LAWRENCE — Yoonmi Nam is having a moment.
That’s what her art — whether print, sculpture or ceramic — is about, she says: capturing the fleeting and sometimes surreal nature of time.
This week, the University of Kansas professor of visual art will have three different exhibitions overlap: one featuring a work made before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown of 2020, and two others with a mix of works made during and inspired by lockdown and others made after life returned to something more like normal with the advent of vaccines.
Pre-COVID, Nam was making prints that juxtaposed pop-art color and subject matter with black ink brushwork inspired by her South Korean heritage. She was branching out into ceramics, too.
A billboard-sized version of her 2018 print, “Blizz,” went up in early September and remains on view on the Kansas City Art Institute’s H&R Block Artspace Project Wall near the corner of 43rd and Main streets. It is the inaugural project in a yearlong series of partnerships pairing women artists and curators — in Nam’s case, starting with Raechell Smith, Artspace director/curator — to create new works for the Midtown public art space.
But Nam’s work has continued to change, and her newer works reflect the struggles she (and most of us) endured during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when she was forced to teach remotely and barred from her campus working space. Some of these newer works went on display Sept. 10 in Nam’s solo exhibition at GrayDuck Gallery in Austin, Texas.
Works from the same two series – one a group of black wall hangings and the other a group of green ceramics – will be featured in a group show opening Oct. 8 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, “Found in Translation: Explorations by 8 Contemporary Artists.”
Nam explained the two very different types of work she created in 2020 and 2021-22.
“What has changed with this new body of work is I didn't have access to the print shop or the ceramic studio, at least in the beginning,” Nam said. She was able to work in a space at Studios Inc. in Kansas City, Missouri, where she is in the midst of a long-term residency for midcareer artists.
“As often happens in my work, I started to notice something, and that grows into something over time,” Nam said.
What she noticed was that “everybody had deliveries coming to their homes, so just this accumulation of different delivery boxes.” In her mind, the artist said, these ad hoc arrangements related to the temporary collections of junk mail and/or takeout-dinner boxes that inspired her previous works.
She recalled “how scared we were of everything … creating these quarantine time zones, not touching, not opening things up until a few days later, when we didn't know anything about how the virus behaved. So that sort of became my subject matter.”
Without access to printmaking or ceramic facilities, but with rolls of DuPont Tyvek flexible sheeting in hand, Nam began to work with it.
“I basically use those boxes,” Nam said. “After flattening them out in order to recycle them, I noticed the shapes and different kinds of forms they have. … I started to use those as templates to trace their outlines.”
She cut those shapes out of or incised them into layers of Tyvek sheeting, which she first coated in sumi ink, then sprayed with COVID-killing alcohol-based disinfectant to achieve a mottled look.
The works are black, symmetrical and not a little bit scary to behold.
“COVID is scary,” Nam said. “Some people say it looks like metal. Other people say it reminds them of armor or insects.”
The other body of work, created after she got back into her ceramics studio, features castings made from the inside, or negative, space of various packing materials – the plastic trays that hold rows of cookies, bowls of salad and computer parts safe from harm during shipping. The differing shapes are united by the use of a single color – celadon green – that is traditional in Korean ceramics.
A group of these ceramics and a group of the Tyvek works will be featured in the Nelson-Atkins exhibition, which Nam called an honor for a living, local artist.
Image: Yoonmi Nam calls this group of celadon-glazed ceramics “Keeping.” Credit: Courtesy of the artist.