The title of Hyun Jung Jun’s exhibition reads like an incantation, as if upon entering the gallery, viewers will be instantly transformed. Fittingly, “by flame by fog,” Jun’s solo show at Goldfinch in East Garfield Park, conjures a glade, where reality is suspended and unearthly charms work a strange magic. Visitors enter through the back gallery and immediately encounter the building’s vine-adorned windows, kissed by several wax figurines shaped like winged insects. A burst of color hits if you turn around. Jun has painted two walls in broad strokes of reds and blues, creating the illusion of a windswept and misty landscape that dizzies the eye. On small wooden shelves perch more wax critters, their wings extended as if ready to flutter skyward.
Jun, an Evanston-based artist, makes artworks that are meant to be transient as much as they play with our stock measure of time. She has received national press for her elaborate, edible cakes, made under the name Dream Cake Test Kitchen, whose aesthetic one could describe as Seussian cottagecore. Look closely at her wax sculptures, and you’ll see that they are candles; the wicks of the Goldfinch batch seem to double as graceful antennae. Carefully dipped in Jun’s kitchen, each candle is intended to eventually meet their fate by fire. “I actually want people to burn these, I want them to perish,” Jun said when we spoke in mid-June. “Really to just disappear.”
She first began working with candles as an undergraduate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when she would light them on fire in performative pieces. In Jun’s Candles & Water Gun (a 2012 work including a series of images and a performance) she squirted a water gun at a lit candle and photographed her attempts until she hit her mark. The resulting images of this markedly fatuous race between water and fire revel in the subtle shifts of a metamorphosis interrupted.
Ideas of shape-shifting and suspending time have continued to guide Jun, though her candles have since become less stick-like, more fantastical. Those at Goldfinch are inspired by moths, which break from their long sleep in cocoons spun by their former caterpillar selves. Jun’s moths are fetching but undeniably grotesque, presenting nubby protrusions on their wings and abdomens and a color palette that blends earth tones with high-key hues that bring to mind a confectioner’s counter. “The candles before this were butterflies, and I wanted to go into a direction that’s a little bit darker,” Jun said, noting that she is also afraid of moths: “They’re really beautiful, but I’m not over their eeriness.”
There is something quietly unsettling about Jun’s wax creatures, displayed to recall pinned species in a nascent lepidoptera collection and destined to burn. Fully formed for now, but not quite in flight, they suggest in this moment our own positions as humans emerging from more than a year of limbo: profoundly changed, dizzied, and surviving precariously.
When life now seems surreally supercharged and repressurized as Chicago reopens, “by flame by fog” proffers a timely invitation for deep introspection. In addition to candles, Jun has assembled on one windowsill cracked eggshells that cradle strawberry seedlings; on one wall hangs small, photographic stills of the moon and clouds, taken from footage Jun recorded in Chicago and her native South Korea. Like the cleansing licks of fire or the nebulous drift of a rising brume, these simple scenes denote meditative ways of experiencing time, as a slow but persistent unfolding. Indulge in minutiae and dream against routine, Jun seems to urge, while asking: Who can we become when we stall the consuming march of time? v