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|● Ha Chong-Hyun, Concern and Slience-Philippe Dagen-Art Critic
| Ha Chong-Hyun, Concern and Slience-Philippe Dagen-Art Critic|
It is hardly worth spending time on such self-evident facts: Ha Chong-Hyun's current works are part of the history of abstraction which started in 1945 and which has an international history: American, European, Korean. However, they do not in fact, belong only to the practice of monochrome insofar as differences of depths produce differences in tonality and due to the fact that the painter does not intend to cover the surface with a uniform layer of color, but allows lacunae and breaches: not do they belong to Abstract Expressionism, although the signs and gestures sometimes appear to be part of the colored substance which has permeted a piece of line cloth.
Another obvious fact, logically derived from the above: here is a singular work which does not belong to any preordained category, nor can it be reduced to a simple stylistic formula. It therefore requires sustained attention. In the same way, it escapes the chronology of international movements, and it would be much too easy and too sketchy to simply identify it as a variation on minimalism, just because of a superficial resemblance, Ha Chong-Hyun is neither Mark Tobey's heir, nor the Korean alter ego of Robert Ryman, nor even that of Brice Marden, even though he belongs to that same generation, born in the thirties. If we must make comparisons, it might be fairer to speak of Jean Degottex, but with infinite precautions and bearing in mind rather Degottex' last works, the most sober and laconic ones.
In order to apprehend Ha Chong-Hyun's singularity, it is useful to look at his earlier works, no matter how different from today's. In 1972, many of them took the from of long wooden boxes, not unlike coffins. Inside them, a rope, sometimes streched, sometimes rolled up in irregular spirals. In the case, it came out of the box through two openings at each end. In the same year, appeared constructions which look like paintings, without actually being so. A piece of linen is stretched on a panel. On this surface, barbed wire threads are aligned or pushed into the fabric , so that their points produce meaning signs. It sometimes happens that the barbed wire acts as a frame or that it outlines verticals and horizontals, squaring off the piece of linen. If we remain inside a formal description, these are variations on the most refined geometry, obtained with materials which do not belong to a painter's traditional tools.
This description is obviously insufficient: the use of barbed wire, of sharp points, of wire nettings and nails is not anodine. It has a metaphorical and symbolic value. The length of wire encloses and pierces the fabric in the same way that it contains and injures the body. If it extends from one end to the other, it is because oppression is everywhere and that there is no freedom for anyone, neither for the artist nor for any of his fellow citizens. Camps, prisons, raids, martial laws, sentencings, a war , these works are political, which does not mean that they are explicitly so. They do not describe, they do not demonstrate. If they denounce, it is soundlessly. It is enough for the artist to show, without artifice, without theatrics, what his era and the place he occupies is like.
At the same time, it can be enough to cover a white surface almost completely with springs, both coiled and loose, whose spirals, once juxtaposed, are like a metallic stretcher. Nothing is to be seen behind them: no images, no depth, even less color, nothing but a rectangle lined with these metalic threads hardly less worrisome than barbed wire. They invade the space. In the end, they become obsessive. In one of these ascetic constructions, in the center of the panel, the springs are bunched up in a space in front of the work. They look as if they might proliferate, lengthen, create networks in the air. Once again, the symbol is obvious: it is to do with a pain which does not make a spectacle of itself, but nonetheless expresses itself in a minor mode. These worrying allegories do not require titles, nor do the 1973 drawings, if we can describe as drawings these sheets of paper divided into stripes and bands, once more by metal threads. At that time Ha Chong-Hyun explored the expressive resources of a geometry which interested him less in itself than because it suggested a penal world, a world made up limits and lacerations. In that sense, to provide these works with their full strength, the historian world need to show how, based on comparisons and examples, they express, like so many others at the time in Europe and in tne U.S.A, a refusal of a certain policed and repressive concept of society.
But this is not our purpose.What must be pointed out here is of a different nature: that from these works of contestation, these meaning and cruel reliquaries to the current works, the distance is not as large as might at first appear. Admittedly, if the linen canvas remains, it is no longer injured by barbed wire, coated and covered by oil paint. Admittedly, color has regained its importance and the painter's and voluptuous pleasure sometimes betrays itself. The time for protest and coldness is over. But the obsession with saturation remains as wellas the struggle with silence and words, differently inscribed inside the work.
Obsession with saturation: it is curious that Ha Chong-Hyun, in most of his paintings, utilizes a single color and covers the entire textile surface with it. Sometimes he leaves a narrow horizontal band free of all impression, on the lower edge of the canvas. But on the whole, dark green, gray of white are stretched from edge. They fill up the space ever more confidently as the painter's technique emphasizes this sensation: he saturates the canvas with color from its underside. He wants the oil to penetrate within the fibres, for the woof to be replete. Then he must add impastoes, heavier veneers which create light relief. These procedures might be compared to the old method of covering bamboo wattles with mud in order to obtain a thick partition. And indeed this is the point: to enclose, contain, obstruct, stop the eye, hold it captive. No wayout, no opening, no sign of a perspective: the eye is stopped ay every point of the canvas by a homogeneous, vertical, dense, solid, compact, opaque plane. Bi-dimensionality is the eule, without the slightest exception, the slightest leeway toward an allusive landscaping or atmospheric effects. The incrustations add to the feeling of power. This painter-and this is a quality-does not cultivate facile elegance nor seduction through gracefulness.
His paintings are faithful to a private need for seriousness, which could be called asceticism. They refuse every kind of distraction, every kind of prettiness. In orther words, and more brutally, these paintings, are walls of color, we cannot escape them.
But, you might point out, these surfaces often bear traces of the painters gestures. It is easy to see, inscribed in the hardened surface, the trace of the knife or of fingers. The pictorial matter, no matter how uniform, does not appear like a flat, even surface. Lines criss-cross it, stripes are intermingled. Alternating sections of paint with patches where the fabric is practically stark provide a rhythm. Uneven, irregular, color thus modelled captures the light, sometimes these traces resemble calligraphies inside into matter which is were Ha Chong-Hyun appropriates one of the essential practices of abstract expressionism.
Not quite however, one needs only to examine one of the recent Conjunctions created in the early 90s to make sure. Calligraphy implies writing, legibility, respecting certain codes and conventions. Here we have precisely the opposite: not fake calligraphies, but counter-writing. There is nothing to decipher, nothing to read. The traces are entwined. The lines are superimposed and break up, the very rhythms interrupt themselves and negate one another. No story unfolds, not even that, autobiographical and physical, of the work. Nothing could be further from Ha Chong-Hyun than seeking after lyricism, than captivating eloquence. Far from Jackson Pollock, far from Georges Mathieu, he does not allow himself spectacular choregraphy, the splatters, the long sweeps of the brush held at arm's length across the canvas - anything which might recall trance and dance. His gestures are shorter, more methodical, one might almost say more purposeful. He does not draw upon a monochrome ground the figures of his exalted presence-something like a huge hypertrophic signature within tne scale of the canvas.
The use of only one color per canvas prevents him from giving into this temptation, even if he wanted to. The great Conjunction 93-024 provides information on this point: the white is slashed with diagonal, vertical and horizontal signs which are displayed neither in columns nor in lines. They are cheek by jowl, sometimes they are interwoven. A more decisive mark sometimes occults another one, or cuts it into two halves. It looks like an overall fragmentation, the exact opposite of writing: its break-up, its progressive destruction.
Occasionally, Cy Twonmbly explored this hypothesis and imagined his paintings as the negation of every explicit sign by rubbing out the pictorial matter. Their canvases, often difficult, almost hermetic, seem to be poised on a border line, midway between expressivity and the void, between words and silence. The signs-what could be signs-are on the point of disappearing. Matter has absorbed them. They are lost, difinitively illegible and incomprehensible, within the depths of white or ocher. The gestures are mixed up, the lines are knotted or distended-like the coils in the first works.
Saturation, containment, silence, oppression, abstinence, contraction. These words keep recurring, invincibly. Beneath the apparent serenity of a smooth surface, of a dominant color, tensions appear. Behind the fakery of monochrome and materiology something else is at work, deeply, constantly. And so Ha Chong-Hyun's paintings manage, in a paradoxical manner, to combine concern and immobility, intensity and reserve, violence and asceticism. (1997)