In “Unapologetic,” Hyeyoung Shin suspends nine, life-size, nude self-portraits, drawn with graphite on 16-foot-long Mylar sheets, from a 25-foot ceiling. Clustered in one corner of The Studios Inc’s gallery space and lit from behind by slivers of LED tubes, the drawings hang like glowing sheets of skin. The faces are mostly obscured by ribbons of hair, and the nudes appear, from a distance, like a forest of possessed female phantoms.
Titles such as “Longing, Breath, Abyss,” “Confusion and Lost,” “Pulling and Pushing,” underscore the themes of this moving installation, which Shin created as a way to help cope with the loss of her father two years ago. There is nothing gratuitous with her nudes; they are frank depictions of Shin’s own naked, exposed body. Being seen naked makes one inherently vulnerable, and Shin’s use of delicate materials underscores her refrains of fragility. She fuses the defenselessness of her nude body with the raw emotional power of her grief, and this combination packs a one-two punch.
Shin was born in Korea, where she received Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in painting from both Hong-Ik University and Kyoung-Sung University of Korea. She moved to Buffalo, New York, in 2002 and earned a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking from the University of Buffalo in 2010, where she also taught. In 2013 she was hired as assistant professor at the UMKC Art and Art History Department, and her sculpture, art books and drawings have been widely exhibited. There is often a performative aspect to her art, as well as video.
“Body language is the most crucial part of my practice,” Shin said in a recent interview.
In one of her best-known exhibits, “Weight of Being,” Shin covered a gallery floor with 30 pairs of foot castings formed from several wrapped layers of translucent Japanese gampi paper. On the walls she hung large-scaled photographs of feet viewed from the underside of the soles, and included a video of her two-hour sessions with the individuals who agreed to have their feet cast. Images of feet are richly symbolic, spiritually and culturally, and Shin, who was raised Catholic and is well versed in Buddhism, plumbed her subject matter in ways both profound and comprehensible.
In “Unapologetic,” Shin said, her focus is in “freeing my body.” “That doesn’t happen,” she added, “if we just look at someone’s face, especially if they’re female. Social practice demands that we train our facial expressions. We hide our bodies, and I want my body to express my emotions. I am unapologetic about that.”
In her drawings, Shin hides her face with her long hair. “My depiction of hair is a power statement. Hair has its own expression and emotion; it’s also a shelter, and offers protection. It can be a shield.”
Shin had not seen her father for nine years before she returned to Korea after his death. “I was not ready for his death,” she said. “And then he died. I had to function and deal with all the paperwork and political situations. There was little emotional space for myself.
“Unapologetic is about finally confronting all the belated feelings of both loss and grief.”
Like many of her installations, Shin wanted this exhibit to be interactive. She installed her self-portraits so that one can walk around and through the suspended drawings. They are close enough together that the weight of her distress settles on the viewer like a gentle layer of pollen.
There are as many paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures of nudes as there are stars in the sky. With this installation, Shin has added a new constellation to the heavens.
Unapologetic: Hyeyoung Shin continues at The Studios Inc, 1708 Campbell St., through April 14. Hours are 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, 816.994.7134 www.thestudiosinc.org
Photos by Aaron Paden