Sunny, One So True

Artist Soo Sunny Park is stubborn about the kind of art she wants to make and how she makes it. That could be a problem.

Again, Park, with Burnett and artist Sarah Stratton assisting her, didn't complete the work until the night before the opening. "She always pulls it off," Fitzgerald says assuredly.

In addition to incorporating Park's basic elements -- light, air, surprise -- Fitzgerald says "Transmissions" held a subtext as well: Park's memory of the architecture of Korea, the floors and stairs and people moving up and down.

Park says of her basic materials, "I've been using air because I've been thinking about the idea of something tangible and intangible. You know, it's there but it's invisible. The thing that I like about using air as a medium is the buoyancy and impermanence."

In a Columbus, Ohio, park, the artist wrapped dying trees and constructed organic forms.
In a Columbus, Ohio, park, the artist wrapped dying trees and constructed organic forms.

Terry Suhre, director of Gallery 210 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, first saw Park's work at the Contemporary. "It was an enchanting piece, very smart, I thought," he says.

Sitting in his empty gallery, taking time out to pack up the last show, Suhre has more gray in his beard than when he came to St. Louis a few years ago. Like Fitzgerald, Suhre knows the cruelties and the kindnesses of the art world, yet with all this knowledge, he maintains a healthy lack of cynicism.

"I was really taken with Sunny," Suhre says. "She's so friendly. She's so open. At least as far as I could tell, there's sincere honesty and openness. I don't think she's anybody who's conniving or somebody who would use you to get somewhere else."

Suhre gets the sense that even if Park wanted to play a curator for favor, she wouldn't know how. "There's a naïveté that comes through in the work. There's a spontaneity there that keeps us guessing: Can she pull this off? Can she get this done?

"Even with the piece she did at the Forum, it was clearly in the vein of an Eva Hesse, or even [local artist] Sue Eisler: found materials, industrial materials, grand idea and then a very elegant understatement of it. She doesn't overembellish her work -- the right amount of material, the right amount of space, very carefully done."

"Transmissions" appeared at the Forum in the spring of 2001. That summer, Suhre curated a group show at the Park Avenue Gallery on Lafayette Square called Exposure. He included Park, who made "To Give Air to One's Theory" for the show.

A great translucent cloud, or pair of lungs, or geometric spheres -- however the work was perceived -- it took up a wall of the gallery and slowly, even grotesquely, filled with air and deflated, filled with air and deflated.

"I wanted holes where the air could seep out," Park says. "When inflated, it was happy, attractive, but, deflated, it's not attractive."

As memorable as the work is, Park has her reservations: "It was a little too sparkly, too Barbielike. It had a lot of pink."

Suhre remembers fondly the last-minute completion of the work -- at least, more than a year later he looks back with fondness.

"It was another grand idea," Suhre says. "It was one of those things that just got done on time. These are things that drive curators absolutely insane, but it's the stuff legends grow from.

"I was there at 11 o'clock, the night before the show was supposed to open the next day at 10 or 11 [a.m.]. She and Brian and another young artist were sewing this thing together still. Brian had engineered the pumps to make it work. It was 11 o'clock, and everybody else was done. I looked at Sunny, and she gives me that beautiful smile and says, 'Don't worry. It'll be fine. It will all be done.' I look at her. I don't know. I shook my head. I went home and went to bed.

"I come driving in at 11. I walk into the gallery. There it is, this enormous form, breathing. Two little boys were going, 'Oh man, that's so cool. Watch it do this.'

"It was almost like Christmas. You're looking at this. You see this work and you know she worked all night on it. She got it done. You look at it. There are no corners cut. It's doing what she said it would do. It's a certain type of genius that can make those things happen.

"One thing that infuses the work is that spontaneity, although it's very labor-intensive. These things still have a sense that they just kind of happen. That's exciting. It's refreshing. And it's very unexpected -- the forms and ideas seem to be gathered in the wind sometimes. I don't know where she comes up with these things."

There is no easy place to be an artist. Go to the cosmopolitan centers where art and ideas thrive -- or at least where they supposedly do: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Berlin -- and, chances are, you'll spend more time working to pay your rent than devoting it to making art in the studio. That is, if you can afford a studio.

You can spend your youth trying to get in, trying to get recognition, trying to be seen and acknowledged.

And even if you get that acknowledgment -- shows, press, sales, a modicum of fame -- before you know it, you're yesterday's news.

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