The Whimsical World of JooYoung Choi

by Ashley Allen April 25, 2023
Installation of colorful, plush stuffed animals and figures

Installation view of “JooYoung Choi: Songs of Resilience from the Tapestry of Faith” at The Contemporary at Blue Star. Photo: Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray/courtesy of The Contemporary at Blue Star

“Have Faith, For You Have Always Been Loved” is the national motto of Houston-based artist JooYoung Choi’s make-believe “Wonderverse” multiverse. Similar affirming sentiments are interspersed throughout JooYoung Choi: Songs of Resilience from the Tapestry of Faith, reminiscent of fragments from faith-based philosophy and religion. Each time it is received and digested, this type of messaging comes through like a big comforting hug. 

At many points inducing nostalgia, Choi’s exhibition is visually inviting with its childlike associations. A few main tenets of this optimistic land are interconnectedness, love, and acceptance of all people, despite their diverse backgrounds and identities. With a variety of narratives gently awakened throughout the “Cosmic Womb,” the fictional planet of focus within the larger “Wonderverse,” Choi introduces a visionary mode of moving forward together.

Choi displays her creative talents with the combination of many different forms, materials, and techniques. Making up the medley of works in the exhibition are paintings, videos, animation (traditional hand-drawn, computer, and stop motion), music, sculptures, and installation works. Choi’s soft sculpture puppets make multiple appearances — they’re featured in cameos in the digital video collage Journey Vision 5000, they appear as characters in her paintings, and they’re displayed as sculptures in their own right.

Install image of a video in a box with two headphones under

JooYoung Choi, “Journey Vision 5000,” 2014-2018, flatscreen TV, plywood, digital files, acrylic paint, 24 x 24 x 7 inches. Photo: Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray/courtesy of The Contemporary at Blue Star

Narrative is by far the star of this show. However, if skipping into the exhibition with no prior knowledge about the “Wonderverse,” a viewer could easily find themselves lost in cosmic translation. Formal elements like color, composition, pattern, texture, the use of language, and shape can inform a viewer up to a certain extent, but more coded references usually need information from the artist in order to be unlocked and pieced together. To overcome such barriers of familiarity with the “Cosmic Womb,” character cards, inspired by Marvel Universe Series 3 trading cards that Choi had growing up, take the form of wall tags. Providing an easier transition into the “Cosmic Womb,” these are posted throughout the exhibition, detailing specific characters and main storylines.

Some of the narratives engaged in the exhibition come from Choi’s own autobiography, specifically those dealing with her own experiences of having been adopted, not knowing her birth family, and immigrating from where she was born (Seoul, South Korea) to the United States. Choi says in an interview with curator Jacqueline Chao that, “the narratives that I started to develop with my paintings are often about people trying to reunite with their families, their fortunes, and their sense of power that has been taken away.” 

Occupying the center of the gallery space is the large installation piece Like a Bolt Out of the Blue, Faith Steps In and Sees You Through. This plushie set-up is tempting to walk right into, not only because of its size in relation to the human body, but also because of the characters’ inviting, outward-facing positions. In this way, the installation piece serves as an easily accessible portal for any human confronting the installation to enter into the space and narratives contained within the “Cosmic Womb.” 

Installation of two stuffed figures on blue pedestals

Installation view of “Bunnie Puppet” with “Sweet Slice Puppet” and “Jonipher Puppet.” Photo: Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray/courtesy of The Contemporary at Blue Star

A type of interconnectedness is conveyed formally in Like a Bolt Out of the Blue, Faith Steps In and Sees You Through. On the right side of the installation stand two figures. A larger figure with black sneakers and outstretched arms boosts up a smaller figure with red hair; the bodies of both figures are the amalgamation of many different faces. Each face is genderless, showing different expressions in a varying combination of colors and shapes. This quilt of faces reinforces what Choi says about having “this little small voice inside of us and [that] the rest of what creates our identity is this patchwork of all the people who have loved us in one way or another.” 

What makes this installation piece perhaps most approachable is the interactive “Big Time Dreaming” element. Viewers are invited to write down and post the hopes and dreams they have for themselves and others. The courage spent from turning hopes and dreams into material form is what powers — alongside unconditional love and pure imagination — everything in the “Wonderverse.” 

Installation of a plush, stuffed cartoon figure

Detailed view of “Pom Pom Thunder.” Photo: Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray/courtesy of The Contemporary at Blue Star

Dreams from the public fuel “Quantum Soup,” energy that powers the sneakers worn by “Pom Pom Thunder,” a sentient red bed traveling along the highway in the middle of the installation. “Pom Pom Thunder” navigates a superhighway of dreams, working to connect separated family members. By writing down dreams, viewers become participants in their own (and in a collective) hopeful narrative. Perhaps, with a little conviction, a similar type of collective courage can work to power the change we hope to see in the real world. 

Religious-like in the exhibition’s faith-based subtext, hope and visual manifestation play a central role in turning our dreams into reality. A lot of what is already present and what is hoped for in the “Cosmic Womb” is within the realm of real-world possibility: unconditional love paired with increased media representation of people of color and people with non-binary, intersex, and transgender identities.

When asked about her inspiration in an interview with curator Jacqueline Chao, Choi said that she thought about all of the things she never got to see on TV as a child. These include the lack or total absence of Asian characters in the Marvel Universe and on Sesame Street. Choi added that movies like ET helped her process the feelings of yearning and desire of wanting to find her birth parents, saying “these characters who were taken away from their homes or didn’t know who they were, I felt, even though we didn’t look alike, this kindred spirit with them.”

Installation of a colorful two dimensional painting with a visitor standing in front

Installation view of “Tourmaline the Celestial Architect.” Photo: Jacqueline Saragoza McGilvray/courtesy of The Contemporary at Blue Star

From the outside, it may seem like JooYoung Choi: Songs of Resilience from the Tapestry of Faith is meant for children. In some ways the show may appeal most directly to children, with its whimsical and imaginary nature overlaid on top of resonant moral teachings and affirmations. But with its narrative structure and character development, deeper messaging concerning acceptance and representation offers an opportunity for us all to have more complex reflections on the media and how we navigate our own difficult life experiences. In this way, the exhibition is similar to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, another of Choi’s inspirations. 

Brought to South Texas audiences by curator Jaqueline Saragoza-McGilvray as the first exhibition in the 2023 line-up at The Contemporary at Blue Star, JooYoung Choi: Songs of Resilience from the Tapestry of Faith is on view until May 7, 2023. The exhibition is curated by Jacqueline Chao and was originally organized by the Crow Museum of Asian Art of The University of Texas at Dallas. 

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