So Yoon Lym, Anthony, 2011. Archival pigment print, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
So Yoon Lym’s richly detailed and powerfully graphic acrylic paintings on paper are derived from photographs of the intricately braided hairstyles of her students at JFK High School in Paterson, New Jersey. By enlarging and isolating the images, limiting her palette, and orienting the viewer towards the backs and tops of heads, Lym mines the fertile territory between representation and abstraction, creating photorealist portraits that defy conventional definitions of the genre. Instead of locating individuality in facial features or status in adornment and props as traditional portraits do, Lym’s spare, but commanding paintings express the unique identity of each sitter through the woven patterns of their hair, calling attention to the artistry and beauty of the braids. At the same time, the hairstyles at the center of these compositions connect sitters and viewers to more expansive histories of racial and ethnic identities and cultural traditions and link Lym’s work to the important contemporary practice of “identity” art.