“Dreadful” is the word that popped into Sang-Mi Yoo’s mind when she first encountered American tract housing.
Living in a cookie cutter home was not the Korean-born artist’s idea of a desirable living situation. Everything was identical, from the floor plans to the facades.
Yoo started exploring the concept of the home in her artwork in 2011 and continues to play with the idea in “Capriccio (an architectural fantasy)” at Redux Contemporary Art Center, 136 St. Philip St., where 15 of her works are on view until June 13. The show is affiliated with the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.
Laser-cut felts of floor plans and exteriors of homes hang in front of different brightly painted rectangular blocks of color on the main gallery’s walls. The repeated stencil-like forms are of different tract houses found in West Texas (including her own home) and South Korea, Yoo said.
Large hanging banners — oversized digital prints of her felt cutouts — are draped throughout the room in a manner suggestive of the physical space that a home occupies.
“It is interesting to see the juxtaposition of the pieces,” Yoo said. “On the felts you see the tangible reality, how it is made.” Several felts appear to be peeling away or bulging away from the wall. “When you look at the banners it’s more of a realistic illusion. They are very much flat.”
In 1996, Yoo moved from a big city in Korea to a small town in Illinois. However, the real culture shock came when she traveled to Lubbock, Texas, where many of the houses look interchangeable.
“I always thought that Western living would reflect more of the personality and individuality of its occupants, but that wasn’t reflected in the architecture,” Yoo said.
Although hesitant, Yoo moved into the sea of identically designed homes. And, to her surprise, she liked it.
“The longer I lived there, I found there was something very emollient about living in the same looking housing,” Yoo said. “It was almost like having an animal’s camouflage.”
Living in the tract home also triggered childhood memories, Yoo said. She began to realize the cultural parallels between her Korean and American living experiences.
Yoo’s grandmother had lived in a simply designed version of a tract home in the South Korean countryside called a New Village home. Built in the 1970s, the house was constructed as part of the government’s economic development plan to help impoverished rural households after the end of the Korean War.
Similarly, tract homes in the United States were first introduced on Long Island by the building firm Levitt and Sons after World War II. Affordable housing was scarce at the time, and the Levitts satisfied the housing need for returning U.S. soldiers, which resulted in a major boost toward what is today commonly called suburbia.
Yoo’s work initially viewed tract homes through a critical lens. Now, her approach is much more playful.
Nonetheless, Redux Executive Director Stacy Huggins believes that the exhibition tells a cautionary tale. “We are all striving for what we think is the ‘American Dream,’ but then it ends up looking the same,” Huggins said.
For Yoo, the ideal home was never an attainable concept. “It’s an impossible idea,” she said.
Still, always in search of new housing designs whenever she travels, Yoo was drawn to Charleston’s own single-style houses and said she will be featuring them in her work in the near future.
Lauren Cavalli is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.