Johnathan Goddman




Elly Cho has been enamored of Phuket, Thailand, for close to twenty years. Taken with the landscape there, Cho has seen fit to draw and paint on digital photos taken of Phuket’s natural beauty. Already, even before the artist has shown her work, we can consider the notional bravery of what she has done to commemorate the time spent in Thailand and the beauty of what she has seen. By painting directly on the digital prints, Cho is both adding to and interpreting the realism of the photographs, which describe in black and white some of the more spectacular natural sights of her chosen region. Interestingly, the painted imagery enhances rather than detracts from the nature seen in the actual picture. So, in a sense, it becomes clear that Cho is intensifying our experience of nature through art. Like any good artist, Cho knows that the greater the specificity, the greater the effect, and her painterly additions, done in green and orange and pink, represent aspects of nature found in the work or suggested by it. Her forms thus include tree leaves, a whirlwind, flowers and fish. These representations of nature add to our experience of Cho’s art, which is compelling and intelligent in its version of foliage and fish in her hybrid paintings/photographs.

One remembers the family origins of Cho’s project—she is gathering images close to her experience and almost literally embroidering them with her painterly additions. Memory remains a vivid experience for her as she meditates upon places she knows well. It is a bit different for her viewers, who must imagine the forest Cho describes, even if we allow for the detailed imagery of the forest photos, which spell out the call and attraction of a less harsh environment than the pictures of the mountains the artist also includes in her show. Mountains and forests without end!—that seems to be the basis of Cho’s joy in recording them. The landscape, originating in recall, extends its esthetic life to near permanency through art. These decorated images call out for explanation, but at the same time they evade analysis, preferring the intuitive insight of feeling to the more hierarchical insights of a rational probe. By covering areas of the photo with self-made images, Cho is also asserting her own presence, if not ownership, in the images she carries in mind. In the largest sense, her paintings/photos are a gift of remembrance that establishes her almost as a narrative artist, whose works represent a series of discreet incidents in the story of her past.

If we look closely at the work, we find that the artist plays with the themes of artifice and actuality. In Momento 1 (2013), a tree with more than a bit of foliage makes its way into the center of the small photograph; the painted bright-green leaves contrast with whites, grays, and blacks of the forest picture. The title combines the words “moment” and “memento” from the English language, so that we seem intended to vividly affiliate with the idea that this work is an instant intended to kept alive in the mind. Although the painted green foliage does contrast with the photographed leaves of the forest, we can see that in terms of dimension and form, it fits perfectly with what surrounds it.

Momento 2 (2013) also plays with the same trope of a combined natural and artificial paradise; here the green leaves present a remarkable angular gestalt overall, while the darker elements—the tree trunks, foliage, sky, and scrub—offer an atmosphere that is somehow magical and nocturnal, one that takes care of the imagination just as well as the painted leaves. So the two imageries may contrast, but they also collaborate in a final image that is stirring because of its artificiality, which Cho does nothing to hide.

In her video entitled Visual Kinematics: State of the Art (No. 13) (2012), Cho has put out a short work lasting two and a half minutes. Shot in black and white, it consists of fish gliding in a pond, either singly or forming groups. The upper half of the video consists of tall pond grass, while the lower half consists of the pool, which reflects buildings that cannot be seen in actuality. So, in an interesting way, Cho is painting a portrait of an interaction between nature and culture—perhaps architecture is the better word. Seemingly idyllic, accompanied by the sound of crickets, No. 13 reflects the complex reality most people have today in regard to their perception of nature, as well as commenting on the notion that the introduction of the manmade can only complicate the lyric beauty of the pond, which seems serene—despite the fact of the overhanging buildings. Cho’s ambivalence here is different from that influencing the paintings on photos; it seems that in the present video, she doesn’t trust nature nearly as much. As fish group, break apart, and regroup, we find that their interaction seems aimless, even meaningless—as opposed to being planned in a celebratory manner. A small saga of momentary redemption, No. 2 offers its audience a bit of underlined solace, although the overall impression is of humor, even irony.

In Visual Kinematics: A State of Mind (No. 10), Cho has posted a stand of trees across the width of the video monitor. Wind soughs through the foliage, while the sound accompanying the video pays homage to the picture of the winds moving the leaves of trees. It is a poetic image that moves and lasts ninety seconds, and that stands as a recognition of the way the wind can change, even if only momentarily, both the landscape and the senses. As simple as the image is, it is also deeply moving. Imagine a landscape that actually moves before your eyes! As a presentation of the beauty of nature, the artist could hardly do more. Together, the two works spell out a quietly visionary regard for nature; Cho finds her voice in understatement, rather than overwhelming her audience.

In the diptych A Place in My Heart (2013), Cho presents two views: a black-and-white image of the mountains in the Swiss Alps on the left; and, on the right, a deep-blue night sky in the Swiss Alps with a moon hanging over the mountains. The first photo features sharply angled slopes that reveal a stand of evergreens in the foreground and in the back, snowy peaks. The second photo, on the right, demonstrates a stunning landscape at night—indeed so stunning that the nature found in the image hardly seems real. At once superrealistic and unfathomable, the two landscapes capture the beauty of high mountains that seem to interact more with the sky than with people. For those in the art world, most of whom live in crowded cities, these pictures may be the closest they may get to a pure experience of nature. The surreal beauty in both is deeply affecting and lends a shiver bordering on shock that such exquisite—and inhuman—sites exist on earth. We may not be able to travel to the ends of the earth, but we can vicariously experience their unsurpassed beauty in Cho’s pictures and videos. Nature receives in Cho’s art some of the reverence we, as Americans, can find in the paintings of the Hudson River School or in the modernist photos of the West by Ansel Adams. This bias toward a historical view of nature isn’t anachronistic so much as it is timeless—especially for the viewer who still finds the genre moving.

Cho’s art may well belong to what has been called, in the description of contemporary classical music, the New Romanticism. Her art merges idea with feelings, and the past with the present. She also chooses to record deliberate beauty at a time when such an orientation is looked at with suspicion. But no matter, the accentuation of the beautiful has been part of art since its earliest beginnings. Cho looks hard at the meaningful part of nature—the part that can enliven our imagination, which is so often bombarded with imagery of an artificial kind. In doing so, she recalls the high practice of Western photography during the Thirties and Forties, its golden age. But it cannot be said that Cho is derivative, appropriating a specific style. Instead, she has searched for—and then found—a language that empowers both artist and viewer in her quest for a viable nature, a world that issues forth in comeliness and elegance. Industry doesn’t form a part of her esthetic in any real way; as time goes on, I think, she will continue the near impossible task of recording an undamaged nature free of either industrial or cultural influence. This is a difficult task, but it is also one needed badly—especially by those of us who make our lives in New York, a poorly maintained city. We look forward hopefully, then, to further reminiscences by Cho, who moves toward a position of affirmation, refusing to abandon its light.