[Note: earlier this year, the artist Chong Chu, asked me to write an essay for an exhibition he was curating featuring his work and that of five other artists that would be exhibited in Dallas (at the Mary Tomas Gallery) and Seoul, Korea (at the Tong-In Gallery). The catalog was recently published and I wanted to post the full essay here. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Chong Chu and all the artists involved for being granted the chance to write about their amazing work.]
The exhibition title, 2.2.2. Seoul-Dallas-Seoul, refers to the three pairs of linked artists in the show and the cultural exchanges between them. Chong Chu and Hyunju Chung are both Korean-Americans, and as curator, Chong Chu was interested in organizing an exhibition featuring two other pairs of artists: the Korean artists Keunjoong Kim and Sundoo Kim, and the American artists Lisa Ehrich and Rick Maxwell. Despite the differences in their backgrounds and cultures, Chong Chu has organized a body of work with distinct commentaries on the relationships between humans and nature, process and evolution.
We think of nature as simultaneously pre-human and beyond-human. The machinations of the universe operated long before hominids walked upright. In many ways, scientific study in its purest sense is simply our need to make sense of something well beyond us. Our sensory responses are the foundation to how artists present the world around them, translating and blending smells, tactility, sounds, and sight into something deeply psychological, spiritual, and personal. I am reminded of what quantum physicists call the “Zeno Effect”: this is the theory that subatomic particles will not shift or change if they are being measured.¹ In other words, human observation, human documentation of a natural phenomenon in a state of flux will cause it to become immutable. This is not just a metaphor for what artists do intrinsically, but specific to the artists in this exhibition.
A wide range of materials and methods are on display in this exhibition: porcelain installations, paintings evoking traditional Jangji landscape painting methods, wooden wall reliefs, thick formalist stratas of oil paint surfaces, and effortlessly complex images reminiscent of folk art. It’s overwhelming at first. But, there is a unifying interest in nature among all of these artists. For example, natural materials as process are evoked in the tamed red swoops of Rick Maxwell’s lyrical wall relief, Gypsy Dancer. These are augmented by the wheat-like textures he manifests in his drawings by working the paper surface with charcoal, graphite, and eraser. In Maxwell’s work, process itself results in natural forms, in an articulation of human touch as materiality. Or take the formidable fluorescent wood-grain quality of Hyunjun Chung’s The Rites of Spring, where if we look closely at her painted marks we bump up against an erroneous detail, a delicate relief form reminiscent of amphibious scales or a tea doily. At the heart of all of this is the push-pull of human interaction with nature, our desire to want to control it while recognizing its uncontrollability. This dichotomy is at the heart of Sundoo Kim’s paintings, such as To Show the Stars-Welsh Onion. Trained in traditional Korean landscape painting, Sundoo Kim’s work tackles the irreconcilable aspects of our experiences with the natural world. The palpable blackness of the starry night sky offsets the pale nuances of the foregrounded imagery: the welsh onion plants, the barbed wire, the song bird, all composed with delicate washes of color framed within stark shapes defined by that utter black night. Inspired by seeing the stars at night and pondering their imperceptibility during the day, Sundoo Kim unites a rift here, as the night sky meets the daytime environment.
As humans, we want to see ourselves in the natural world. It is a way for us to rectify our relationship with something of which we are merely part. Lisa Ehrich’s porcelain installation, Drawing on Nature, wryly contends with the relationship between an artist wanting to represent nature: a mound of rippled leaf forms are not just reinforced, but even denied by the stark black linear glaze veins drawn on the upper surfaces. Leonardo da Vinci famously hinted at the relationships between human and natural forms:
“When he [Leonardo] traced the arteries of a dissected body he saw trees and root systems; when he drew trees he saw veins. He believed, as the Greeks did, that the patterns and structures of small things mirrored the same patterns and structures in the universe as a whole.”²
We anthropomorphize the world around us. But there is a sense of elitism, even narcissism, in doing so, that does not fully take into account how nature is ever changing, ever evolving despite us.
The art world is often antithetical to dramatic evolution: it wants bodies of work, a clear through-line in an artist’s oeuvre. But like the forces of nature they are, artists want to evolve. This is perhaps most evident in Keunjoong Kim’s work: during a retrospective and revealing artist’s talk, he noted how each of his series was a dramatic shift in style.³ Such a wide-ranging body of work is based on his own experience with process, his openness to resolutely shift and change beyond expectations to an unknown but needed purpose – this is evolution in its purest form. His most recent work in this exhibition features evocatively abstracted forms contending with (as he describes it) the dichotomy between good and evil. In these paintings, areas of color are never simply shapes: the swirling brush strokes extend beyond forms, bleed into one another, and become obscured by carefully constructed impasto strokes. Based on the title of the series, Natural Being, I would extend this dichotomy further to suggest this work addresses a specific quality of our modern existence: the gulf between our natural selves and the demands placed on us by contemporary society. Such disjunctions refer to the ways that humans interface with nature, even impact nature. Ehrich’s series of porcelain leaf dishes, with their rippled edges and perfectly angled stems, flit between suggesting the randomness of nature and human-made function.
Chong Chu, Garden Walker 2, oil on canvas, 2018 (Photo by the author)
The carefully layered imagery in Chong Chu’s paintings often incorporate the blending of natural and human: linear patterns that look like details of skin, leafy vines curl around compositions, in one instance trailing down a human figure’s arm and merging with the internal organs. In another painting, a severed tree trunk grows out of the back of a walking figure, leaves and thorns sprouting from it. This is one of the most heartening aspects of Chong Chu’s imagery: the impact of humanity on these natural forms is never definitive, as cut trunks of wood continue to sprout new leaves, life continues despite human intervention and human destruction.
Early nomadic humans seemed to live in harmony with nature: they observed, they hunted; they took, of course, but always wanted anything taken to be renewed. It was large scale human settlement that upset this balanced approach. As the writer Ashley Dawson has noted, the remains of one of the first historical civilizations, the Sumerians, presents evidence of the first large scale ecological disasters. These include the decimation of timber sources, and irrigation systems that led to unexpected silting of their soil, forcing them to shift to crops like barley that could better handle the saltier earth.⁴ An irrevocable disconnect between humans and nature has been a constant since. These six artists, each from very different backgrounds and cultural perspective, raise similar issues in their work. It’s not about controlling nature, but presenting our experiences with it.
¹ “‘Zeno Effect’ Verified—Atoms Won’t Move While You Watch.” Accessed March 3, 2018. https://phys.org/news/2015-10-zeno-effect-verifiedatoms-wont.html.
² Rebecca Stott, Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, 1st ed. (New York: Random House, 2012): Kindle Edition locations 1168-1170.
³ Artists’ talk with Sun Doo Kim and Keun Joong Kim at Brookhaven College, February 13, 2018.
⁴ Ashley Dawson, Extinction: A Radical History (New York: Or Books, 2016): 19.