K. Min, “1000 Scars #3,” 2012, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches
K. Min, “1000 Scars #3,” 2012, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches
There is a little gem of a show waiting to be discovered in the small upstairs gallery of Rockland's Caldbeck Gallery. K. Min is of Friendship, Maine, and Seoul, South Korea, and this is her first solo show at the gallery. It includes 17 recent pastels on paper and oils on canvas or panel, which range in size from modest to diminutive.

One of two additional works hung outside the show proper gives viewers a wonderfully complex clue what to look for in Min's work. "This Is Not a Melon" depicts a slice of juicy fruit on a white plate that is strangely tilted toward the viewer. The plate's support and background are equally unsettlingly slanted and painted in trompe l'oeil wood grain. Steam or smoke rises from the fruit. The painting is a tour de force of illusion and its simultaneous disruption. Surface is believable, but its spatial relation is not. The title of the work and unexplained smoke constitute an inside joke, referring to René Magritte's painting of a pipe, "The Treachery of Images" (1928-29), which bears the inscription "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe). Magritte's subject is the tension between an object and an image of that object - the basic concept of representation. Min's painting contains another double entendre as the artist informed me that what she painted is really not a melon - it's a squash. That probably explains the steam too, introducing time as another pictorial concern.

The majority of works in the show are still lifes, with a few views of interior spaces and landscapes interspersed. Min's work is strongest when she is able to apply her keen sense of intimacy. Seven paintings and pastels of dead insects, including bugs, moths, ants and spiders, all display the artist's highly economical and dynamic design bravura. Displayed on white plates that are often closely cropped, the little corpses are reverentially and lovingly presented without any distracting or contextualizing background. These are indeed stilled lives, the sorry expirations of summer nights, "Summer" being the title of these works. As vanitas pieces they present death while evoking memories of enjoyment; they also recall historical still lifes of freshly killed game.
With a background in Western art history, I perceive strong evidence in Min's work of studying certain masters of that canon, including some who did not necessarily specialize in the genre of still lifes. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) come to mind, and especially the table arrangements of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) for their tilting planes. Min's still lifes are homages to the domestic, the mundane, the overlooked. They are finely detailed but not obsessively so, aiming for clarity rather than accuracy.

The heavily used wooden cutting boards in two paintings, entitled "1000 Scars," are tilted upward in an indistinct setting and are perspectivally skewed. This is clearly not occasioned by a lack of skill but deliberate, as if the artist does not care to convince us. This nonchalance becomes truly delicious in the two almost monochrome paintings of tub and sink drains. Strainer and stopper are immediately recognizable and conform with our expectations, yet the white enamel we know should be curved and describing the shape of the tub and sink is not given enough detail here to confirm its form. Min's images are not only beautiful and intimate examples of a spare visual poetry, they also propose a dialectic of knowing and seeing. Her pieces contain a pervasive tension between what we know something looks like in three-dimensional space and how the artist has rendered it. Amidst the quietude is subtle, knowing disarray.

Two views of empty interiors and one of a pool are gorgeous descriptions of atmosphere. Heat has blurred the edge of the shadow cast by a window shade; the coolness of an illuminated pool seems almost palpable in a Florida night. Min treats these scenes similar to her still lifes: walls are at odd angles, and the pool water does not seem to have any surface.

Whether or not spatial distortions and other visual incongruities derive from using photographs as points of departure does not seem relevant. Min's intensely spare compositions in which nothing detracts from the artist's center of attention not only speak of a purity of intent but also open up a space of vulnerability. Not aiming for truth of appearance, Min's pieces instead disorient the viewer ever so slightly to suggest profounder themes of time, memory and change. In her art, beauty coexists with sadness.