"I was struck by the way people in the media confused the name Obama with Osama," Cheon said. "And on the Internet, you can find a lot of photos of Obama in a turban. I am not implying in this work that Obama is the scariest or that Bin Laden is the scariest. What I did was the scariest. I couldn't look directly at the image. That's why I had to insert the flash."
These Obama paintings are not likely to make their way to the National Portrait Gallery, but they do make a statement about the man, his presidency and the way some people treat both ("Birthers are scary, too," Cheon said).
The power in these and the other polipop works come from the way they start with imagery we all recognize, then give it a twist. For Koreans or students of that culture, some of the polipop works will hold extra meaning. Several are about Dodko, a tiny island between Korea and Japan claimed by both nations.
"It's just rocks," Cheon said. "It takes two days to get there, and the tides have to be right. When I visited, I kept hearing people say, 'I love you, Dodko.' It's such a weird thing. I am very interested in geopolitical contested spaces, like Dodko and the DMZ, places where the anticipation of getting there is so much greater than being there."
In "Superwoman Complex," Cheon takes on the commonly held attitudes of Korean men toward women.
It's a droll painting depicting two women, one of them high-kicking in a cute military outfit. Scrolled across the bottom of the canvas are desired attributes: "1. beautiful 2. smart 3. modest … 5. bring income … 8. keep household … 10. good to in-laws … 13. know how to make kimchi from scratch 14. good in bed while being a virgin."
That such an absurd list could be applied to many cultures only adds to the sting.
There are jolts to be had as well from the massive "15 Billion Years." Stylistically, it seems at first completely removed from the polipop flavor. It's certainly more serious. Abstract swirls, a starry cosmos and spidery webs fuse in strange ways, gradually revealing hints of what would become human life.
An air of mystery is maintained from one end to the other of the canvas, which is divided into five sections. Originally intended to be viewed under black light, it is being shown here for the first time under natural light, which still allows the colors to jump out. (MAP offered one day last week of black lighting; the subtle glow was transfixing.)
The daunting work came about partly because, in the 1990s, Cheon "religiously read popular science and Einstein, who had the famous line, 'God does not play dice with the universe.' I was questioning where we come from, where we're going," she said. "I felt an urgency to illustrate that narrative, the 'star stuff' Carl Sagan said we were all connected by."
There was another impetus for tackling such subject matter. The artist's undergraduate years were spent in Seoul at a Christian women's university.
"My friends and peers were very Christian," she said. "My way of rebelling was to make art about things there weren't Christian."
Cheon did not anticipate that she would embrace things that were Jewish. She had grown up in a family that did not adhere firmly to one religion. But while a grad student at MICA (where she now teaches), she met Gabriel Kroiz, who was teaching architecture there. When they married, Cheon converted to his faith.
"I'm really honored to be in that community," she said. "There are not very many 'Kews' — Korean Jews — in this world. Judaism is amazing. Part of the thought process in the religion is to question."
Questioning clearly comes easy to Cheon. She regularly challenges the American media's perception of the relationship between North and South Korea, for example. "When Kim Jong Il passed away, there was grieving in South Korea as well. He was not our archenemy, more like a poor cousin or pathetic brother," she said.
Cheon contemplates getting back to North Korea, which she visited once, and doing artwork about North Korea's new dictator ("his physiognomy makes him look like Chairman Mao").
She also hopes to write another book. Her first, "Shamanism and Cyberspace," was published 2009; the next will be about art therapy.
Cheon is thinking of changing her citizenship to American; if she does, she'll likely document that process through her art.
"When I married an American man and had biracial children — they have dual citizenship — identity became a big issue for me," Cheon said.
In addition to identifying as Korean and American, the artist is quick to add the description Marylander.
"My husband was born in Baltimore and will never leave," Cheon said. "I married Baltimore. And I've grown so much as an artist being here."
If you go
"Polipop and Paintings" runs through June 30 at Maryland Art Place, 8 Market Place. Call 410-962-8565 or go to mdartplace.org.