Folio Arts

Mischief, Myth and Monsters

Elena Øhlander explores the darker side of identity


Three large canvases depict an ornately dressed female character dominating an otherworldly, psychedelic collage of a landscape. She wears a grin as she hunts and captures kobito, elusive gnome-like creatures that represent the more mysterious aspects of nature, but whether her intentions are malevolent or just plain mischievous is unclear.

A female figure submerged in a black pool up to her brooding eyes silently stares down the viewer from within her colorless frame, luring them to join her in the primordial darkness—but to what end?

An umibozu, the angry spirit of a drowned monk, rises from the deep. A ship, adorned with Japanese characters, then tosses violently, nearly capsizing and spilling its treasures into the swelling sea. The aesthetic is familiar, reminiscent of the traditional ukiyo-e style of block printing, but the demonic spirit itself is suggestively feminine in form, perhaps suggesting female empowerment, retribution against an oppressive patriarchal force, or even likely both.

These works, among others like them, compose the narrative put forth in Endless Dream, Elena Øhlander’s solo art exhibition set to open at Space 42 on Sept. 27. Joined by the common thread of traditional and contemporary Japanese folklore, these disparate pieces coalesce within the context of an elaborate dream world created to reflect the artist’s vivid dreams and explore ideas of culture and identity.

The new show picks up where the artist’s previous body of work left off. In that series, titled simply Ramen Girl, Øhlander played with depictions of the iconic bowl of noodle soup as a motif to begin what has become a prolonged exploration into ideas of culture and identity within a context familiar to her audience. What at first glance might appear to be little more than an illustrative ode to a recognizable piece of popular culture on closer inspection reveals a hidden depth. In one piece, the artist’s subject (a likely proxy for the Asian-American female experience, if not the artist herself) can be found bathing in a bowl of broth with a look of pure contentment on her face, perhaps representing the comfort achieved by the artist’s obsessive cultural immersion. Another depiction finds Ramen Girl being the vessel itself, her mind gently steeping in the broth, infusing her thoughts with umami.

Keep looking, though, and cracks are revealed in the vessel showing evidence of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing pottery by rejoining the broken pieces with a golden, silver or platinum lacquer. Literally translated as “golden repair,” kintsugi is an art form unto itself that creates something of increased value because of, rather than in spite of, its damage. In this, the artist seems to demonstrate an acceptance of her own internal cracks and scars, bearing them openly through her art as something beautiful and worth celebrating rather than hiding them out of shame.

Albeit a universally accepted symbol of post-WWII Japanese culture, ramen’s heritage is actually partly Chinese in origin, as is Øhlander’s, thus making it the ideal analog for her passion for a culture not natively her own and creating a means of establishing her own identity within that context.

As first-generation immigrants of Chinese and Norwegian descent, Øhlander’s parents were more interested in assimilating into their adopted culture than preserving the traditions of their respective heritages, leaving young Elena on her own to explore her identity as an Asian-American. Young Elena developed an affinity and appreciation for the most predominant pop culture phenomenon to reach the States from the Far East, anime and manga. In these, she found empowerment through the positive and heroic depictions of Asian people, especially female protagonists, who were relatable if not identical. They also helped her leave behind a rough childhood as the victim of abuse.

Upon completion of the series, Øhlander felt satisfied with the message she had set out to express. “When I finished, I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m done. I have nothing left to say about that',” she recounts. So she’s moved on, this time diving deep into Japanese folklore and exploring the more nuanced and historical ways it can be adapted into a contemporary conversation.

Øhlander credits the inquisitive nature of her young daughter Phoenix as the catalyst for her new direction. In the course of observing her mother at work, Phoenix, who herself is half-Japanese, began asking questions about the specific mythological characters that inspired much of her mother’s work.

Determined to provide her daughter with the cultural education Øhlander felt she had missed out on as a child, she made it a point to satisfy Phoenix’s curiosity by researching the answers to her questions. As a result of this immersive exploration, the characters themselves began to penetrate Øhlander’s already vivid dream world, thus setting the stage for her current body of work.

The new paintings continue the artist’s internal exploration into the idea of identity by portraying actual scenes from her dreams. Various yokai, the mostly mischievous, often malevolent and occasionally benign class of supernatural beings found in Japanese folklore, dominate the subject matter, here portrayed not in their traditional, sometimes terrifying forms but as otherwise attractive young girls. The tone of the work is simultaneously dark and whimsical, acknowledging the duality of the universe and the human experience that permeates nearly all Eastern philosophies. Whether the subjects in her paintings offer secret treasures or inevitable doom is left to interpretation, but it is evident that the price of messing with them at all is likely a steep one.

With Endless Dream, Øhlander demonstrates that she has evolved as an artist and has tapped into some truths, though inspired by something foreign to her audience, are undeniably universal.

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