QUEENS, N.Y. -- Jyung Mee Park stands in a small gallery at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center here, explaining her fascination with the push-pull of opposites. Dressed in black jeans and T-shirt with long black hair, the 37-year-old artist herself forms a sort of visual paradox as she stands amid the harsh white of the gallery walls and the rich cream of her monochromatic installation.
Tradition/innovation. Durability/temporality. Subtle contradictions find balance in Park's work. From 10,000 sheets of paper, she builds forms of great beauty that seem both featherweight and firmly grounded. Each work appears monolithic, but is made of individual elements, folded and precariously stacked, placed or upended against one another.
"There's this wonderful butting up against each other of dualities in the world. You know the yoga pose called 'the corpse'? You are lying on the ground but you are sort of lifting up. It's like ice melting. Ice is strong and hard, and yet it melts."
The Korean-born artist usually teaches at the Maryland Institute, College of Art but is spending the spring in New York City as part of a sabbatical. Her art has been exhibited at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York's Mercer Gallery, Baltimore's Maryland Art Place, Wilmington's Delaware Museum of Art and other venues.
"Her work has a spiritual feeling to it that you really can't describe," says Scott Habes, former director of school exhibitions at the Corcoran and now acting director of the art gallery at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"One couple who was visiting from Florida made visiting [her installation] part of their everyday ritual and would come every morning to meditate and pray, which seems a little extreme. But I found myself doing that, too: going in every day and just thinking."
Ruffles in a breeze
At P.S. 1, Park's newest installation will be on display through May 28. At the center of the gallery sits a paper construction that resembles a feathery, empty nest. From a distance, the nest seems solid and secure. Yet when a museum visitor brushes by, the air gently ruffles the outer layers of paper. Nearby, in a corner, another construction leans against the wall. Made of the same interwoven sheets of paper, it could be the wing of a resting pigeon or, perhaps, a thatched roof.
The artwork is part of a P.S. 1 program that annually features a dozen artists whose work involves community members.
To create the installation, Park worked with about 400 local students who were particularly well-suited for a project that explores concepts of home.
All attend the International High School, located at La Guardia Community College, where about 60 countries are represented and about 40 languages are spoken, says Janet Price, the school's arts coordinator. In addition, none of the students has lived in the United States for more than four years.
"Every class did paper folds, so we all built a little piece of this common 'home' and everyone filled out a questionnaire in which we were asked, 'What is home?' Some students felt they had no home, and others were comfortable with two," Price says.
On a video developed at the Corcoran to accompany the artist's installations, Park demonstrates how she painstakingly folds each sheet of paper and incorporates it in her installation.
She uses rice paper chosen for its thinness and strength. She -- and sometimes a slew of volunteer helpers -- folds each sheet and pulls it through her hands, creating hundreds of tiny creases and giving the paper shape and texture. Then she begins to build: Layer upon layer of the crepe-like paper is stacked atop or against each other. A single sheet has the translucence of wax paper; 10,000 pieces of paper become a lustrous, creamy white.
"It's sort of like giving away the magic if I tell exactly how I do it, but there is no glue," says Park. "Each piece of paper is loose. They all break apart sheet by sheet at the end. But there is a way of layering the paper underneath. There's no glue, but there are tricks."
The creative process is hypnotic for the maker (and the viewer). It is rooted in the tradition of daily labor and rituals of agricultural communities. Sights as simple as wind- swept sand dunes, pine cones, thatched roofs or haystacks in Korea inspire her. "I watched the way they stacked their hay. It had such beautiful form. It helped me to find form through labor rather than thinking: 'OK, I'm making art.' "
Home, and the sense of loss one feels upon leaving it, also is a recurring theme in Park's work. Born in Korea, she has moved to the United States twice: first as a 3-year-old (after four years her family returned to its native country) and later, in 1982, to attend Parsons School of Design. In 1989, she earned a master of arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
East and West
In a sense, Park's artistic career also has been a journey in which she moved from creating works with roots in the West to making art informed by Eastern tradition.
She began as a painter, though as she studied the medium for years in college and graduate school, she always felt that something was missing. "I love it when I see painting well-done. But there's such a historical connection to painting that I don't have. So much of its roots are in the West."
Park began searching for other means of expression. She experimented with ink on paper, sometimes brushing layer upon layer of white ink onto a white surface until the ink became thicker and thicker and obliterated itself.
In her late 20s, she traveled to Italy to reconnect with Western traditions of painting. But she found herself transfixed by the sight of women making lace and of fishermen repairing nets. Or fascinated by traveling monks who created traditional Tibetan art out of sand while inside a church filled with Christian icons.
"I thought I'd go to Italy to catch up on my Western art, yet there I was, falling in love with lace and nets," she says.
As a child, Park routinely played with paper, cutting up newspapers and fashioning little objects. "I'd make a pile of paper and, when I was a asleep, my mother would throw it out," Park recalls. "She says I started trying to sleep with it."
It wasn't until Park fell ill as an adult that paper, the stuff of her childhood games, became the medium through which she expresses herself professionally.
One Asian custom holds that if you make a thousand cranes out of folded paper, your wish will come true. According to another, you can bestow good luck upon a friend by filling a jar with handmade paper stars and presenting it to him. While Park was bedridden in 1995, she began to experiment with paper. "I played with paper in bed trying to find something to do. It was meditative and relaxing. And the forms got bigger and better, and then they became social," the artist says.
"In a way it's going back to simpler ways. It's like taking a more humble approach. Gestures and day-to-day forms are at the basis for my art: I am using traditional methods and materials that merge into the here and now."