Breaking the barrier between interiority and exteriority, Sally J. Han, who will show at Independent this fall with Fortnight Institute, invites the viewer to interact with intimate moments. The delicately defined strands of hair and soft tonal shifts in the fabric, entice the eye to look closer, to slow down and to become silent. Known previously for her intimate and highly detailed applications of paint, the scale of the new work is large enough to engulf the viewer, who can, for the first time in real life, step into the scenery and join the figure in a moment of quiet reflection.
Although her paintings illustrate her experiences, Sally J. Han aims for universal relatability in her work. Each of her paintings showcase vignettes drawn from her life, as she considers her creative practice as a “visual autobiography,” vividly divulging a lifetime of introspection as an only child. The isolated figures that appear in her works lean into their solitude, an act that resonates with our collective experience from a year of aloneness.
Han was born in China, raised in South Korea and spent time travelling between the two countries as she was growing up. “When I was 2 years old, My dad was hired by a South Korean company and he brought my mom and I to South Korea and we spent 10 years living there,” she explains, “and my family, both my mom and dad's sides are Korean Chinese* (Korean Immigrants with Chinese citizenships), so growing up I was deeply influenced by both cultures. I am aware of political tensions between China and South Korea. However, I am not purposely stating any political opinions via my pictures. The image I make is just a reflection of my honest feelings and normal daily routine as a human being.” She was drawn to art and design at an early age and decided to move to the U.S. to study illustration at School of Visual Arts and fine art at New York Academy of Art. Towards the end of her undergraduate program, she pivoted to painting and subsequently creates without the restrictive confines of her academic upbringing. Regarding her process Han says, “I have always genuinely liked to draw or paint since I was little. Regardless of my environment, I’ve always drawn something on paper whether it’s good, bad or kitschy. It was easier for me to express my thoughts than speaking or writing. My academic upbringing was helpful and I consider it a part of my language which helps me to move on to define my own.” Her paintings transpire without preparatory sketches or a pre-defined conception. Han is guided by her process which reveals where the scene goes next.
In the painting entitled Traveler, a young woman is seated on a patchwork quilt in a semi-relaxed pose. Her fixed, yet impassive gaze on her glowing smartphone is an emblematic sign of contemporary life, slowly passing time by quicky scrolling though social media. On the small, rectangular phone screen, Instagram is open to the artist’s own account. The grid reflected onscreen shows snippets from her life, carefully arranged like the squares that make up the quilt. The shapes of her life, her artwork and content are linked through both digital and physical realms. This typically mundane scene is elevated by the environment surrounding the figure. The sun fading behind the horizon illuminates the landscape as hummingbirds float in the afterglow. The small migration of nimble birds is emblematic of the wielding one exercises while maneuvering through social media. The quick short strokes of their wings imitating the swift motions made while navigating a vast mélange of scenery in seconds.
The doldrums of our current moment are also expressed in another work titled Mojito. The scene opens with two birds gazing at the viewer, whilst the figure looks out onto the sunset with the namesake beverage in her hand. This peaceful scene possesses a muted anxiety, the figure appears lost in thought about what the next day will bring. A stripped orange cat rests on scattered playing cards left on the windowsill, looking out at the fading day. The parakeet in the lower left corner resembles Han’s own, her studio companion that keeps a protective eye on her as she works. Looking out into the future and uncertain of where time will take becomes more palatable when surrounded with creatures that comfort.
The painting process is indicative of the world where the figures in Han’s paintings live. They wait perpetual state of uncertainty, wondering what their future holds. “After my undergraduate studies, it was time for everyone to think about the future,” she adds, “The main reason I paint is that I simply enjoy and feel comfortable in this expression of freedom. The picture needs me.” Time is the ever-present guide, leading modest moments into bigger pictures.
Text by Lauren Vaccaro