A Unique Art Gallery Experience

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY MARY JO KARIMNIA

Acquired in 2019, the Studiohouse on Malvern underwent an extensive two-year renovation process. “We completely renovated it,” says owner Mary Jo Karimnia. “It’s essentially a brand-new interior and exterior, with new plumbing, heating, and air conditioning. I personally worked on the floors and painted the entire interior.”

Standing out as the solitary pink residence on Malvern Street in Midtown, the house holds a unique charm. Mary Jo Karimnia, its owner, experimented with around 20 shades of pink before selecting the perfect hue for the siding of what she affectionately refers to as her studiohouse – a color she describes as “somewhere between coral and Barbie pink.” Her light pink pigtails rest gently on her shoulders as she proudly proclaims, “That’s my color.”

Among its distinctive features, the house’s front door boasts a captivating window. A glimpse through the glass reveals a display box, showcasing an art exhibit featuring sheets of thick paper adorned with muted tones and childlike drawings of buildings and cars suspended at various heights. This is the Porch Window Gallery, and Yangbin Park’s exhibit “Echoes of Home: Exploring Memory and Belonging” currently graces its space as the gallery’s inaugural show, conveniently located near Crosstown Concourse.

While many homeowners might hesitate at the idea of strangers approaching their front porch, Karimnia, who also serves as Crosstown Arts’ residency manager, enthusiastically invites all to peer through her window. “The great thing is, it’s accessible 24 hours a day,” she remarks. “Even at night, it’s illuminated and visible from the road. People can walk up to the porch, ride their bikes, do anything.” And the striking pink hue ensures the house is impossible to miss.

Stepping inside, beneath a sparkling pink disco ball suspended from the ceiling beams, we find ourselves seated at Karimnia’s red kitchen table, which faces a tufted pink couch. The floor features a mosaic of orange, pink, and white tiles, and a small pink minifridge occupies a corner. On the walls hang her intricately beaded and felted landscapes, reminiscent of vintage postcards. Karimnia, along with a contractor’s assistance, transformed the duplex from its dilapidated state into the delightful and distinctively pink haven she now refers to as the Studiohouse on Malvern.

She shares ownership of the house with Keiko Gonzales, a painter based in Bolivia and a longtime friend since their college days – “It feels like a hundred years ago,” Karimnia chuckles. Gonzales visits Memphis a couple of times each year, staying at the Malvern residence. However, the Porch Window Gallery is entirely Karimnia’s brainchild.

When questioned about the inspiration behind this project, she grins and shrugs, saying, “I just came up with it.” Initially, all she knew was that she wanted to utilize her new studio space to foster community engagement. “Much of my work is community-oriented,” she explains.

In the past, she spearheaded the “Unchained” series of art exhibitions, where she invited unfamiliar artists to participate in the first show, then encouraged them to return for subsequent exhibitions, setting off a ripple effect. “I still maintain friendships from that very first ‘Unchained’ show,” Karimnia recalls. “My aim was to become acquainted with the Memphis art scene, and the ‘Unchained’ series achieved that. We had about three shows, I believe.”

The Porch Window Gallery operates on a similar principle, she elaborates. Karimnia invites an artist, who in turn invites the next, thus forming a chain of invitations. The sole condition is that the inviting artist must extend the invitation to someone they do not know well within the artistic community.

Prior to extending her first artist invitation, however, Karimnia conducted a trial run of the Porch Window Gallery concept. She secured a Bridging the Distance grant from the UrbanArt Commission, which sought small-scale community-focused projects as a response to the Covid pandemic. “The intention was to offer an art experience that could be enjoyed without the need to be in a crowded space,” she explains. In April of the preceding year, amid ongoing renovations, she exhibited her cut-out depictions of disembodied eyes in the box affixed to the front porch window. This concept alludes to the Evil Eye, symbolizing protection against malevolent spirits.

Moving ahead to March of this year, with the renovations successfully completed, Karimnia was prepared to transition the responsibility – or more aptly, the window box – to the artist who would inaugurate the Porch Window Gallery: Yangbin Park.

“I didn’t really know Yangbin,” Karimnia explains, “but I was aware of his print practice.” Having relocated to Memphis in August of the previous year to assume his position as a professor of printmaking at the University of Memphis, Park is a relative newcomer to the area. He embraced the invitation as an opportunity to engage with local artists and establish connections. Through this venture, and subsequently through his growing friendship with Karimnia – who frequently hosts gatherings of artists at her studio – Park has found camaraderie with fellow artists he may not have otherwise encountered. Surprisingly, he extended invitations not to one but two artists – Johanna Moscoso and Emma Chauvin – to participate in subsequent exhibitions following his own.

Park characterizes this project as an experiment. “It diverges from the conventional methods of showcasing artwork,” he reflects. “It’s not a customary practice among artists, as the allocated space is confined to a predetermined, intimate size. I contemplated my body of work to determine pieces suitable for this project and was drawn to the joomchi prints I had crafted years earlier.”

Joomchi, he elucidates, refers to the traditional Korean papermaking technique involving hanji, paper produced from the bark of mulberry trees. “It’s lightweight and flexible,” he notes. “Incredibly adaptable.” Yet, beyond its practical qualities, joomchi holds profound emotional significance for him, evoking memories of his native South Korea, which he departed in 2008 at the age of 26 to pursue graduate studies in the United States.

“When you’re far away from home and family, you develop a heightened appreciation,” Park shares. “While I was in Korea, I didn’t think as much about my cultural heritage, as it was ever-present. But upon relocating to the U.S., I became intrigued by exploring our culture, heritage, my identity, and my family.”

Although Park envisions settling in Memphis, he acknowledges that since his arrival in America, he hasn’t quite found a sense of belonging. “Certainty has eluded me,” he admits. “Arriving as an international student, my immigration status was uncertain. Now, I possess a ‘semi-status,’ yet the future remains uncertain. The trajectory is unclear.”

Embracing joomchi, a technique he had previously set aside, allowed Park to create a tangible connection to his roots. “It serves as tangible evidence of history and memories, though I had somewhat forgotten about it,” he acknowledges. “My artistic focus had shifted towards installation-centric works and printmaking. However, this [project] reignited my passion for joomchi and hanji, as I felt a tangible connection. I wasn’t just working with the material; I was negotiating with it. The paper requires hours of meticulous handling. You could say it’s labor-intensive, but it encapsulates the history of one’s craft, their artistic mastery.”

For his exhibit at the Porch Window Gallery, titled “Echoes of Home: Memory and Belong,” Park imprinted images onto the hanji, bonding layers of paper to enhance its durability, creating a sturdier medium to hang from clotheslines within the window box. The childlike drawings, he elaborates, capture his fragmented recollections of Korea – his blanket and pillow, military boots from his service, his former apartment building, the truck he loaded with belongings when he relocated to New York for schooling.

At the center of this display, prominently suspended, is a piece of paper bearing the inscription “Mr. Kim,” paying homage to the Kim family that has ruled over North Korea. Park recounts how the passing of Kim Jong Il and the ascension of Kim Jong Un triggered a sense of foreboding across the peninsula, as fears of an impending war crisis loomed. Park personally received a letter from the South Korean military, implying that he might be drafted in the event of hostilities. This experience underscored the tangible impact of historical events on an individual’s life.

“I couldn’t simply ignore it,” Park continues. “The images encompass my memories, with some depicting events that directly influenced me.”

While these images are deeply personal to Park’s own experiences, they also serve as a catalyst for viewers to contemplate their own notions of home and belonging. Notably, Park adopted a childlike illustration style, ensuring that anyone could identify with and relate to the imagery. The Porch Window Gallery setting amplifies this message simply through its unconventional residence-based environment, distinct from the customary gallery space.

“The selected images tend to focus on domestic elements,” Park explains. “Though they may seem foreign here, they’ve found a new home. Upon installing my work, I detected no theoretical or abstract disjunction – my personal items effortlessly melded into this new environment.”

In a sense, the artwork offers a glimpse into the artist’s identity, much like peering through a window provides insight into the occupants of a home. Simultaneously, as viewers see their own reflections cast onto the glass pane, they are prompted to reflect on their connection to the art and the artist.

“I’m particularly drawn to artwork that invites interpretation,” Karimnia observes, pointing to Park’s creations as a prime example. “I don’t derive as much enjoyment from art that dictates or prescribes thoughts, perceptions, or emotions. Rather, works that leave room for individual perspectives on the concept of ‘home’ result in a more enriching experience.”

“For me, it’s incredibly rewarding to encounter Yangbin’s work daily

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