Quiet strength

Pub date November 11, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

REVIEW Gray skies, "Silent Night" plucked on kayagum, indoor ice-skating at the candy-financed mall/amusement park Lotteland, negotiating slippery mandoo with slick metal chopsticks, and girls holding hands everywhere you look — those are my wintry memories of 1990s Seoul. Those cozily clasped lasses found strength — and safety from predatory dudes — in sisterhood, and the recurring gesture seemed to speak volumes about the quiet struggles of women in Korea’s stringently Confucian society. It finds its parallel in the muted ink washes on silk chiffon banners by Jung Jungyeob that dangle gently from the lofty ceiling of Mills College Art Museum as part of "The Offering Table: Women Activist Artists from Korea." Traced in watery outlines, Jung’s women are unobtrusive, almost ghostly beasts of burden, lugging shopping bags through hazy city streets. She flags the barely visible.

In keeping with the museum’s continuing strategy of shedding light on art by women here and abroad — witness 2007 shows like "Take 2: Women Revisiting Art History" — "The Offering Table" focuses on the seldom-seen work of Seoul women artists, namely the seven who belong to Ipgim (Exhaled Air) collective, which notably collaborated with the Guerilla Girls at the Busan Biennale in 2004. A slender but invaluable catalog gives the history of art in Korea by and for women, and offers some background on pieces such as Rhu Junhwa’s reworkings of traditional munjado folk painting, or letter painting. Rhu plays off traditional forms while feminizing the Chinese ideograms that describe hidebound virtues like filial piety and propriety. For me, the works that seem to break with propriety are the ones that resonate. Two standouts: Je Miran’s "Million Years Pillow" series — composed of pillow ends paired with texts hinting at the hopes, fears, rage, and passion poured into the embroidery by countless muffled women — and Yoon Heesu’s iconic Offering, in which gold-hued bowls of red thread flow up toward the ceiling like blood lines extending into an unseeable future.

THE OFFERING TABLE: WOMEN ACTIVIST ARTISTS FROM KOREA Through Dec. 7. Tues., Thurs.–Sat., 11 a.m.–4 p.m.; Wed., 11 a.m.–7:30 p.m.; Sun., noon–4 p.m. Mills College Art Museum, 5000 MacArthur, Oakl. Free. (510) 430-2164, www.mills.edu/museum