Tonight, visual artist InJung Oh and I are in the back of an obsidian SUV, headed to VMR; a stylist-owned, luxury label boutique in the Gold Coast. At our shins, a canvas wrapped in plastic stretches half the length of the backseat. It’s a piece that Oh, who is the guest of honor, will display at tonight’s event.
She’s offered her brushstrokes to Chicago’s own 84ROCKWELL for an exclusive run of limited-edition leather belt bags. Started in 2014, 84Rockwell is the company behind designer Bridget McDermott. Her chic, hands-free bags score points on every level for being transitional. These bags can be worn around your waist, over one shoulder like the cool kids, or on a diagonal across your back. Manufactured in Chicago and made in the USA, the hip, full-on-fringe and buttery-soft leather pouches adorn shelves at VMR.
For the event, Oh has hand-painted her signature Volossom flower on a selection of black and marsala-colored bags.
Wearable Art: 84ROCKWELL’s Limited Edition ‘InJung’ Artist Series
“It’s a piece of art you can take with you,” Oh says. At VMR, the crowd is a mix of fashionable leather-legged women, collectors of InJung’s work — even a man here and there. Along with the bags is a series of custom IPhone cases, and, on the wall above racks of cashmere and silk, a word is stenciled: Volossom.
If you don’t know the meaning of the word Volossom, you’re not alone. It’s a word that doesn’t technically exist, or didn’t exist until Oh created it herself. It’s a word she was desperately seeking, one that both her English and native Korean vocabularies failed to yield.
The Birth of Volossom
Picture the scene: It’s 2006 and SAIC student InJung Oh is in her studio apartment, standing on her bed, wearing Hanbok (a traditional, dress-like Korean garment). Her roommate has turned on a fan, aimed it under the fabric, and snaps pictures of Oh as the Hanbok billows upward.
The resulting photographs are provocative: the hitherto-reserved artist standing aloft, legs bared, while a garment that is championed for its modesty (picture a bedsheet that attaches to your waist and descends to the floor, accentuating nary a hip bone nor an hourglass figure) soars skyward, exposing its subject and defying — no, mocking — its very purpose.
But Chicago-bred InJung Oh was not mocking her native culture. She was expressing something, something that still she couldn’t define in words.
The photographs, which Oh initially hid in a corner of her room, became the catalyst for her signature body of work.
A True Artist
Born in South Korea and raised by parents she refers to her as her best friends, Oh and her family moved to the US when she was 13. Faced with cultural dualities and trying to reconcile her identity, Oh gravitated towards paint and canvas. After being recognized for her talent by her high school art teacher, Oh decided to pursue art as a further area of study. Like the folds of her billowing Hanbok, InJung’s career rose quickly, and within a few years, she was exhibiting in Taiwan, Italy and here in Chicago at the Ed Paschke Art Center.
But before finding success, Oh admits that she felt constrained by cultural expectations. Something was boiling within, a feeling she describes as “powerful”, and it was screaming to get out.
Her earliest works reflect this, as I saw for myself this past Thursday at her studio in the Zhou B. Art Center in Bridgeport, where she is a resident artist. A piece titled Ecstatic features a volcano spewing rainbows, equal parts frenzy and precision.
“I started researching the prefix “vol-” and found that it signified a wish or desire, and combined it with [the image of] a flower opening,” Oh tells me. She defines Volossom as a manifestation of wish or will. In other parlance, “If you believe it, you can achieve it.”
Standing in her studio, surrounded by paintings that feature her signature Volossom stamp, I feel that I am speaking to an artist whose work is made powerful by her unabashed self-awareness. She doesn’t gush about her pieces; she isn’t shy about them either. Oh is an open book, extremely in touch with what inspires her and highly conscious of her goals as an artist.
The visual representation of Volossom, which appears in her paintings, on the walls of her studio, even as plaster figurines she created for a charity event, is where her artistic discipline emerges most poignantly.
“Are you a fashionista?” I ask playfully, noting her party-pretty wardrobe as I follow her to her workroom. “Ha! No,” she says. Yet she’s beautifully dressed, heel-clad and skirt-poufed, clacking around her studio like the boss that she is. The juxtaposition of her stilettos and the paint smattering the floor is in itself an art study: polish vs. clutter, sophistication vs. disarray, and the imagery adds even more glamour to her milieu.
“Don’t think I’m weird,” she says with a smile. Pausing before two small canvases, one black and one red, each of them looking as though they’ve burst open at their fibers, she says, “Sometimes I look at a canvas and think, ‘What if it doesn’t want to be a canvas? What if it wants to be a sculpture?’ ” She gestures toward the pieces, and I get it. Oh is an artist in the truest sense: She sees what’s not there, and then labors until it is.
Half-joking, Oh says, “I think of myself as a scientist,” and as we continue our tour of her workroom, she shows me glass work, wood work, sculpture and figurine.
Of her portfolio, my favorite piece is one called Serendipity. From her “Leaves of Life” series, it’s a verdant triptych of flower blossoms, but the process is more whimsical than her other pieces. “For this one I was thinking, life, breath, and I got the idea to blow the paint onto the canvas.” Although this series differs remarkably from her other pieces ( it doesn’t for instance, incorporate her signature Volossom imagery) it’s unmistakably her own.
I am curious to know what will inspire InJung Oh’s next body of work.
“Balance,” she tells me. “My life is chaotic, right now I’m seeking balance.”
“But I’m not rushing. I have kids, I am a wife. So I’m not rushing anything. I’m still emerging.”
Having just wrapped a solo exhibit at the Zhou B. Art Center and collaborated with 84Rockwell for the belt bag launch, it’s not as if Oh is hitting the snooze button. No matter where she directs her creativity next, it’s clear that Volossom – whether tangibly or symbolically – will continue to influence her work.
“We all have Volossom inside of us,” Oh tells me, motioning to her heart as she speaks, “and it’s up to each person to express it.”
Sarah Corday is our newest contributor to Chicagoings. Follow her work here!
Images courtesy of Sarah Corday and InJung Oh.