- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has originated a spirited exhibition of contemporary art after seasons of hosting traveling shows organized by other institutions.

“Jean Shin: Common Threads” is a particularly inspired choice in changing that predictable course. Organized by curator Joanna Marsh, the eight installations aren’t always successful, but they well relate to current events in playful assemblies of castoff military uniforms, prescription medicine bottles and losing lottery tickets.

Hundreds of these scavenged materials are laboriously arranged into large-scale works by Ms. Shin, a 37-year-old New Yorker who was born in South Korea and grew up in Bethesda.

The artist considers the recycled items of her creations as surrogates for their original owners, including the military servicemen, Asian-born Americans and high-school sports stars who donated them. By arranging the objects in great numbers, she suggests whole communities and encourages viewers to think about their own identity in relationship to such groups.

For this first survey of her artwork, Ms. Shin has created an ambitious piece that stands out from her earlier installations in its appealing universality.

“Everyday Monuments,” commissioned by the museum in 2008, is a collective concession prize to working men and women who go unrewarded for their efforts. It exalts such unsung heroes through nearly 2,000 gleaming trophies.

The artist reconfigured each keepsake by replacing its sports equipment with miniature hammers, steering wheels, typewriters, rolling pins and the like. These props, in turn, transform the metallic figures into carpenters, truck drivers, clerks, stay-at-home moms and other recognizable types. All embody the slender physiques of athletes — certainly a reward in itself.

Inspiration for the piece came from the monuments of Washington and the huge crowds drawn to the city during President Obama’s inauguration, according to Ms. Shin. The altered awards are arranged on a 45-foot platform meant to recall the rectangular space of the Mall.

From tall trophies at the center to smaller figurines at the periphery, the crowd swells like a well-choreographed protest or celebratory march.

Projected onto the adjacent wall are close-up photos of the altered statuettes to provide a sense of being in the crowd. Enlarged to life size, the tire-carrying and stroller-pushing laborers are shown shoulder to shoulder like a stylized version of a Social Realist mural.

Ms. Shin amassed the hundreds of trophies from Washington-area residents with the help of the Smithsonian. Some of the donations came from Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, which she attended in the 1980s before studying painting at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The process of collecting such artifacts and getting to know their donors plays a significant role in Ms. Shin’s work to heighten its associations with community. For “Armed,” the artist assembled a wall mural from uniforms gathered from branches of the military services.

As in “Everyday Monuments,” she dismantled the original garments and reconfigured their various parts. The collage of sleeves, bodices and trouser legs suggests both an abstracted landscape and a battlefield of dismembered body parts.

A less memorable clothing-based installation, “Unraveling” pays homage to Ms. Shin’s ancestry. Sweaters lining the tops of the gallery walls came from donors of Asian descent who are identified on labels sewn onto the fabric. Such a serial use of names is a well-worn gesture from contemporary memorial designs but is hardly noticeable here, given the remoteness of the textiles.

Both “Armed” and “Unraveling” incorporate canopies of rags and yarn to suggest networks of the like-minded, but these elements aren’t bold enough to make an impact.

A stronger example of Ms. Shin’s architectural interest is “Penumbra,” a quiltlike membrane made of lost and broken umbrellas. Shown in the exhibit’s only video, the 2003 piece was strung between trees in the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, N.Y., to resemble giant flower petals floating in the breeze.

More recently, the artist has combined fabric with more than 22,500 discarded computer keys to create “TEXTile.” This mosaic of letters and words highlights daily communication through e-mail and other digital means. Visitors can type messages into the first few rows of the keyboard so they appear on a screen at the opposite end of the 20-foot-long scroll.

From this viewer participation to the trophy figures and clothing, the installations reveal the human body to be a constant theme of Ms. Shin’s work. “Chemical Balance III” is no exception in alluding to our internal well-being through medicine.

For this installation, the artist gathered thousands of empty plastic pill bottles, clustered them into towerlike arrangements and illuminated the constructions from within so the containers glow with amber light. Three hang from the ceiling like chandeliers and two rise from the ground like floor lamps. This decorative appearance somewhat diminishes the installation’s seriousness in alluding to prescription drug abuse.

Time-consuming, handcrafted assembly is another hallmark of the artwork by Ms. Shin, who credits her parents as the model for her tenacity. They ran a grocery store in the District after leaving South Korea in 1978.

The intensive process required of the artist’s pieced-together installations is particularly apparent in “Untied,” an assembly of hundreds of thrift-store neckties hand-knotted onto a chain-link fence. Ms. Shin first created the colorful piece on a street in New Haven, Conn., as a commentary on the divide between wealth and poverty in the city. Unexpectedly, some of the ties were taken by passers-by to adorn their own suits.

The artist approves of such personal appropriation and sees it as part of the public engagement encouraged by her work.

Visitors who are tempted to mess with “Chance City” may find it collapsing in a pile on the floor. The clustered towers are made from $25,382 worth of discarded instant lottery tickets collected over three years.

Each printed square is stacked on top of another to form a house of cards. No glue or fasteners are used to secure the structures.

The precariously balanced artwork suggests the illusory promise of fast money, a fitting metaphor for today’s shaky economy.

WHAT: “Jean Shin: Common Threads”

WHERE:Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through July 26

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.americanart.si.edu