Sophia Chai: Character Space

January 19–May 17, 2024
Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery
Public Lecture: Thurs, April 4, 5pm
Reception: Thurs, April 4, 6-7pm

“While being carried on the back of my mother in our neighborhood of Busan, I would point at the signs and repeat the words that Mom would read to me. Soon I was able to read without understanding all of the words. The ease of learning to read the Korean alphabet is because there is a certain logic. The shapes of the vowel characteristics, for instance, correlate with how open or closed you could make the inside space of your mouth in making each word. Each character is a picture diagram of the space inside the mouth.”  

                                                                                                            —Sophia Chai 

In 1987, Chai immigrated to New York City from South Korea as a teenager without knowing English. Looking back, she has described that experience as feeling untethered to any internal compass that she could use to navigate her place in a new country with a new language. She visually explains these experiences to us by reinterpreting the Korean language’s characters in photographs that enable us to see the contradictions of visual and verbal communication. Her images rest in the space between intellect and intuition. Chai’s curiosity about the interior space of her tool—the large format camera, comparable to the interior space of a mouth—leads to the idea of the camera obscura, a darkened room with a small opening to the world. 

Chai uses optics (focal length, perspective, perception, and magnification) to pin down the marks, rubbings, and paintings on her studio walls. The overall effect is a collage of ideas, with an efficient yet complicated economy of picture making with intentional gaps. These gaps can describe the moment right before the sound of a word comes out of the interior space of the mouth. One’s mouth may understand and sound out words, but one’s conscious knowledge of their meaning may not be fully there yet. This liminal space is the punctuated strength and slippery ambiguity of her photographs. Chai is an artist who remains open and disciplined, committing to the mindset of the child at odds with that of the adult. The photographs born from this are restrained but not withholding.