In Late Bloomer, Los Angeles-based artist Seonna Hong wades into landscapes filled with amorphous swatches of color and marred by climate disaster. Her acrylic, oil, and pastel works are on view through February 5 at Hashimoto Contemporary in Los Angeles in an introspective solo show that considers her place in an ever-evolving world. Set against abstract, blurred backdrops, Hong’s distinctly rendered animals and anonymous subjects navigate distorted terrains of once-familiar architecture and natural landmarks.
Many of the stylized compositions evoke traditional Korean landscapes from the Joseon period—these are known for their asymmetrical forms, vibrant brushstrokes, and skewed perspectives—that contemplate the human-nature relationship by placing miniature figures among formidable environments. “I’m a second-generation Korean American that is surprised to be making identity-based work but realizing I’ve been making it all along. I’ve spent my entire life between the push and pull of being Korean and American, never feeling quite Korean enough or American enough,” Hong writes on Instagram. “I’ve realized the inherent connection between my work and my history, a belated but cherished revelation.”
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What began as a simple appreciation of fabrics printed with vibrant geometries and hypnotic motifs has morphed into a stunning celebration of African culture. Thandiwe Muriu’s ongoing Camo series cloaks models in arresting garments that disguise them in textile surroundings, leaving just their hands and faces visible. “When I source fabrics, I look for something that I can look at and it almost feels alive,” she says. “Something bold, slightly confusing on the eyes, and less traditional. In my images, the fabric acts as the backdrop that I can celebrate my culture on. It is a bright, welcoming canvas that I can highlight what I love about my fellow Kenyan people.”
From the printed clothing to the subject’s accessories and hairstyles, each image is layered with references to the Nairobi-based photographer’s daily life and a sense of resourcefulness that permeates the local culture. Common items like bottle tops, mosquito coils, bicycle gears, straws, and cleaning brushes become elaborate eyewear or decorative additions to historical “architectural hairstyles that are being forgotten,” she tells Colossal. “Our natural hairstyles as Africans/Kenyans are one of the unique things about our beauty culture that I wouldn’t want to see lost, so I incorporate it into my work to spark conversation around traditional hairstyles and how we can wear them today.”
Muriu, who works in commercial advertising by day, shares that Camo is an ironic exploration into the relationship between personal and collective identities. The visually striking portraits are “commentary on how as individuals, we can lose ourselves to the expectations culture has on us, yet there are such unique and beautiful things about every individual,” Muriu says. “I wanted to celebrate everything I had struggled with in my own beauty journey—my hair, my skin, and my identity as a modern woman in a traditional culture.”
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Indiana-based artist Jessica Calderwood imbues her whimsically camouflaged figures with questions about the female psyche. Whether covered by a polka-dotted orb or stuck in a ruffled tube of fabric, her nondescript women are temporarily trapped by their environments, their only defining features the sleek black pumps or striped kneesocks that stick out from their disguise. This concealment, Calderwood says, serves as “a negation, a censoring or denial of what lies beneath. These anthropomorphic beings are at once, powerful and powerless, beautiful and absurd, inflated, and amputated.”
Deftly melding historical techniques with contemporary themes of identity, each of the works is rooted in traditional craftsmanship. A focus on mixed media is at the center of Calderwood’s broad body of work, which spans metalsmithing, jewelry, and wall-based ceramics, and many of her projects blend materials like enamel, porcelain, polymer clay, and felted wool to further evoke craft forms.
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Kenyan-American artist Wangechi Mutu made history in 2019 when her four bronze sculptures became the first ever to occupy the niches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s facade. Stretching nearly seven feet, the seated quartet evokes images of heavily adorned African queens and intervenes in the otherwise homogenous canons of art history held within the institution’s walls.
The monumental figures are one facet of Mutu’s nuanced body of work that broadly challenges colonialist, racist, and sexist ideologies. Now on view at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor is the latest iteration of the artist’s subversive projects: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening? disperses imposing hybrid creatures in bronze and towering sculptures made of soil, branches, charcoal, cowrie shells, and other organic materials throughout the neoclassical galleries. The figurative works draw a direct connection between the Black female body and ecological devastation as they reject the long-held ideals elevated in the space.
No matter the medium, these associations reflect Mutu’s deep respect for and fascination with the ties between nature, the feminine, and African history and culture, a guiding framework that the team at Art21 explores in a recently released documentary. Wangechi Mutu: Between the Earth and the Sky visits the artist’s studio in her hometown of Nairobi and dives into the evolution of her artwork from the smaller collaged paintings that centered her early practice as a university student in New York to her current multi-media projects that have grown in both scope and scale.
Whether a watercolor painting with photographic scraps or one of her mirror-faced figures encircled with fringe, Mutu’s works are founded in an insistence on the value of all life and the ways the earth’s history functions as a source of knowledge, which she explains:
I truly believe that there’s something about taking these bits and pieces of trees, and animals and completely anonymous but extremely identifiable items and placing them somewhere that draws their energy, wherever they were coming from, whatever they did, whatever molten lava they came out of a million years ago, that is now in my work and that little piece of energy is magnified.
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Vietnamese-American artist Antonius Bui highlights the flexible, evolving nature of identity and the value of community through a series of unapologetically affectionate portraits. Elaborate hand-cut botanicals and geometric motifs envelop and give shape to Bui’s subjects, who include chosen and biological family members, friends, and colleagues. Painted in deep blue or inked in smaller spots to emit a warm glow, the pieces are monumental in scale—some extend upwards of 10 feet—and saturated with underlying stories that reveal themselves through smaller portraits and displays of domestic life embedded in the central image.
Continually focused on the power of narrative, Bui leaves gaps in the metaphorical, mesh-like works as a way to create space for more nuanced understandings of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, immigrant experiences, queerness, and the prevalence of false binaries. A child of Vietnamese refugees, they draw on their family’s heritage with “allusions to the spiritual significance of Joss paper, an incense paper used both to imitate value and as a form of blessings, position(ing) each work almost as an offering to honor queer communities,” a statement about the portraits says.
All of the works shown here are part of The Detour Is to Be Where We Are, which is on view through August 14 at Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago. You can find more of Bui’s intimate pieces on their site and Instagram.
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Disembodied faces and fingers encircle the surreal vessels created by Canopic Studio, a Los Angeles-based practice helmed by Claire and Curran Wedner. Known for their ceramics that display human anatomy in a repetitious pattern, the husband and wife recently diverged from the black-and-white works previously mentioned on Colossal to create a series entirely in celadon, a jade color with a rich history.
The translucent glaze originated in China and was prominent throughout the country for centuries before being replaced by blue-and-white porcelain. It’s traditionally made with a bit of iron oxide—too little creates a blue color, while too much produces a darker olive or black—and then fired in a reducing kiln at a high temperature.
Curran says he first experimented with the glaze in 2004 as part of a ceramics class and returned to it now after researching cone 10 gas firing and reduction, or the process of decreasing oxygen in the kiln. The resulting pieces shift in color with the light, a trait that dovetails with the studio’s interest in mutable identities and idiosyncrasies that shows up in the shape of their works.
Pieces are created using the same mold to produce similar, but not identical, body parts. When attached in rows on the mug or bowl, the single face or finger becomes one of many, each defined by its slight difference. “I’m interested in identity and how it shifts when we go from being alone to being a part of a crowd,” Curran says. He explains:
I like prodding that space in between, where identity feels almost pliable or molten, then hardens, then shifts again, and so on. When the face I’m using is pulled from a single mold, it has a surreal quality—so identical it’s almost eerie, and all the tiny flaws and differences come forward when they otherwise wouldn’t.
Right now, Canopic Studio is in the process of creating a line of face medallions finished with 22 karat gold. The duo list new pieces bi-monthly on Etsy, and you can keep an eye out for shop updates and see works-in-progress on Instagram.
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Highlights below. For the full collection click here.