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Creative shopping

Choi Jeong Hwa, godfather of the consumer/culture convergence, is in town to exhibit and buy/work.

December 23, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

TWO days before the opening of Choi Jeong Hwa's multifaceted installation at the Gallery at REDCAT, he can't stop trolling for stuff to add. "More," he announces victoriously, fresh from downtown L.A.'s toy district with a box of leggy dolls endowed with auburn corkscrew curls and fuzzy white hemispherical breasts. "More," he cries again and again as he unloads other finds and unwraps a garishly glazed ceramic mountain of fruit.

More is definitely better for Choi, a leading Korean artist and designer with expansive ideas about what art can be. More color! More textures and patterns! More shiny surfaces! And in this, his first solo show in the U.S., more mass-produced kitsch. His idea of heaven appears to be inflatable palm trees, red-flocked piggy banks, foil-wrapped plaster heads of Andy Warhol and reproductions of famous antique statues.

"Your shopping is my art," he says, repeating a favorite aphorism as a clue to his aesthetic. But not just any shopping. Despite his preference for buying in bulk, Choi -- who sees the world through dark-rimmed glasses and exudes joyful energy -- is selective. The goal, he says, is just the right mix of "old and new, East and West, hobby people and real artists."

In "Truth," his three-part exhibition at REDCAT, Choi has commandeered the lobby and bar areas as well as the spacious gallery. The ambitious project combines found objects from many sources with custom-made reproductions and functional items produced in the artist's studio in Seoul. Some components are veterans of earlier shows; others are new additions. Reproductions of Greco-Roman statues were shipped in from a recent exhibition in London. Styrofoam containers, stacked in a Brancusi-like tower in the lobby, were gleaned from the streets of L.A.'s Koreatown. Choi, who has completed a residency at CalArts, also selected three-dimensional works by a few students for the gallery installation.

"His art is about blurring lines between the gallery and the marketplace, and between industrial design and art," says Clara Kim, acting director and curator of the gallery. "He pushes things to an extreme and questions the idea of authenticity and authorship."

Choi is far from the only high-profile artist to grapple with these issues or to find inspiration in popular culture and rampant consumerism. Like Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, whose artworks and commercial products are packing in crowds at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Choi has a factory-like studio, and his exhibition includes objects that are for sale.

Do you want one of the too-green Chinese cabbages, made of silicon and piled up in a mound as a tribute to kimchi, a staple of Korean cuisine? It's yours for $100. Or you can buy the whole batch for $20,000.

Still, Choi's conglomeration bears little relationship to Murakami's perfectly crafted paintings and sculptures. And though it joins a growing heap of work from artists around the globe who assemble vast quantities of banal goods, his international mix of materials distinguishes itself, not surprisingly, with its distinctly Korean flavor. "It's like a bibimbap," he says, referring to a popular Korean dish of rice, meat, vegetables and spicy bean paste -- all mixed up.

Choi, who sometimes describes himself as "made in Korea," has stationed two larger-than-life-sized statues of Korean policemen -- made as decoys to control traffic in Seoul -- at entrances to REDCAT. In the gallery, he pokes fun at traditional Korean flower stands, designed to welcome visitors to restaurants and public events. Instead of rounding up a bunch of the real things, he has created his own and arranged them in a circle. One stand is loaded with fake flowers. But in the others, Choi has replaced the tacky blossoms with masses of feathers, shoes, stuffed rubber gloves, fans, toy musical instruments or bags of Korean snack food.

"Easy," he says of his art making. "Easy is important."

But he's much more than a junk collector.

"I really wanted to make a new work in Los Angeles, with things from the streets, the markets and daily life," Choi says. And he has transformed many of them by wrapping, painting or creative doctoring and by arranging related objects in groups. Masks covering the faces of statues play with the figures' identities. Sculptures placed on pedestals of different heights become a skyline. Ceramic ducks swim on a pond made of a mirror and bubble-like glass vases.

"I made many landscapes here," Choi says, looking around the gallery. "There's a green land, a red land, a human land, a shopping land, an island."

Street cred

The exhibition is the latest work of an artist who was born in 1961 in Seoul and received a BFA degree at the city's Hongik University. Bored with academic painting and sculpture but fascinated with new developments in architecture, design and commerce, he gravitated to interior and production design and eventually established himself as artist whose work spilled out into the streets.

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