of worthless materials into high design. Updating the series by replacing the twine with licorice-black cord, Oh amplifies the disparity between the luxurious appearance of the pieces and the junk that lies beneath. 

—Jenny Florence

Discover more artists at Johnson Trading Gallery.