Artist recycles for beauty and commentary

2:56:11 PM CDT - Thursday, August 26, 2004

By Shannon Littlejohn

Jean Shin is not a bag lady, but she does indulge a frequent habit of picking up other people's discarded items. Shabby shoes, cast-off clothing and loser lottery tickets litter this collector's life.

But Shin needs no "Clean Sweep" home-organization team. The Korean-born artist who calls Brooklyn, N.Y., home has a passion for combing big-city streets for throwaways so that she can recycle and re-create them into works of art.

Shin has been on campus this week at the Ulrich Museum of Art, working on her installation of "Hide," her most recent reclamation project. The installation, whose formal debut was Thursday, Aug. 26, features hundreds of worn leather shoes all deconstructed, paired and stitched to form hanging sheets of rich, undulating color.

"I'm astounded at the way Jean Shin is able to make beautiful works of art that are layered with meaning out of stuff that would otherwise be thrown away," says David Butler, director of the Ulrich. "Her art works on so many levels."

On the purely aesthetic level, Butler says, Shin is brilliant in her manipulation of everyday objects into works of artful elegance and presence that also carry interesting and profound statements about society's throwaway culture.

An earlier work, "Alterations," is a cityscape built from cylinders of excess fabric from shortening pants and jeans. Its themes touch on Shin's own immigrant background with allusions to U.S. fashion industry standard sizes (a fitting challenge for many, including people of Asian descent) and the fact that many Asian immigrants' dreams of utopia end up on the cutting floors of sweatshops, tailors and dry cleaners as they join the hundreds of thousands of other invisible laborers who immigrate to U.S. cities in search of the good life.

The busted-dream theme is continued in "Chance City," a high-rise metropolis constructed of $17,119 worth of discarded lottery tickets precariously balanced and seemingly on the verge of collapse.

In another installation still on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Shin used donated clothing from museum staff to create a site-specific mural and corresponding hanging sculpture.

"Because she uses recycled material," says Butler, "we can't help but think about the original function of those objects, whether shoes, lottery tickets or pants. Because they are ordinary things, they are things we are all connected to."

In "Hide," Shin strips her mass assemblage of shoes of their original function and structure (covering and protecting human feet) and reformats them into abstract forms. Perforated leather rings provide voids and openings that are critical components of "Hide," as the installation is as much about negative space as positive, as much about protection as exposure, says Elizabeth Dunbar, the former Ulrich curator who arranged the Jean Shin show before taking another curator position at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City.

Dunbar notes the scale shifts between the various sizes of coupled shoes, how they relate to our individual bodies and how our bodies connect with the enveloping environment. It's a body/architecture dynamic that is a hallmark of Shin's work, she says.

"And like all architecture, 'Hide' embodies a human history. What are the life stories that go untold in each pair of shoes?" says Dunbar.

Jean Shin's exhibition runs through Sunday, Oct. 3, at the Ulrich Mueum. For more information, call 978-3664. There is no admission charge.

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