A Secret Desert in Chicago: A Review of Soo Shin at Patron Gallery

Mar 3, 2021 / by Gabriel Chalfin-Piney / Newcity Art

Photo: Evan Jenkins/Courtesy the artist and PATRON Gallery, Chicago

It felt like we were let in on a secret as the door to Patron Gallery buzzed us in. I looked down the stretch of rooms, to Soo Shin’s exhibition in the back, my eyes drawn to the phantom arms—a gallery worker’s segmented by a wall—lighting candles within the cavities of “Beacons.” I reached for my phone to capture it, yet the moment was blurry when I looked back.

I have a terrible habit of entering a gallery and looking down until I can grab the press release, grounding myself with artist statements. I know this sheds layers of mystery that might be present if I approached the work unhindered, so I have moved toward a middle ground, where I stand in the center of a gallery space for a few moments before reaching for the safety of the printout.

Shin’s solo exhibition, “The Body of A Dreamer,” wields a budding energy, like that of a desert landscape, filled with life that is secretive, not always seen. Before reaching for the gallery text, I sensed this ghostly quality in Shin’s work. The white space stands in as a suggestion for a world outside of the walls. Each of the multimedia sculptures in her exhibition are calculated throughout the space, a strangeness in the closings and openings as you move around each work, many low to the ground, inviting you to loom over them or shrink into a squat to get closer—how you might navigate a hike, looking forward and down simultaneously, avoiding tree roots. The printout detailed a story of Shin’s contact with a stranger during a trip to Marfa. The stranger, born and raised in the city, remained to care for family, while another part of her being chose to move on.

Photo: Evan Jenkins/Courtesy the artist and PATRON Gallery, Chicago

Winters in the Midwest echo the stories in Shin’s work, they seem dormant, potentialities not yettransferred kinetically. I am cut off from family on the coast of the country and the other side of the world—yet mementos allow me to visit with loved ones. Each piece in this gallery articulates intimate longing, doubling in function, held as relics of history and as keys for moving through.

“A Breath to Memory (Lauren’s Feather)” is partially hidden from view, until you move to the middle of the space and pivot back—another secret whispered—the audience invited to blow on a feather, contained within the work, to watch it take flight. The feather indicative of birds, as they spiral up and out on wind tunnels toward the top of a valley.

I have this jacket that was my mother’s when she was my age. It has vast pockets on the front flaps, enough for a hand—or a wing. “The Body of a Dreamer” possesses this same quality, there is something about the pocket in this sculpture constructed with unadorned muslin that makes me want to reach out in the gallery space to touch it, ball it up over and over just so I can iron it out perfectly—an attempt to recreate the stoic mountainous attention the draping commands.

I remember a trip I once took—a friend and I hid our bicycles in the high grass—to an arboretum. We lay in the grass, ate, read and wrote. I was struck by how time was lost. Shin’s exhibition feels appropriately like this, ghostly and unbound by a timeless nostalgia. I am walking through a desert landscape when I find a freestanding portal, “A Place Between Leaving and Staying,” an entry to Shin’s world, one built with steel, the artist’s hair, and a collected desert honeysuckle branch—holding space for both the natural and created world.

I have observed both friends and strangers who have worked in art spaces over the years. Many check their watch, waiting for a break or ending, yet in the world Shin has invited us into, no one would want to check the time. The candles in “Beacons” flicker while “The Head (introspection)” lays with its face locked toward the sky in an eternal gaze. Grief often feels like cars this month, stuck in the snow but not sure why they have stopped moving. Shin’s art mines the depths of mourning and loss, yet it does not feel like winter, instead we are back in summer by the Lake, looking for a private space to bake in the sun—for when you enter the exhibition you are led to each piece, as if lovingly by the hand.

Before leaving the exhibition I traveled to the feelings associated with Friday night art openings of the past in Chicago—there was something about choosing my path through a crowd that came with a reassuring sense of control. That reality is far away, yet after spending time with Shin’s work, an intimate viewing felt like a gift. Shin’s work addresses the stillness surrounding motion, the familial memory within an object, the intimacy of the senses and personifications of light.

I do not see this as a review, as much as a whispered invitation, the same invitation this work tenders. “The Body of A Dreamer” builds worlds of connection and yearning, a spectral invitation to move and witness. Darkness is not seen as something to be avoided. Shin treats it as something to move through, integrate and embrace—shifting mourning and loss from experiences of lack into forms yielding love anew—a phantom bloom from this midwinter prairie. The secret I reference in Soo Shin’s exhibition is the art of duality, facing that we are not alone, and knowing that we are held.