The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

All Issues
OCT 2021 Issue

Liz Ahn: unobservable scavenger

Liz Ahn, <em>grandpa’s YMCA</em>, 2021. Wood, foam, canvas, LED lights, cement, sand, paint, 58 x 29 x 29 inches. Courtesy Backyard Ghost.
Liz Ahn, grandpa’s YMCA, 2021. Wood, foam, canvas, LED lights, cement, sand, paint, 58 x 29 x 29 inches. Courtesy Backyard Ghost.

On View
Backyard Ghost
August 28 – October 10, 2021

As a known poet performer who in the past few years has descended into painting, drawing, and sculpture, one of the many things I like and enjoy about Liz Ahn’s mixed media work where sculpture, painting, and words intersect is the relationship to text and the way they use it scratched into a form, in painted foam next to the rungs of a ladder, making up the actual chain of a mobile sculpture that elegantly and cryptically says “leave me here,” written around the front, side and back of a sculpture so physically. You must move around to read the various phrases. There are also painted foam arrows on a few sculptures that point to exactly where you should be looking, up and downward. There are fragments, phrases, memories, sensical and not. What I enjoy is there is no self-conscious use of text and nothing that also screams out in billboard lettering you must read me pay attention. Ahn treats language naturally and in varied ways formed by clay, foam, or pencil. Words appear as sculptural and sometimes fleeting thoughts. The text is fun and delicious to absorb in monochrome and color, in cursive, printed and leaves no surface unimpacted. That’s the first thing I enjoy about Ahn’s work. As a creator Ahn feels like an artist still intrigued by their own jokes, stories and memories, and they fully inhabit the work. Though Liz Ahn is a young Korean born nonbinary person, that isn’t the works primary concern or presentation. You can clearly see their identity as the hand that steers, it’s not the whole of the work, it’s a part of, and it’s refreshing to see and experience. In this painting show that is part installation and sculpture show titled, unobservable scavenger, there are plenty of places to enter, walk around, retrace, read, look up and then down. I walked around the show several times with the show’s curator Annette Hur, then I sat down to the side on a couch. Typical of Ahn’s work there are always surprises in detail. Grandpa's YMCA (2021) when but not always plugged in is a light box. Sitting, I viewed the back of a sculpture titled angrily redacted gravestone (2021) consisting of foam, plexi-glass, dead flowers, and Irish spring soap. There were images on both the front and back of the work. Looking towards the floor in the middle of the room is a brilliant three foot long dog bone sculpture with painted footprints on the surface surrounded by fake moss. It appears as a body. It lays flat with the protruding silver fish heads from the bottom of Grandpa’s YMCA that seem to shout at or speak to the dog bone figure that points toward the tombstone.

Liz Ahn, <em>an angrily redacted gravestone</em>, 2021. Foam, plexi, paint, dead flowers, Irish Spring soap, 38 x 22 x 12 inches. Courtesy Backyard Ghost.
Liz Ahn, an angrily redacted gravestone, 2021. Foam, plexi, paint, dead flowers, Irish Spring soap, 38 x 22 x 12 inches. Courtesy Backyard Ghost.

Liz Ahn, <em>fire escape</em>, 2021. Oil, foam, epoxy putty on canvas, 68 x 48 inches. Courtesy Backyard Ghost.
Liz Ahn, fire escape, 2021. Oil, foam, epoxy putty on canvas, 68 x 48 inches. Courtesy Backyard Ghost.

Outwardly Ahn’s exhibit addresses among many themes death as a subject: There are altars, unburied objects, shrines and tombs and there is a playfulness and humor with a day of the dead festive sensibility. An angrily redacted gravestone has a hanging green figure that looks like a Halloween skeletonl; above it is written,“Your skeleton here is nothing compared to all the skeletons we found in your closet…” Some of the text is purposefully illegible. There are many ways to read and experience Ahn’s unobservable scavenger. As the curator, Anette Hur, states “Ahn as an artist is the unobservable scavenger in terms of materiality, using things, anything to make up their work, things discarded or not prized by others.” There are also insects that populate this work: a fly rendered full scale behind a pane that is quartered enjoying a bed; a fly alone at a table; sitting upright enjoying a meal the window blinds are lowered half way. In ant queens (2021), silver ants surround two childlike figures asleep in bed, placed on an altar, looking down a larger red ant ascends the podium. There are many double-entendres and metaphors in this show. The ants could be menacing, and represent fears and nightmares in one scene but behind the windows in the bug voyeur diptych (2021) in their own habitats they are rendered beautifully and humanistically. At the entrance there is a self portrait of the artist seated naked clutching themself before a large foot of authority. Surrounding the frame are large spiders not quite menacing but perhaps looking in as voyeurs awaiting opportunities or simply as witnesses feasting lavishly at a vulnerable image. Ahn depicts the insect part of a scene without exclamation points, but always part of our inner environment as unobservable scavengers, ordinary parts of our landscape beautiful in their color and detail.

The bulk of the work was made during COVID. There is grey, there is isolation, with figures and creatures in solitary windows or frames. Text appears as fragments of thoughts. In a large-scale painting called fire escape, 2021 disembodied hands cling firmly to the rung of a ladder. There are crows and a grey centipede. In this painting it’s clear from the clinging hands that the scavenger is also a survivor. Maybe that is the clear message from a Korean born queer, nonbinary person, they are a survivor.

The exhibit space Backyard Ghost in Brooklyn is a gallery project/performance space created and curated by Annette Hur. The gallery showcases brilliant and upcoming artists, many of color and the performance events are timely, varied and cutting edge.


Pamela Sneed

Pamela Sneed is a New York-based poet, writer, performer and visual artist. She is author of Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery, KONG and Other Works, Sweet Dreams and a chaplet, Gift by Belladonna. She has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Time Out and Bomb. She appears in Nikki Giovanni's, “The One Hundred Best African American Poems.” A new chaplet, Black Panther, was recently published by Belladonna.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

All Issues