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Sally, Cats and Nine Lives

Having participated in the group exhibition You Were Bigger Than the Sky, You Were More Than Just A Short Time curated by us at Belenius earlier this spring, NYC-based Sally J. Han's work is back in Sweden in what is her solo exhibition Nines Lives with the gallery. Featured here is the statement for Nine Lives that our team's Ashik Zaman penned for Sally's new exhibition.

Sally J. Han, Figure in Blue, 2023, acrylic paints on paper mounted on wood panel, 61 x 76.2 cm


Here’s the tea; this is a gallery that really likes cats. A hope to at some point fill the gallery with cats is one I’ve been privy to before. So, while I haven’t been involved in this exhibition, but rather in the first group exhibition that first saw Sally J. Han’s work on the walls of Ulrikagatan, I’m going to let on that this is a pretty dreamy exhibition considering just that. As I ask Sally what shapes her interest in cats, I’m told that she participated in an exhibition that looked to examine the perennial motif of cats within art, a couple of years back at her NYC gallery Fortnight Institute. Something just stuck with her since that time. I like that, that things don’t always have to be so tangled and complicated. The truth about cats - and dogs, for that matter, is that they are kind of just cats and dogs and always have been. However, if in the past we used to have an ownership relationship to cats, we today have elevated that rapport to parenthood. It’s called being a cat parent and is hardly a novelty anymore, but rather a mundane notion. That’s as much as I know, I don’t own cats myself and neither does the artist actually! She has two birds, I’ve met them, they’re wonderful, but they’re also the reason she couldn’t possibly have cats now.


Sally J. Han, Peeking, 2023, Acrylic paints on paper mounted on wood panel, 50.8 x 40.6 cm

It makes me think of the idiom "The cat that ate the canary" which has nothing to do with the cartoon image of Sylvester the cat chasing Tweety bird, but nevertheless both things come to mind at once. Similarly, several other idioms, whether hanging on to their explicit wording or symbolic meaning starts popping to mind in connection to Sally’s exhibition. "It’s raining cats and dogs" stems from how house pets used to hide under heavy storms and rain. There’s something about the mood and melancholia that the idiom informs that resonates so well with her work. At the core, her paintings have often struck me as being about windows into an ordinary life being lived and time running its cyclical but mundane course. Not much always happens but the details and attributes found in the scenes amount to the abundance, or richness of a quiet day, that makes for the axis of a singular life. In this regard, I’m struck with humour looking at what for me appears a key painting in the exhibition. As the cat parent is away, presumably busy with daily work, the cat sneaks up on a chair and stills its boredom by properly surveying its parent. With a paw on dollar bills left there, the cat becomes the witness of the hustle that is the everyday.


I’d be attentive to art historical references if I were you, you might find a bit of Caravaggio or Joan Miro in the exhibition. Or something rather Edward Hopper-esque, reeking of film noir, when the mood amplifies a few notches. But don’t think Sally J. Han to be so precious with art history. Even in such Nighthawk-ing scene, there’ll be plenty of silent humour to go around.


Ashik Zaman


Sally J. Han's solo exhibition Nine Lives is on view at Belenius in Stockholm, October 26 - November 18, 2023.


Sally J. Han in her studio in NYC at a studio visit, January 2023. Photo: Ashik Zaman

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