phillips collection

Sijae Byun Wins Emerging Artist Prize

Surrounded by silks, stretchers, dozens upon dozens of squeezed paint tubes, brushes and other art-making materials, Korean-born artist Sijae Byun sits on a stool in her studio at the Arlington Arts Center and says with an exuberant smile, “I am very thankful.”

Less than two weeks ago at the third annual (e)merge art fair, Byun was awarded The Phillips Collection Emerging Artist Prize. The award is the first of its kind to be given by the nation’s oldest modern art museum, and supports Byun as an important new artist, whose work is thought to be original and of art historical significance.

“I think her paintings were the most impressive work that we saw at the fair,” director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art and curator at large at The Phillips Collection, Klaus Ottmann said during a phone interview. “It was just a matter of which one we should buy.” 

Ottmann, along with The Phillips Collection director Dorothy Kosinski and senior curator of modern and contemporary art Vesela Sretenović, selected Byun’s Wind #7 In Jungle as the winning work and the piece that would be acquired for the museum’s permanent collection. The selection was made after all three administrators saw Byun's work displayed in the Washington Project for the Arts booth, curated by executive director Lisa Gold. 

Wind #7 In Jungle is a large-scale artwork with content and context equal in monumentality to the towering 37.5 x 50.5 inch work, made in a highly complex practice of layering and painting silk. A dynamic and energetic ovular form asserts itself against a modulated pink background. A variety of textural surfaces and intricate patterns intertwine and support one another, creating a surrealist structure. A purple flower hangs quiet and closed, ready to bloom, provoking thoughts of nature. Environmental themes such as these are supported by vegetal imagery resembling lily pad leaves and green algae, and are underscored and considered critically juxtaposed the architectural forms, rendered in sharp manufactured lines scattered throughout the work and clustered heavily at the bottom right. Strands of dark hairs and veins appear to weave the elements together, and one cannot help but to consider whether the blood-pumping vessels give life to these traditionally oppositional forces, or if the human body constricts and strangles, further complicating the relationships between natural landscape and mechanical construction.

“This particular work fits really nicely into [The Phillips Collection's] long tradition and conversation that goes on in our collection about color and painting, but at the same time, brings in something new, a different kind of dialogue in terms of material as silk and some non-western aesthetics that play in the work so it’s kind of expanding that tradition,” said Ottmann.

The Phillips Collection has a long history of supporting emerging artists. Duncan Phillips, the seminal art collector whose collection was the precursor to the 1921 museum and who played a key role in introducing America to the modernists, was widely responsible for launching the careers of such important figures as Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keefe and John Marin. In keeping with the spirit of Duncan Phillips, Ottmann believes award and grant programs that both support emerging artists in the local DC-community and engage artists and viewers in a global dialogue, should occur regularly, given the appropriate funding.

When asked about having her work in The Phillips Collection, Byun said humbly, “I’m very happy, but I also, I want to work harder and be a greater artist. I really like [The Phillips Collection] and I want to be one of the great artist there.”

The acquisition of a painting is of particular significance for Byun, who was told by her undergraduate teachers that she should avoid painting and instead focus her artistic practice on installation. Following the advise of her teachers, Byun studied fabric design and primarily worked in installation and set design, until a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York noticed Byun’s aptitude for drawing and suggested she start painting.

Since those initial conversations in 2007, Byun has combined painting with such mediums as stop motion animation, installation and fabrics, to create nuanced and challenging artworks that share a masterful command of space.

When asked about how the prize will affect her artistic practice, Byun said it will help her maintain energy and encourage her to continually work harder. For Byun, she is most concerned with keeping her eyes and her mind strong, and always following her inner voice.

Sijae Byun’s solo exhibition, Vaginascope, is currently on display at Tallybeck Contemporary in New York until November 15, 2013, and her solo exhibition, Circulation-Respiration at the Korean Cultural Center in Washington, DC, opens November 1, 2013.

Bringing the Art in DC to You, 

Roxanne Goldberg

Waxy Revelations

I recently underwent one of those rare religious art experiences that give rise to an enlightened conscience and an overall sense of greater awareness and higher being.

Ann Hamilton’s “Palimpsest,” now on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as part of the exhibition Over, Under, Next, is an extraordinarily emotive installation that provokes personal responses to visual, olfactory, auditory, and tactile sensations.  

The visitor must first slip on the necessary footwear. Cotton soles serve a dual purpose of protecting the sacred beeswax floor from the dirtiness of the profane world, while also signifying to the visitor that he will cross an important threshold, transforming the museum-goer from art viewer to work participant.

Once inside, the viewer finds himself surrounded by notes, handwritten with pencil on yellowed newsprint. Filling all four walls from floor to ceiling, the random notes and simple reminders are each pinned at the center with a thumbtack. A fan rests above the open entranceway, causing a gentle ripple of paper that is just slightly audible and seems to engulf the viewer in its intimate embrace. The effect is euphoric as the written words obtain a physicality that lifts them directly off their flimsy pages.

The biomorphic room contains a vitrine with two large, bright green heads of cabbage, and a number of brown snails that snake across the glass, leaving their slimy secretions behind as they slowly consume the vegetables.

Witnessing this event, the viewer feels as if he has transported in time, existing in a primordial world. Where memory should be created, it is dissolved—devoured—in the present reality.

“Palimpsest” is not the only recent installation to feature wax in Washington, DC. The much talked about “Laib Wax Room” opened as a permanent installation at the Phillips Collection in March.

Unlike “Palimpsest,” German artist Wolfgang Laib’s installation contains only wax and a single, unadorned light bulb that hangs from the ceiling, illuminating the amber-colored walls. While Hamilton’s space is cool, almost chilling, Laib’s room is slightly warmer than the rest of the museum and at a smaller scale, succeeds at communicating a cavernous impression.  The effect is enhanced when considering the intense silence one experiences standing alone.

First used by ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artists, wax enjoys an important place in the history of art methods and materials. Made from animal, vegetable and mineral sources, the medium is most well-known in the form of Byzantine icons that reveal captivatingly bright colors, and life-like anatomical models and volatile offerings, popular in Florence from the 13th through the 17th centuries.[i]

Though the medium decreased in popularity with the rise of oil painting in the late Renaissance and early modern era, the complexity of encaustic maintained a sense of respected reverence as an ancient and classic style, especially among American and European painters during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Wax would experience a revival when Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio, and other Abstract Expressionists first experimented with the medium and its elastic and highly textural properties during the mid-20th century. Soon after, Jasper Johns would exhibit “Flag” at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, thrusting encaustic back into the realm of artistic prominence.[ii]

Wax jumped off the page in the 1970s when German-artist Joseph Beuys became interested in the “living process at work, in which the process of warmth and heat are involved” in the creation of beeswax. Beuys used the medium to create large-scale objects out of the material with the goal of linking the individual viewer to the whole nature of the physical substance and its place in the greater atmosphere.[iii]

Today, a collective of six Washington-based artists manipulate and experiment with hot wax in order to push the boundaries of the ancient medium. In the Washington Wax Works debut exhibition at Gateway Arts Center, Waxy Buildup, now on display until June 22, documentary filmmaker David Evans fuses wax with paper, paint, embedded artifacts and photographs, in order to communicate non-linear stories that encourage the viewer to insert himself into the visual narrative. Katie Dell Kaufman and Marty Ittner each create striking encaustic collages that reference Robert Rauschenberg’s combines with their large stock letters and strips of newspaper.

A remarkable material with a history as rich as its faculties, wax is an enchanting medium that will continue to challenge artists and confound viewers. Whether painted with on paper, propelled through the air to create a sculpture, or ladled on walls, wax is a medium that ArtSee will be sure to watch as artists in DC and beyond explore and expand the elastic substance.

Bringing the Art in DC to You,
Roxanne Goldberg


[i] Roberta Ballestriero, “Anatomical Models and Wax Venuses: Art Masterpieces of Scientific Craft Works?,” Journal of Anatomy 216, no. 2 (Feb., 2010): 223- 234.
[ii] Kristen Gallagher, “Discoveries in Encaustic: A Look through History,” Explorations 6 (2011) : 73- 84.
[iii] Joseph Beuys, What is Art? Translated by Matthew Barton and Shelley Sacks (Stuttgart: Clairview Books, 2004).