"I feel very territorial about this space," artist Olga Lah says about her studio, which occupies the garage beside the ranch-style Lah shares with her husband in Long Beach's Bixby Knolls neighborhood, "I want to keep it sacred, even though on the surface it looks like a bunch of junk in a corner." The sponge-wall is a segment of the installation artist's piece "Array," which was created in 2011 for exhibition in a storage pod and reinstalled as "Array II" at L.A.'s Craft and Folk Art Museum in 2012; last year, it appeared as "Array III" in Ptuj, Slovenia. Comprised of over 8,000 sponges Lah found at dollar stores and Gardena's Trash For Teaching, a nonprofit organization that sells new discarded materials for a dollar a pound, "Array" provokes several simultaneous reactions. From a distance, its multicolored components unite to form a playful, bouncy surface that resembles English Licorice Allsorts; up close, it's hard to resist the urge to touch the fluffy, disarmingly familiar surface, which seems to want to touch back.
"I like the ephemeral quality of installation work," Lah says. "It only exists in a certain time and place. It's different every time that you put it up. And then there's just me working my ass off and sweating. I was all scratched up the other week from handling this wire; there's something very physical about it that I like. It feels like real work, moving things and lifting things. Me framing a print and hanging it on the wall, that's fine, and that's great, that's all I have to do and walk away. But I don't feel like something was made or done."
The halved pool noodles that look like monumental sea life are a fragment of 2011's "Burst," which is Lah's most repinned piece on Pinterest, "usually under something like 'great vacation Bible school craft project'," Lah laughs. The coil of paperbacks on the wire fencing in the corner of the garage are the resting form of "Translation," a 2010 installation inspired by Lah's visit to a chapel where prayer books dating back to the 1940s were kept. Like all of her work, "Array," "Burst," and "Translation" are theologically engaged. The strong connection between Lah's art and faith sets the Torrance-born Korean-American artist apart, imbuing her installations with ecumenical verve. In photographs of her 2012 installation "Ascension," the trellises now earthbound in a stack in the garage fly diagonally into the air across an empty stage. Images of "Compline" a 2011 beach installation named for the final church service of the day, show wooden chairs hauntingly arranged in a halting path out to sea.
"A very pivotal moment early in my art practice was learning about [Swiss Reformed theologian] Karl Barth's idea of thaumazein, which is an ancient Greek term for 'wonder,' a wonder that pointed specifically to something higher," says Lah, who holds a masters degree in Theology from Pasadena's Fuller Theological Seminary. "Sometimes my work is about a very specific idea of transcendence or the idea of what grace means from a Christian perspective. But other times, as with "Array," it's really diffuse. What do all of the materials I use matter in this spectrum of eternity? That's the belief in Christianity, that life continues on in this eternal spectrum, that space and time is not linear but on top of each other. And I believe that, so the question is how and where? My work is always an exploration into those ideas, with everything in this garage."
The artist, who was recently announced as the winner of this year's prestigious Korea Arts Foundation of America (KAFA) Biennial Award, delights in discarding the boundaries between fine art, crafts, and construction. "I go to Home Depot a lot for inspiration. It starts with looking at objects and materials. There is this interesting pattern that I think is related in the work of a lot of Korean and Korean-American artists who gravitate towards pattern and repetition and use everyday materials. I've wondered why that is. Being successful at that, too -- I've seen a lot of work coming out of Korea, even previous winners of the KAFA award, who approach materials in a way that is similar to my work. I'm not sure quite why. Is it something about order and discipline and having things organized?"
Growing up, she says, her Presbyterian parish formed the center of her immigrant family's social life. "Church was where I went to Korean school, where my mom met her friends." Her mother's sudden death when Lah was thirteen, she says, "put me in kind of a tailspin. I barely got into UC Riverside -- you didn't have to have a portfolio to enter in as an art major, it was one of the only UCs with that policy -- but I thought, well, I'm good at drawing, so I'll get by in that way." There, Lah joined the Riverside megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship, which she describes as "super conservative and evangelical." In her final year of college, Lah was admitted to a graduate arts education program at Harvard, but her family insisted she stay home to care for her father, who ran a corner store in south Los Angeles. "So I turned my back on art and I really thought, I must have a higher purpose, and it must be about something else. That's why I went to seminary."
After several years spent working administrative jobs, Lah intended to complete a doctorate in theology, but left the program after earning her masters. "I was still in the grips of what I had learned about the Bible, which made me rebel against what I was being taught." Only in 2009, when she returned to Fuller to audit classes in the school's burgeoning Theology and the Arts program, did Lah allow herself to return to art. "My changing views on religion and my rediscovery of art were these two areas that were finally talking to each other in my life, a meaningful dialogue. I felt that I was -- not completely understanding, exactly, because there were so many more questions provoked by these realizations -- but finding a way to process those questions through art."
Lah's most recent piece, "Expectation," continues her exploration of abstract concepts that embody categories of emotion and experience. Installed at the Old Barn at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California, where Lah completed a residency this past May, "Expectation's" power derives from its simplicity. Several long white strips of flagging tape reach up from the floor, loop over rafters in the ceiling, and dive down again, suggesting paths of the soul. Like much of Lah's work, the artist sees it as an excavation of the ideas of grace and transcendence. "The truth is that grace abounds. It's available to everybody. It's always been available. It's just a matter of allowing yourself to receive it. The biggest lie is that you need to run after it. Just making that decision to open up to it is the key thing. That's what I am trying to express in my work."