by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Meredith Rosen Gallery, an art gallery in New York, recently presented works by two artists, who both approach nostalgia from a refreshingly critical lens. The exhibition featured Catharine Czudej and Gowoon Lee, for Basel Social Club, and was on display in June.
Czudej is an American artist who was born in South Africa, and her practice includes drawings, paintings, sculptures, videos and works of art installation, and often combines the mixed media art she creates to explore themes of advertising and cultural nostalgia, escapism and the history of minimalism and brutalism. In this presentation, the pieces by Czudej that were on display examined the violent collision between late-stage capitalism and nostalgia. One art exhibit in particular, titled Young man with flowers, is an art sculpture that is shaped not unlike a balloon character, but is rendered in solid aluminium, adding a certain weight and seriousness to a form that would normally be filled with helium, and would signal a sense of childish playfulness. Discussing her work, Czudej tells STIR, “I am very interested in interconnected relationships between capitalism, pervasive mental illness and nostalgia or youth culture. Often, I’ll rely on objects or tools associated with early youth as a way to render the building blocks of a uniquely American mindset.” As she puts it, the artist tries to read the tea leaves with an open mind and reserve judgment, and positions her art as being radically apolitical.
The mixed media artist attended UCLA, and during her time there, discovered a way of making that allowed her to explore her many ideas through a variety of mediums. Her entry point into thinking about artmaking in a critical sense was enabled by YouTube, and as she explains, this was through “the worlds of people disseminating and cross-contaminating very human experiences and fantasies.” It wasn’t until Czudej truly studied the platform and dedicated herself to understanding the impetus one has to post and to share themselves with the world that she had the beginnings of a practice, and something to build on top of.
One wonders how the artist achieves a balance between the visceral and even possibly dark quality to some of her works, with her intent. Czudej responds to this, saying, “I see much of my work as portraiture. And marrying the form and layered meaning is all about balance. For example, in painting, you create a small set of rules and you apply them to your study in a way that feels true, and you try your best to stay out of the way.”
Coming to Lee, the Korean artist grew up in Auckland, New Zealand and is currently based in Düsseldorf, Germany. Hers is a practice most deceptive: she uses a soft, hazy pastel-like treatment of imagery drawn from old American cartoons in order to explore the underlying themes of violence and mania that sit at the heart of popular children’s television. She also applies aspects of digital image editing like zooming and cropping, along with her painterly process, to create art that prompts a sense of reverse infantilisation.
The artist attended Elam School of Fine Arts at Auckland University, where she was deeply captivated by sculpture and installation. Post-graduation, she came to Düsseldorf Art Academy to study painting, in line with her shifting interests, as she decided that painting was a more efficient medium for her to realise her ideas into works.
Lee discusses her fascination with cartoons from the United States, telling STIR, “Watching popular American cartoons gave me a lot of joy and excitement, but I remember feeling quite frustrated as a child because I often did not grasp what was going on in the cartoon I was watching. When I first encountered these, I was living in Korea, and the kind of paralinguistic communication I experienced in Korea was far from that of what was being portrayed in the American cartoons.” The children’s television shows that she enjoyed were gesturally expressive, and it was these signals that the artist used as an entry point to decoding the intent and subtext behind the surrealism on display, as well as the antics of popular characters, that many today will undoubtedly be familiar with. Lee continues, saying “remembering this confusion made me realise that it is not only spoken languages that have cultural boundaries, but also nonverbal forms of communication. Paradoxically, there is nothing more universal than the faces and stories of the characters in these cartoons because of their popularity, and I thought it could work as an anchor in my personal iconography, to help me explore different ideas and questions with more engagement.”
Returning to Czudej, when asked where she would like to see her work go in the future, she tells STIR, “I am really enjoying the mix of projects I have on my plate right now. This past year I have dedicated a lot of time to video work and sculpture. I don’t see that changing, but the distribution opportunities of those things and the types of audiences they find have much room for change.” The artist is very excited to expand on who has access to her work and to find innovative ways of engaging through other industries and platforms. Lee adds to this, “Technically I am still very new to my painting practice, and I feel I need to invest more time and effort to develop as a painter.” She plans to keep on exploring this medium in more depth, and has recently grown a particular interest in developing a technique to achieve the soft, hazy look of her work, that is entirely hers. Above all, she looks forward to stepping out of her comfort zone, and to working on larger scales, along with creating site-specific paintings such as murals.