Honors: Sun Young Park

Sun Young Park with three works (from the left to the right): “Finger Language series #6_pointing” (2022), “on the ground” (2022) and “The thing on the edge” (2022) (photo by Jim Barcus)

The expressive sculptor, currently a resident at the Belger Arts Center, has work in this summer’s “Women to Watch” exhibit at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and is on for a 2023 solo show in New York

Working with clay as an object and as a decorative surface on which to interpret multiple emotional and conceptual experiences, Sun Young Park creates resonant multimedia work and installations incorporating clay, textiles, glazes ranging from lustrous to gloopy, and visual anomalies. On the heels of an exhibit at the Curiouser & Curiouser gallery in Kansas City, Kansas, Park is part of the “Women to Watch” exhibit at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and will have a solo exhibition at Wassaic Project, Wassaic, New York, in 2023.

“I regard my practice as a journey to find the essence of an object, of an experience, and how it relates to reality,” she says. “I do not want to define what is right, what is wrong. I want to understand what I experience beyond the physical and delve into the realm of emotion and imagination.”

With degrees from Hongik University, Seoul, Korea, and an M.F.A. from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Park has been a Foundation Resident Artist at the Belger Arts Center since July 2021. She is also an adjunct professor at Johnson County Community College and Metropolitan Community College, where she teaches ceramics and drawing, respectively.

Clay is one of our most primary and prehistoric materials, and creating with what is widely speaking, dirt, suggests that we have a primitive and sometimes nostalgic (in the broadest sense) relationship to the earth. Park’s work tends to feel emotional and even raw, depending on her approach to surface in each sculpture.

She writes, “Images of distant and clear memory are revealed by using flowing glazed surfaces and matte clay surfaces that are activated using a pencil. Through these contrasting oppositions, they begin to represent the duality of domesticity to nature, control to spontaneity, feminine to masculine, and East to West. While I contrast materials through their different surfaces and physical and contextual meanings, I align them into a cohesive moment.”

Combining hard with soft, handmade with machine-manufactured, clay with fabric, conceptual with practical, she also enjoys creating planters, making these ordinary utilitarian objects extraordinary by processing her own biases and sympathies toward material, experiences and things. And she asks us to do the same.

For instance, traveling in Egypt, she discovered the banana flower, which she found to be freakish and disgusting. (And yet, it happens to be edible, with a delicate flavor.) Park processes her mixed emotions about this strange thing by incorporating the plant’s aggressive physicality into her work. Sculpting the banana flower as an object, she absorbs its weirdness into her memory and transfers her emotional reactions into nascent physicality. What was once grotesque to her becomes instead a new site of exploration. She says, “Things that are missed in language (or lost in translation), can be made whole in sculptures.”

To link ideas and dualities, Park often adds sculpted human fingers to her works. Touch becomes the bridge between her memory of an object or experience and her desire to portray the sensuality inherent in our physical experience of the world.

For instance, in 2021’s “Finger Language” series, biomorphic, elongated shapes may end in a delicate finger, as a tiny ceramic tassel waves off the tip of one of those fingers, exploring the interconnections between our bodies and our sensibilities, the ways we emotionally comprehend our surroundings, and how we apprehend the tactile nature of reality. Does the finger represent an actual experience or simply our memory of experience? Park’s work suggests an ongoing dialogue between memory and reality, and questions if either can ever be trusted as “real.”

Left: Banana Flower and “Tassel” (2022), a 9 x 30” work in ceramic and mixed media by Sun Young Park (from the artist)

And what about scale? Do the fingers represent the body as a whole in these works or simply a fragmented experience of our surroundings? They become gestures, pointing to the world outside of the sculpture, and yet still part of the sculpture itself. The fingers and banana flowers are “sensual with emotional tension” according to Park.

In mixing materials and incorporating fabric and clay tassels, she further examines the inherent tension between surfaces. In a 2021 work, “The Rock Had Been on that Wooden Floor in 1998,” a monumental sculpture stands on a tasseled textile. The sculpture’s surface is glazed and painterly, matte and lustrous, bulky yet with delicate tendrils. Other amorphously shaped sculptures incorporate small clay tassels and dangling textile tassels.

There’s a utopianism — a sort of perfect conceptual and physical space — in Park’s insistence on how clay, fiber, fingers, tassels and biomorphic shapes coexist in a visual world between reality, memory and imagination. Neither looking forward nor backward, her work lives in the between-space she’s created, where nothing is lost in translation.

For more information, www.park-sunyoung.com

Dana Self

Dana Self is an arts writer who was a contemporary art curator for more than 13 years at museums in Kansas, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Missouri, including Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. She has organized roughly 100 exhibitions of emerging and midcareer artists. She is also marketing director for UMKC Conservatory.

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