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|● Ha, Chong Hyun: The traces on the wall - Robert C. Morgan -Art Critic
| Ha, Chong Hyun: The traces on the wall|
Robert C. Morgan -Art Critic
Ha, Chong Hyun is a supremely gifted painter who blends visual and spiritual realities into a
consummate holistic vision. Through his intuitive sense of aesthetic understanding, he evokes a quiet rebellion that defies popular trends in favor of a uniquely personalized vision. Rather than dwell on issues of ideology in art and repetitive styles of appropriation, he focuses instead on the primary concerns of painting, which include the subtle coherence of surface, gesture, space, and light. As with any art that achieves lasting significance, Ha, Chong Hyun understands that the artist must reflect deeply on his work in order to discover those hidden emotional traces that give substance to painting.
What is discovered in the act of painting may also impact the viewer. Painting on this level embodies the transcultural reality of the present. While critics with divergent opinions may advocate another postmodern approach to art where signs and logos from commercial media are recontextualized in order to seduce the viewer into a mesmeric trance of informational overload, the paintings of Ha, Chong Hyun point in a very different direction. They embody art as a material idea that occurs through a process of holistic consciousness. Ha, Chong Hyun’s ability to transform desire into a heightened mode of reflection directly informs his abstract imagery in such a way that makes it appear significant. His paintings purify
those ambiguities that distance us from reflecting on our spirituality. He is an artist who captures this distance and brings it up close. He is an artist who makes us feel that we are thinking in a way that is somehow removed from the mundane realities of everyday existence.
Ha, Chong Hyun’s approach to painting is not only about a reconciliation of emotion with material, but also about keeping a sense of what is real within the torrents of simulacra that perpetually distort human culture. Art is not only about how much information one can grab from the consumer world and synthesize into fragments of ambiguity. Rather significant art remains —as it atways has —within the ethical dimensions of nature, that is, within the dialogue between one’s interior consciousness and the everyday world. Thus, the true artist strives to move into the world not through imposition, but through humility and a concentrated focus.
There are two further points regarding Ha, Chong Hyun’s quiet rebellion that require elucidation. First, his paintings are relatively silent, but not somber. His reductive, actively engaged surfaces are teaming with vitality. They are vigorous signs filled with energetic release and abandon. They are also silent in the sense that a visual language is persistently dormant. Paintings do not move in the same kinesthetic patterns that are revealed in digital optics. The energy and the infinite variations of this energy play an important role in relation to this language. Together they go beyond the predictable signs that consume our everyday existence. The second point is that through quietude, Ha maintains a revolutionary position
sustained through silence, yet given to action through a subtle form of expressionism. This expressionism evolves from an impulse that equivocates between a fierce sensibility and a delicacy. The intrepid Ha, Chong Hyun is able to move pigments across the surface or pull the paint downward within a short distance of the bottom edge. ln doing so, his rebellion as a painter holds intact. There is nothing meek or surreptitious about his modeling of paint or his gestural output. Everything holds its course —in time and space. The rebel who functions through art is one who conceals his temptation to give way to action.
Thus, the painter’s unpredictable action becomes a means to open the threshold to spiritual experience on levels that are beyond the status quo and to elevate the viewer’s perception beyond the contrivances that offer allure, without giving any true fulfillment or satisfaction.
Given his desire to denote silence in his painting, Ha, Chong Hyun resorts to a technical process that enters the surface from the reverse side. After years of experimenting with the burlap surface in the late 1970s, He began pushing the pigment into the surface from the underside of the canvas. This special technique allowed his tactile surfaces to maintain their roughness and, at the same time, to support additional layers of thick paint on the surface in front where he may easily maneuver the pigment. As the Korean critic Oh Kwang Su has insightfully revealed, the absence of color in Ha’s painting suggests that his earthy pigments are treated more in terms of material than variations of hue, value, or even tonality.
This is important, especially given Ha’s earlier more complicated "hard-edge" paintings in the 1960s that embrace bright primaries in red, yellow, and blue, as well secondary oranges, purples, and greens.
Through direct modulation and contrast, these emblematic paintings may relate to signs or mandalas in Tantric Buddhism or traditional Korean ceremonial masks or seedpods from nature. ln any event, the later Conjunctions —following Ha’s politically inspired conceptual works of the early 1970s —reduce the use of pigment to black, white, and earth tones, often in a monochrome manner that eventually inspires a kind of blank writing based on the organic geometry found in Hangul —the phonetic Korean alphabet invented by King Sejong during the Joseon Dynasty in the 15th century.
What about these Conjunctions that have occupied Ha, Chong Hyun for more than two decades?
Certainly they have taken many forms and variations since he began to do them. The Qi or energy plays a fundamental role as the artist engages in a kind of ancient mystical writing, a set of marks and inscriptions that hold an emotional and intellectual counterpart, an analytic counterpart as we11.
His Conjunction paintings are embedded within time in that they actually represent the temporality in which the painting was made. They are no illusions on the surface. The trace of emotion is transmitted within the present moment. What is evoked through the mind/body mechanism is a threshold of liberation.
The66 gritty surface on which pigment has been pushed through the linen is the starting point. lt is the stage where the action will immanently occur. The dramaturgy of the brush —the tool for both writing and painting —inscribes a sequence of abstract notations in space. From these abstract notations one gets a sense of a Neolithic of prelinguistic structure defined by the space around it.
The action is less about an assertion of the Ego (as would be the case in most Western styles of 20th century expressionism) than about the search for emptiness. One could say that the emphasis of Ha’s inscriptions are precisely the opposite of what would be found in Abstract Expressionism or in the works of more recent followers of this tendency, such as Brice Marden, David Reed, or Terry Winters. While it would be a distortion to say that the Ego is the sole focus of their concentration as painters, it would be difficult to deny that the self-conscious aspect is more present in their works than in the work of Ha, Chong Hyun. Part of this may be attributed to the difference in cultures or to differences in training.
(In American art schoots, for example, too much emphasis is given to the student’s ability to state one’s intentions verbally in relation to their work.) Though his training in calligraphy became nearly invisible in the political works in the early 1970s, namely the steel spring and barbed wire works stretched over rough burlap, his “beautiful writing” rejuvenated itself a decade later and has continued to be a major underlying principle in the artist’s work ever since.
In contrast to the self-conscious principle of Western Modernism, (with some notable exceptions, found primarily in works by Europeans, such as Henri Michaux, Van Velde, Tal Coat, and Lucio Fontana), Ha, Chong Hyun’s paintings in recent years are less about presence than about absence. ln each case, Ha’s intention moves toward emptiness, not fullness —humility, not assertion. Moreover, the line between painting and writing in his recent work has become nearly indistinct, a tendency radically different from the West. Often Ha will employ the raw linen near the base line of his paintings to reveal traces of the
writing/painting that has occurred above it. Some of the white paintings in the Conjunction series have a resemblance to works by the American painter (often mistakenly called a Minimalist) Robert Ryman.
Yet it is important to acknowledge that Ha’s intentions are vastly different from those of Ryman, and, conversely, the intentions of Ryman are different from his. The affinity between these artists is relatively superficial. It is true that both artists use white pigment, but this has never been exclusive in the paintings of Ha. Curiously, Ryman has suggested many times that the point of his work is not the color white, but that the white pigment neutralizes assumptions of content that are foreign to the pragmatic and material aspects of his work.
While it is often mentioned that Ha was a founding member of the politically-motivated “A.G.” (avantgarde) group in Korean during the early seventies, it is less mentioned —probably due to ideological and character differences —that he is perhaps closer to what is occasionally referred to as the Korean “space painters.” The five important members of this group include Ha, Chong Hyun, Park Seo Bo, Yun Hyung Keun, Lee Ufan, and Kim Tschang Yul. While they emerged as intentionally and stylistically unrelated, one may sense an abiding connection between their works through the use of monochrome, reductivism, calligraphy and their attention to surface space. Just as art historians make claims that artists consider inaccurate, so artists sometimes distort or exaggerate their claims in order to be understood as entirely independent and separate from one another. While these arguments are interesting and often relevant—u such as the important connection between Lee Ufan’s Japanese Mono Ha aesthetic and the Arte Povera movement in Italy —there are moments when seeing these painters’ works in relation to one another (as in the Gwangju City Art Museum in 2000) where the interactive spatial contiguity between them defies any logical or linguistic equivalent. Within this context, Ha, Chong Hyun makes clear that his propensity for the surface is not merely a style, but a manner of painting inextricably connected to his interior consciousness. While there are themes that repeat from the 1980s to the present, it is difficult to ignore the synergistic impact in various passages of the Conjunction paintings. Whether they include vertical curtains of paint pulled down short of the bottom edge or quickly inscribed block-style calligraphy, there is an indelible consistency that immediately becomes clear. The consistency in Ha’s paintings suggests a statement by the American
Abstract Expressionism critic Harold Rosenberg who wrote in the early 1950s that the accumulation of gestures in an “action painting” requires a visual “tension” in order for the painting to retain a sense of resolution. While Rosenberg was speaking largely from the position of French phenomenology —u specifically in dialogue with the theories of Maurice Merleau-Ponty —his point carries a reasonable objectivity that separates his critical and formal observations from the problem of the artist’s Ego.
While I find Rosenber’g idea of visual tension important in terms of Abstract Expressionism, l am not completely certain how it functions in relation to Ha, Chong Hyun’s paintings.
I understand Rosenberg’s idea of visual tension as more culturally specific in relation to the New York School of the I950s, rather than as a formalist panacea that accounts for Korean or Chinese abstract painters as well. The exact visual tension that Rosenberg understands in Franz Kline’s black and white gesture paintings of the 1950s is unlikely to be found in a Conjunction painting by Ha, Chong Hyun.
This is not to say that visual tension is exempt from Ha’s paintings. lf it is present, the appearance and the emotional content within the image will not be the same. The dynamic interchanges in Kline’s brushwork are different from the block-calligraphy and the surface texture found in Ha. Another factor is the seepage of paint through the weave of the linen, which gives a distinct aura to Ha’s surface manipulations. On close examination, it is evident that Ha’s calligraphy occurs at a different speed with a control and restraint that shares little affinity with Kline’s more scrupulous approach. Even so, it is important to acknowledge that Kline was a trained realist landscape and portrait painter before moving into abstraction. While his calligraphic precision may have been different from that of Ha, Kline’s Portrait of Nijinsky as Petruschka (1949) suggests a logical transition as he proceeds from realism into
becoming one of the major figures in Abstract Expressionism.
On visiting the artist’s studio outside of Seoul in January 2008, I was taken by Ha’s resurgent energy as he keeps moving through time and space, as his Conjunctions keep opening new thresholds of experience. He is so much within the moment that the energy of his paintings —within his paintings —is impossible not to see. His Conjunction series offer a profound contribution to the history of abstract painting on an 68 international level. I have no special argument with Ha and no special discourse, other than I essentially agree with his position. In an era where painting and sculpture seem less the issue than conceptual
installations, I have to admire the fact that Ha, Chong Hyun understands the importance of what he is doing and continues to move forward. Having a sense of regard for the quality of life —in contrast to the American notion of materialism —is a necessary condition for the artist. I believe this quality is very much within his work. His paintings are excavations into a world of sensibility and alacrity. His paintings strive toward illumination, even enlightenment. This is a personal concept, but not without a reference to the global village where art has become increasingly subjected to the rules of an illusory market where money seems to be the only equivalent left in art. While l strongly disagree with this kind of marketing, Ha, Chong Hyun is an artist who gives the evidence that art is more than investment and speculation. When the marketing strategies of the past decade begin to fall by the wayside, it will become evident that only artists of substance will survive. The paintings of Ha, Chong Hyun offer a tactile response to the virtual world. They are telling us that not everything is about information, speculation, and investment —that there is more to art and life that these narrow exigencies and trajectories.
In Ha, Chong Hyun, I detect a clear alternative, a clear-sighted relationship between art and life, I see the embodiment of traces on the wall, the traces of a proud history and culture, and the aesthetic evidence that his art will continue to survive for generations to come. His work continues to provide viewers —u not only Korean viewers —with encouragement, satisfaction, inspiration, and a powerful sense of hope for the future.
The Post-Conjunctions of Ha, Chong Hyun
On the occasion of Ha, Chong Hyun’s quantum retrospective at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, several examples of the artist’s most recent work collectively titled, Post-Conjunctions, were included.
Begun in 2010, these paintings set forth another premise by which the artist has moved towards a transformation of many of the structural themes found in the Conjunctions. From a technical and formal perspective, this acute transformation is achieved through the richness of vivid color, an extrusion of the pigments, the use of diagonal compositions, and assorted applications of torn canvas. These varied effects within large, occasionally monumental pictorial spaces suggest a less somber earth-bound atmosphere.
Instead, the new paintings, at their best, are given to a kind of an ecstatic transcendence. This does not discount the overall seriousness of the Post Conjunctions, but emphasizes a new aspect of his painting that focuses on the psychology of expressionism. In the Post Conjunctions the surfaces exhibit less emphasis on philosophical determination or the political symbolism used in the 1970s.
In response to the recent paintings, I will offer a few remarks in the context of works dating back to the late 1960s and 70s, the period in which the artist’s major breakthroughs became evident. While the events of that period in Korean history were not the focus of my earlier text, written on the occasion of Mr. Ha’s retrospective at the Gana Art Center (Fall 2008), this addendum to the previous essay will cite works, referencing Ha’s affiliation with the AG collective during the period of political repression in Korea at the outset of the 1970s. This formed the basis of a transformative concept in the wire and spring works from that period, representing an intervention of power that prevented artistic growth. By 1974, Ha was able to break the stronghold of internal political repression and begin his Conjunction series.
Especially relevant from that year are two paintings titled Conjunction and Conjunction 74–5. In the first of thee paintings —one of the earliest in this series —a series of equidistant horizontal slats each covered in stained canvas reveals an irregular line of white pigment exuded from between the interstices.
(In the recent catalog for the Ha Retrospective at the National Museum, the material is labeled as paper,
not canvas.) In the second painting, the white has been pushed through to the surface from behind and flattened on the frontal side on a diagonal slant through the use of a trowel. Although these motifs are somewhat rare in the Conjunctions, they signal formal themes that are repeatedly used in the recent paintings as shown in Post Conjunction 11– and Post Conjunction 10–, respectively. In general, Ha’s exuberance for color in the new work has evolved into a renewed presence for painting not merely as an object, but as a form that inhabits both tactile sensation woven into a new chromatic intensity. This recent betrothal between form and color gives energy to his painting, a further manifestation of the qi or
energy release so often associated with Ha’s work.
Parenthetically speaking, though my position on Ha’s paintings comes from outside the Korean context, it also comes from outside a purely American or New York context as well. While I function primarily as an international critic, I purposefully maintain a distance from global art fairs and related trends in the art media that denote investment strategies. In the work of Ha, Chong Hyun —as with other artists from various places in the world whose work I respect and admire —I hope to discover a transcultural dialogue and exchange that locates and reveals the vital intelligence of the artist. My understanding of Ha’s importance is fundamentally experiential more than theoretical, and more transcultural than it is
market-driven. The majority of my comments made on the work of Ha, Chong Hyun are based on my perception that his paintings hold a unique place, not only for Korea, but also for the global environment as we continue to emerge in an expanding global environment
The term Conjunctions implies a meeting place, a contact point, where two or more materials or objects come together. Specifically, in the early Conjunctions of Ha, the oil paint—either ochre or sienna —is pushed through the rough hemp cloth or burlap so that it appears as a grid of bead-shapes on the frontal side of the surface. The Korean term, Bok-Chae-Bub, applies —as I understand it—to either the inlay of luminous color or the pushing through of pigments from back to front. There are two examples in the Conjunction series worth mentioning in terms of earth color, monochrome surfaces that have interested Ha for the past forty years. One is a painting that employs oil on hemp, titled Conjunction 78–8. The
result is a continuous field of ochre, measuring 120 X 220 cm. The other is a three-panel painting, titled Conjunction 7 (1982), also in ochre. In the earlier 1978 painting, the front surface reveals a relatively tight uniform grid, composed of uniform beads of pigment, which are visibly exposed as the pigment has been pushed through. The latter 1982 painting essentially involves the same earth monochrome effect, but divided into three panels. Here the frontal surface is essentially flat as the projecting beads of oil paint have all been uniformly pushed down on to the surface. The 1982 painting is technically not a 70
triptych in the Western Renaissance sense given that the subject matter on each panel is essentially the same. A triptych suggests that each panel holds its own subject matter, even as the iconography is related to the other two. Together the three panels comprise a unity as in parts to the whole.
Comparatively, the 1978 field painting is about experiencing the obverse effect of seeing the frontal side, whereas the 1982 painting reveals a uniform surface —a flattened field of ochre —in which Ha has worked both sides of the three-paneled painting. Although less about the cultural implications of Ha’s work than its material luminosity, I would cite a curious affinity with the New York abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell. It is interesting that Motherwell worked frequently with “golden” ochre in a large expanded field. This can be found in his Open Series that began in late 1967. The first painting in the Open Series was done in ochre as a monochrome painting. Later a charcoal line was added from
the bottom edge of the painting rising upward to form a three-sided rectangle against the ochre field, the fourth side being the bottom edge of the canvas. By turning the painting around so that the bottom edge became the top ultimately altered the affect. The charcoal rectangle, instead of suggesting a door, became a window. I mention this only to suggest an affinity between Ha and Motherwell in terms of the expanded field and the use of the earth color ochre. The understated aspect of this comparison is the non-obtrusive passion present within these paintings —the Conjunctions of Ha, and the Open Series of Motherwell. Each began in the same decade, although at the time the painters had no direct contact with one another.
Toward the end of the twentieth century in New York, there were a number of symposia, organized panels, and discussions related to the use of the prefix “post” in the history of Modernist art. At the beginning of this century, English critic, Roger Fry, was the first art historian to use the prefix “post” in his discussion of Impressionism. Fry was an art historian and critic and a seminal member of the prestigious Bloomsburg Circle in England, whose other members included Fry’s colleague, Clive Bell, Lincoln Kirsten, and novelist Virginia Wolfe. At the time Fry had become fascinated with the paintings of Cezanne, in particular, an artist about whom he eventually wrote an important study. In the course of his remarks, Fry decided that Cezanne make a definitive stylistic break with the other impressionists
in the late 1880s. Therefore, Fry decided, that Cezanne no longer fit the Impressionist mold and would henceforth become known as a Post-Impressionism. In a similar way, Ha Chung-hyun found that his new paintings no longer fit the category of the Conjunctions. He was beginning to work in another way.
It was not until after Ha, Chong Hyun had thoroughly investigated the monochrome concept in his Conjunction paintings that uniquely allowed expressionist content to transmit through his inventive script-like forms resembling Hangul in 1997. Later this concept became more distilled as he gave greater space to the intervals between the signs in the paintings from 2002-2004. In 2010, Mr. Ha chose to identify his most recent paintings as Post Conjunctions —a term he chose for paintings that focused less on the earthy monochromes. Instead, he was moving into a new territory that involved experiential forms of structural support. This involved strips of stained canvas over wood —or sometimes strips of mirrored glass, as in Post Conjunction 11–, in which bright primary and secondary pigments were squeezed between reflective strips placed side-by-side at vertical intervals. This also included the use of small patches of canvas adhered indeterminately to a larger surface. Many other variations would follow.
In general, the Post Conjunctions offer the following: They explore new possibilities of structure in relation to the painterly surface. Instead of the evenly back-painted extruded surfaces for which Ha is known based on earlier techniques developed in the middle Chosun Dynasty, The painter is now looking towards another form of extrusion where the pigment leaks through vertical or horizontal bars, again reference the painting, Conjunction from 1974. Examples would include Post Conjunction 10-1 in which the stretched canvas bars are placed vertically and equidistant to one another, and Post Conjunctions 11–u 1 and 11–, where the bars are placed in horizontal patterns. But what does it mean to explore “new possibilities of structure in relation to the painterly surface?”
This suggests that the intuitive process —which, in the work of Ha, Chong Hyun, is culturally bound —u
perpetually reveals new methods by which the artist may structure the surface of a painting. It would be as if the painterly field was a metaphor —in this case, a mirror of the artist’s mind —upon which the painting is created. I flash again on Conjunction 11– and the strips of glass in which multiple colors have been pressed in-between. Here I realize a new beginning for how we might think about painting today.
Robert C. Morgan, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus in Art History at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He is painter, curator, international critic, and lecturer, who writes books, monographs, and essays on artists and the impact of globalization on the future of art. His voluminous writings are now translated into 18 languages, with a book appearing in Mandarin this Fall 2012. In 1999, he was awarded the Arcale Prize for International art criticism, and in 2011, he was inducted into the prestigious European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg.