Kwang Young Chun’s abstract constructions, made of hundreds of individual component shapes wrapped in mulberry paper, beautifully bridge the gap between Western and Asian art. It is close to impossible, excluding exceptional cases, for Western and Eastern ways of seeing to meet in a common style of figurative art, although it does happen—most recently, we have seen for several generations a strong interest in traditional oil painting in, of all places, Mainland China, where artists have fallen in love with the medium and the attempt to render a realism that is looks Occidental. Now it is much easier for the Asian artist to participate in the internationally established language of abstraction, which began with Western modernism but has expanded to include the entire world, including Asia, where abstraction is practiced with great sympathy and skill. Chun’s art embraces Western culture in more than a few ways, but this is not to say that the Seoul-based artist has turned away from all suggestions of Asia in his work; the materials making up his art, mulberry leaves, relate to his biography: the leaves connect with Chun’s early memory of their use in his family pharmacy. But the most telling point about Chun as an artist is his decision to work with abstract, often geometrical shapes that reflect an ongoing knowledge of nonobjective visual culture in the West.
Chun has visited America many times and is familiar with the established language of abstraction seen so regularly in an art center such as New York. The art world here has taken a strong interest in Chun’s pieces, which often go under the name of “Aggregates,” a word referring to the myriad elements making up each individual sculpture he has created. Chun’s variously colored and shaped low reliefs can look a lot like paintings, given their status as low reliefs, their rectangular shape, and their attachment like pictures to a gallery or museum wall. Other pieces are more sculpture, being composed of rounded, brightly colored troughs excavated within a flat plane less lively in hue.
The true gift of Chun’s style is his marvelous surface, ever changing as the eye travels across the exterior of his sculptures and its complicated, multipart exterior. The abstractions’ façade relates in some ways to twentieth-century American nonobjective paintings. But at the same time, they develop a connection with by-now established Asian languages of abstraction, particularly Korean, which tend to emphasize the texture and finish of the work of art. Still, whatever the influences brought to light in Chun’s remarkable creative efforts, it is clear that they are very much his own invention and resemble the art of no one else, either in the West or in Korea. This results in a form of individualism we don’t necessarily associate with the graceful sublimations of Asian art. But it works wonderfully, and has made for an outstanding exhibition.
Given the extraordinary intensity and amount of cultural information exchanged among artists from all over the world, it has become a commonplace that people borrow from each other. This means that art can no longer be categorized easily by geography or culture: as an African curator commented, there is no longer African art but only art from Africa. Chun’s work does not necessarily look Korean in a traditional sense, and that is one of its strengths. As viewers we are not committed to a cultural bias that would isolate the work by fixing its cultural boundaries. Indeed, the question, How Korean is it?, no longer can have relevance in an art world in which styles are used interchangeably and without regard for their origins. Instead, the myriad interlocking parts of Chun’s art may be understood as a way of commenting on the remarkable mosaic of people and individual styles now constituting the art world. Chun’s aggregations may not have been constructed with this notion in mind, but it is interesting to consider a method that so brilliantly reflects the visual circumstances of our time.
Formally, the work stands out as a tour de force of the hand. Sometimes, the sculptures make a case for biological forms—cells and viruses whose bright hues seem to relate to specimens in found true science. In this way, Chun makes it clear that his abstractions (indeed, all art abstractions) can never fully deny a connection to nature, no matter how anti-figurative they may seem to be. The boundaries between realism and nonobjective art are more porous than they seem. Even so, the biological cast and implications of Chun’s work does not do away with our first impression that this work is about itself—abstraction being an art given to self-determination. Yet art is of course always a cultural construct, deriving strength from its contact with the outside world. While it cannot be said that abstraction is only about itself, it is true that Chun’s efforts collectively comprise a self-made language, one immediately recognizable for its own attributes, which tend to assert idealized form. Inevitably, there is a tension, or even a contradiction, between realism and its abstract counterpoint, but this is relatively slight in Chun’s sculptures. Instead, we seen a language in which the overall configuration is developed from accumulations of small forms, which, when viewed singly and close up, are interesting in and of themselves.
The other important aspect of Chun’s oeuvre is its tenacity of craft. In America now, the art world is intellectualized and politicized—to the point where formal practice is not often considered or even understood as needed. The craft that goes into Chun’s sculptures is neither decorative nor folk in its implications. It is an integral part of the structure of his work. In Korean contemporary art, technical skill is usually a major part of its attractiveness, and this holds true in Chun’s case. Even so, that does not mean Chun has moved into a language that is only crafted; the great strength of the “Aggregations” series has to do with its formal intelligence—its independence of shape and its rejection of the simple in favor of the complex. Together, in a group, as this fine museum show demonstrates, Chun’s artworks transform a neutral, white-cubed space into a magical place, where the sculptures join together in a discussion about the formal possibilities of art. Craft is the means by which Chun develops the conversation. The biographical origins of the materials lend a personal touch to work that asserts an idealized vision of what art can be. These seeming contradictions, between public and private, abstract and figurative, intellectual and emotional, are quite literally reshaped into an entirety we can only admire—and respect for its integrity.
I. It may be a bit of an overstatement, but to understand Chun Kwang Young’s work is to understand Korean culture. In his poem “Visitor,” poet Chong Hyon Jong wrote, “Having a visitor is, in fact, an enormously important event,” because, he added, “the visitor has brought their past, present, and distant future.” In a similar vein, viewing the works of artist Chun Kwang Young takes you on a journey toward understanding his family background and history as well as the basis of his work—Korean culture. As such, an understanding of his work would be especially helpful for foreigners to better understand Korean culture. The recent and universal fascination with Dansaekhwa painting on the international stage may be attributable to the style’s powerful interpretative framework, intertwined with the time-honored cultural traditions of Korea. Had Dansaekhwa been viewed from the Western modernist perspective, however, it would have probably been dismissed as an imitation of Western minimalism. In the second half of the 1960s, during his time in college and working as a professional artist after graduation, Chun was drawn to Western modernism, which could have been a toxic influence on him, had he not been able to transcend it. Ultimately, it had a positive effect, as he managed to turn away from it to focus on his Korean cultural background and create art that could be universally accepted. From the present point of view, his experience with Western modernism was no doubt beneficial. As someone once said, “Criticism is valid [only] when it has critical value.” The works Chun has produced over the last 50 years are infused with meaning and steeped in the Korean cultural traditions that have been passed down to us from time immemorial.
II. Korean viewers have a deep affinity for the works of Chun Kwang Young, perhaps because they are closely intertwined with everyday life in Korea. His works may seem too complex and abstract to understand, but they exude a certain atmosphere with which Koreans are familiar. Some point out that this atmosphere is reminiscent of that of herbal medicine pouches hanging from the ceiling of a traditional Korean herbal medicine shop.1) In fact, it is still not uncommon to see traditional Korean houses in the country where agricultural products are hung from the eaves to dry for storage. Chun Kwang Young grew up in Hongcheon, Gangwon-do, where his father ran a traditional Korean herbal medicine shop. Chun’s triangular objects, the most distinctive feature of his work, can be traced back to his childhood memories. Even now, in the corners of traditional Korean herbal medicine shops in the country, it is not uncommon to see wooden apothecary cabinets, featuring numerous drawers with the Chinese names of medicinal herbs written on them and dried and chopped medicinal herbs neatly wrapped in white, square-shaped paper placed inside each one. The unit used for counting medicinal herbs is the jae. One jae refers to a set of 10 medicinal herb pouches, and ten jaes is 100 such pouches. What does it mean? In my opinion, it means that Koreans have long utilized the concept of module as part of life. In comparison with American Minimalist Sol LeWitt’s works based on modular structures, Chun’s threedimensional works were based not on such modular structures from Western minimalism, but on forms that had long existed in traditional Korean art, rooted in uniquely Korean concepts of beauty and aesthetics.
III. Any work of art not rooted in the cultural context of its creator is not appealing, because it lacks a strong aesthetic foundation. In this respect, the international success that Chun Kwang Young now enjoys was inevitable, as his work has always possessed such a firm foundation. One day in the mid1990s, Chun suddenly recalled and was struck by the childhood memory of his father’s traditional Korean herbal medicine shop and the white, square-shaped paper he used to wrap medicinal herbs. The return of this long forgotten memory turned out to be quite fortunate for him and his artistic career.2) At first, he used pages from antique Chinese books to wrap triangles of polystyrene, but later replaced those pages with hanji featuring printed Chinese characters. His use of pages from antique books and hanji played a decisive role in the wide public recognition that his work received. Looking back, that new approach to his art was the tipping point of the internationalization of his work and the beginning of his grand artistic experiment with sculpture and installation art via relief painting. It is safe to say that Chun Kwang Young’s painting is based on modernism. To give an example, the paintings he created in the 1970s, when abstract painting was popular, focus on the fundamental elements of painting, such as light, color, and form. These works seem to exist in the continuum of the paintings he presented at various exhibitions in the mid and late 1960s, including the Shin Sang Group Exhibition (1966-1967), the Modern Artist Invitational Exhibition (1966-1968) held by the Chosun Ilbo, and the National Art Exhibition of the Republic of Korea (1968-1969). Considering the fact that he went to the U.S. after graduating from college in 1968 and completed his studies at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1971 with a Master’s degree in painting, it can be inferred that the 1960s was a critical period in Chun’s artistic career, as it was a time when he delved into his cultural DNA while standing at the heart of Western art. The period from 1971 to 1977, however, is characterized by Chun’s struggle to survive in the U.S.3) In particular, the fact that he studied in Philadelphia rather than New York, the center of modern art at the time, posed geographical constraints on him and his work. Chun endured incredible financial difficulties while studying at the Philadelphia College of Art, but the experience gave him the strength4) to eventually rise above his economic hardship and achieve success on the international stage.
IV. In the 1970s, as mentioned above, Chun focused on the basic elements of painting, such as light, color, and form, but he had yet to sharpen his skills and creativity to the extent that would enable him to build an international reputation, considering the extreme difficulty of catching the attention of international art circles with abstract art featuring the use of paper, dyes, colors, and masking tape. The 1970s was when minimalism was beginning to fade in the U.S., and Dansaekhwa was creating a sensation in Korea. In other words, the abstract painting that Chun Kwang Young pursued during that period was considered outdated at the time, both in Korea and the U.S. His return to Korea in the second half of the 1970s, the coldness with which he was received by art circles at home, and his resistance to those circles prompted him to transcend the vicissitudes of his life,5) while he was still in his 40s, leading him to create works using hanji (traditional Korean paper) almost a decade later. However, the most notable features of Chun’s abstract paintings during the mid-1970s and late 1980s are the color scheme and form. He produced monochrome paintings in red, blue, and dark brown in the 1970s and strip-like, layered structures in the 1980s, both of which he incorporated into his hanji relief works in the mid1990s. The three-dimensional hanji works he produced in the mid-1990s seem to have their origins in the abstract works he produced in the 1980s. Moreover, his monochrome works in dark gray, black, and blue reached near perfection during this period. In other words, his three-dimensional hanji works from the 1990s featured mono-colored, strip-like patterns incorporated with the idea of wrapping medicinal herbs in white paper, which inspired him to experiment with fresh ideas. From the mid-1990s to today, Chun catapulted to his current status as an international artist. It was during this period that Chun expanded his realm of art to include large-scale three-dimensional painting, sculpture, and installation art. Considering all of this, can we classify Chun’s work as Dansaekhwa? In my opinion, we can, if we consider, in a broad sense, the spirituality, sense of touch (repetition), and behavior as major characteristics of the early Dansaekhwa movement.7) Over the last 50 years, Chun Kwang Young has thrived based on his persistent experimentation, and his works are now in the possession of famous art galleries and foundations around the world and discussed by internationally renowned art critics. Although he has gradually risen to prominence on the world stage, he continuously strives to make inroads into international art circles by participating in some of the world’s most renowned modern art fairs and biennales. Chun is an artist with an insatiable desire to learn and experiment, which has proved to be one of his greatest assets. Armed with his pioneering spirit and passion for art, Chun will soon secure a spot on the list of the world’s most famous artists.
Since 1995, Kwang Young Chun has been making large works called Aggregations. A full appreciation of their power—and originality—will take us from the beginning of Chun’s career, as a young Korean MFA candidate at the Philadelphia College of Art, to his present eminence not only in his homeland but also in the international art world. The National Museum of Contemporary Art, in Seoul, named him Artist of the Year in 2001. This year he showed his work in the company of Anselm Kiefer and Gotthard Graubner at the Kunstwerk Museum, in Eberdingen-Nussdorf, Germany. As well-deserved as they are, these signs of recognition threaten to isolate Chun’s work in the glow of its success. The Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning once said, “There’s no way of looking at a work of art by itself. It’s not self-evident—it needs a history, it needs a lot of talking about; it’s part of a man’s whole life.” 1 There is much to say about the history and context of the Aggregations. First, though, we should note the strength of their physical presence.
Most of these works hang on the wall. Some stand on the floor. All are covered by small, triangular objects: pieces of Styrofoam neatly wrapped in mulberry paper (hanji) and just as neatly tied with lengths of thin string. The artist’s choice of mulberry paper is crucial, for this material is profoundly important to Korean culture. Its cultural significance is basic to the deepest meanings of the Aggregations, yet we need not know this to intuit the artist’s process and to the sense patience and unflagging clarity of purpose that imbues these works.
When a form lies flat, only one of its triangular sides is visible. Jutting outward it displays a certain thickness. Though these objects are like three-sided building blocks, Chun does not use them to construct architectural forms. Rather, he arranges them in tight, intricate patterns that bring to mind cracked earth or the jagged texture of shale. These allusions to natural phenomena are countered by signs of civilization: Korean and Chinese characters printed on the mulberry paper. With his triangular objects, Chun brings nature and culture into an intimate relationship. The Aggregations are large, even imposing, and it is something of a shock to realize, from up close, that they achieve their grandeur with such small elements. It’s as if we were glimpsing the molecular structure of matter itself. Scale, for an instant, is infinitesimally small and then shifts dramatically when we focus on color. In some of the Aggregations colors surge slowly over the surface, suggesting a cloudy sky; a drift toward grays or earthen hues reinforces the look of rock or clay; and sometimes there is a single, painterly color, like the dark yet luminescent blue of Aggregation 12-MY026, 2012. Whatever the color of an Aggregation, it creates the light that endows the work with its distinctive mood.
The matter of moods and their expression is a subtle thing and in Chun’s case requires a look at Abstract Expressionism, the style of painting he embraced in the late 1960s as a student at the Philadelphia College of Art. Even before he arrived in America, he was aware of other options: Pop Art, Minimalism, and conceptual art. Moreover, he respected these styles, which had redefined contemporary painting and sculpture. Yet he opted for Abstract Expressionism because it was so liberating. It allowed him to experiment at will, unencumbered by the expectations of Korean teachers who embodied centuries of tradition. As he said in a recent statement, his training at Hong-Ik University, in Seoul, was in a tradition that “forced one to have one’s imagination censored by one’s teacher.” 2 Philadelphia—and, more generally, America, the very idea of it—convinced Chun to set aside the past. For the first time, his art could be about the feelings that drew him to the blank canvas. This new freedom of expression was especially welcome because his experience of America gave him so much to convey.
Born in 1944, Chun was a young boy when hostilities broke out between the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (communist North Korea). By September 1950, North Korean forces and their Chinese allies had occupied nearly the entire Korean peninsula. Nominally an initiative of the United Nations, the counter-offensive was led bythe United States in close cooperation with South Korean forces. Though the conflict is still unresolved, officially, military action ceased in 1953 with the territory of South Korea wrested from its invaders. Despite the failure to achieve a clear-cut victory, America emerged from the war with an aura of power—and of goodness. Chun came to Philadelphia in the late 1960s expecting to find a land of peace and prosperity.
He learned that many Americans were, indeed, prosperous but many were not. The conflict in Vietnam was escalating, relentlessly. As the military draft snared some young people, especially those from lower economic strata, others drifted into the aimless improvisations of hippie culture. Arguably, these were problems on the peripheries of American society. Yet they were rapidly deepening. Rather than address them, the vast, complacent center persisted in its cycle of “getting and spending,” as the poet William Wordsworth called it. A more current name is consumerism, which struck Chun not only as a distraction from social and political unrest but also as a denial of humanity’s spiritual concerns. American society was delivering one shock after another, and in Abstract Expressionism he saw a means of registering their impact. Dispensing with traditional ideals of order and beauty, the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke is quick, aggressive, and even violent. As one rushing, skidding paint-mark begets the next, the image overflows with clashing forms and colors. For Chun, these pictorial conflicts were powerful reflections on the harsher truths of America, this new and once so promising world. Despite the brilliance of his Abstract Expressionist canvases, however, he was never quite convinced of their value. It troubled him that he had adopted a style of painting from a culture not his own. He felt like an impersonator, a Korean assuming an American identity the moment he entered the studio and took up his brush. Doubt of this kind shows an integrity rare in the history of art.
Invented early in the twentieth century, Cubism quickly became an international style, as painters throughout Europe devised variations on precedents set by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Most of this work is thoroughly derivative, and yet its producers didn’t see it that way. For them, to paint in the Cubist manner was to join the forward ranks of the avant-garde. Something similar happened in the 1950s, when French and Italian painters learned of Abstract Expressionism. Imitating the brushwork of de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and other Abstract Expressionists, these artists made creditable paintings. Yet their originality appears chiefly in new labels: tachisme in France, arte informale in Italy. Genuine originality was not a concern. It was enough to ride fresh currents of paint to the heart of the aesthetic moment. For Abstract Expressionism was not just a style. It was stylish. It felt relevant.
The style still felt that way when Chun embraced it in the late 1960s. De Kooning was still producing major work and younger artists—Helen Frankenthaler, for example—were finding new uses for Pollock’s innovations. Abstract Expressionism was a viable option yet Chun wasn’t satisfied with mere viability. It was not enough for him simply to find a place in the art world of the moment. But why not? This is, after all, what most artists want. We can never know an artist’s deepest feelings with any certainty, yet there is a clue to Chun’s dissatisfaction in a quality he calls his “artistic fastidiousness.” At first hearing, the phrase seems to refer to matters of technique, the more so because Chun has always made his work with exquisite skill. Yet there is more to it than that. His fastidiousness focuses not only on the art object but also on the artist—that is to say, himself. And so he came to be haunted by a dilemma. He was truly an Abstract Expressionist but his success in this Western style raised a question: was he truly the artist he wanted to be? His answer, ultimately, was no. Breaking with his immediate past, he looked for a way of making art that would be true to the unique character of his life and experience. He sought an originality grounded in his Korean origins.
Any success is difficult to achieve and Chun was reluctant to abandon his, despite nagging doubts about personal authenticity. To turn away from his accomplishments as a painter was even more wrenching because he saw no feasible substitute for Abstract Expressionism in the contemporary Korean art scene or in the international art world that sets the standards for all artists, Western and non-Western alike. Finding no guidance in any quarter, Chun was completely on his own. Nonetheless, he persevered, determined to make art that was genuinely Korean but not dependent on traditions of the past. He wanted to create a “Koreanness” of the present—of his present. As it turned out, he was able to do so only by leaving art behind and returning, in memory, to his early life.
To explain the emergence of the Aggregations, Chun has spoken several times of a memory triggered on a spring day in 1995. He was suffering from a bad cold. His wife brought him a package of pills. When he picked them up and felt their shapes through their paper wrapper, a childhood incident suddenly came back to him. Chun’s mother had taken him to a practitioner of Asian medicine. He didn’t like these visits. An overwhelming smell of infusions filled the doctor’s office. Worse, acupuncture needles lay in plain view. As the doctor took Chun’s pulse and muttered to himself, the boy looked up and saw packages of mulberry paper hanging from the ceiling. Each bag bore the name of the medicine it contained. As that image reverberated in memory, the adult Chun found “a new theme” for his art—one that was uniquely Korean. The elements of the work he has been making for over a decade and a half evolved from those mulberry paper containers. It makes a deep and affecting sense that their contents were medicines, for this evolution has been a healing process. Yet Chun has not retreated into a dream of utopian peace. His “new theme” allows him to face—and come to terms with—conflicts that his earlier work left unresolved. Chun describes his triangular elements as “the minimal unit of information.” With this concise phrase, he presents the endpoint of a complex train of thought that began with ruminations on those bags of medicine. Of course, we can never know precisely whatwent though the artist’s mind on the day he found a “new theme” for his art. Perhaps it would be difficult even for him to reconstruct the play of intuition and feeling that pointed him in the direction he has followed since then. It is certain, however, that his understanding of medicine and healing went far beyond our usual, physical understanding of these subjects, according to which there is a disorder, a medicine is applied, and the disorder is cured. Though they often achieve their intended results, cause-and-effect patterns like these are materialist—one could even say mechanistic—and therefore inadequate to the aspirations of art. Chun saw the possibility of reconceiving the idea of medicine, of imbuing it with consciousness. This vision prompted his intuitive leap from the mechanistic to the imaginative, from the workings of cause and effect to the flow of information. In the process, certain transformations took place—inevitably, for artists accept nothing readymade. Everything is malleable, even the familiar meanings of words. Recreated by Chun, “information” became the basis of an aesthetic at once startlingly new and rooted in ancient tradition.
Information theory emerged just after the end of the Second World War, impelled in part by the work of cryptographers. The goal of this new branch of mathematics was to analyze the process of communication and establish a measure of efficiency in transmitting messages. Defining the basic unit of information as a “bit,” investigators calculate the minimum number of these units that will ensure accuracy of transmission over a particular channel. Employing concepts of probability, entropy, and redundancy, information theory has been essential to the development of linguistics and statistics, the computer and the internet.
Its findings permeate our world and yet there are realms of experience to which information theory is completely irrelevant, for it is a thoroughly quantitative discipline. Concerned only with measurable degrees of efficiency, it is indifferent to meaning. When Chun says that “the triangular pieces wrapped in mulberry paper are the basic units of information” in his art, he is acknowledging the immense importance of information theory in our time. In addition, he is rejecting its fundamental premise. For his “bits” of information are laden with meaning. Their significance is qualitative, not quantitative—and this is what gives them their aesthetic weight.
For an information theorist, a “bit” is like an atom for a physicist: an elemental unit untouched by human concerns. For Chun, the informational “bit” is not a neutral artifact of theory but, in his words, “the end product of a struggle for hegemony.” This struggle might be an intellectual competition, a clash of theories that eventually leads to consensus, or it might be military. Invoking Genghis Khan and the Crusaders, Chun reminds us that the facts of peoples’ lives are the outcome of conflicts that shape everything from national borders to the nuances of language. No aspect of human life goes uncontested, and information in Chun’s sense is the outcome of our struggles to endow things with their proper significance. A piece of information, then, is an emblem of the human need to create meaning—to fight for it, if need be. So the “mass collision” of triangular pieces in Chun’s works symbolizes all the clashes that leave “permanent changes and deep scars.” Despite its quietude, his art is haunted by the memory—and the contemplation—of violence.
We have noted the paradox of Aggregation 12-MY026, with its blue surface at once glowing and shadowy. In Aggregation 12-MY030¸shifts in hue are like pulsations in a bed of embers. Chun is a master of color. Nonetheless, he sometimes limits himself to tones of black, white, and gray—as in Aggregation 10-DE056 and Aggregation 12-MA012. Viewing works like these from a distance, we see indentations. Shallow or deep, circular or oval, they look like craters on an unfamiliar moon. Approaching, we see that there are, in fact, no craters at all.
The artist creates the look of depths with tonal contrasts. Dark tones recede, light ones advance, and Chun exploits these effects with great subtlety to produce genuine surprises. For the tonal works do look deeply indented when we see them across the room, and what we know—that these passages are flat—does not have the power to change what we see. To perceive the flatness, we must come close, and then the effect of depth is no longer perceptible. Here, then, is a conflict and an irreconcilable one, at that, for no vantage point will merge the physical facts of Chun’s Aggregations with the pictorial illusions they generate. From the very beginning, artists have been aware of this distinction. Think of Neolithic cave paintings. Sometimes a bulge in the wall of a cave is used to emphasis the shape of a bison’s shoulder. Physical shape reinforces a pictorial effect but does not erase the difference between the two. After all, the bison-image has its primary impact not in the tangible world of limestone and granite but in the realm of the imagination, as a small configuration of line and color conjures up a large and immensely powerful creature. We could tell the story of art as the interplay of visual fact and visual fiction over the millennia. To write this history in full would require parallel narratives, for each culture discovered and refined the means of image-making in its own way. Nonetheless, these narratives would cover the same ground and lead to a present in which artworks are intelligible across cultural borders.
As a Westerner, I am capable of responding to the atmosphere—the emotional climate—of Chun’s work. Likewise, when Chun came to the United States in the 1960s he had an immediate understanding of the options offered by the American art world of the time. His decision to take up Abstract Expressionism was grounded in a sophisticated rejection of other possibilities—Pop Art, conceptual art, Minimalism. Of these, Minimalism is particularly worth mentioning, though the reasons for this are easy to overlook. The Minimalist aesthetic is largely antithetical to Chun’s art. Nonetheless, there are several points of intersection between his Aggregations and Minimalist objects. Both use simple geometric forms. Moreover, Donald Judd and the other Minimalists often repeated their geometries within a single work. Chun always does, letting his triangular units change size as they proliferate beyond our capacity to count them. By contrast, Judd’s replicated boxes are all one size and he rarely repeats them more than ten times.
In 1965 Judd declared that he had turned from painting to the construction of spare, boxy objects because “that gets rid of theproblem of illusionism.” 3 By “illusionism” he meant the effect of imaginary depth we see, for example, in Chun’s cratered Aggregations. Though Judd never said why he found imagery of this kind problematic, he was not the only American of the 1960s to make this objection to one of art’s basic resources. Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and others who acquired the Minimalist label also tried to banish fictions of pictorial depth from their art. Frank Stella summed up the new literalism with a memorable phrase: “What you see in what you see,” meaning there is nothing to a work of art but its visible presence. 4 Anything that we read into it—illusions of depth or of light, metaphorical meaning, qualities of feeling or trains of thought—are beside the point and ought to be ignored. Chun is anything but a literalist. His art is alive with all that the Minimalists rejected. Yet his use of geometric form creates the tangential connection I have already mentioned, and there is a further point to be made in the light of Minimalist literalism. Hoping to achieve the certainty of verifiable fact, the Minimalists impoverished art. Nonetheless, their aggressively severe attitude toward pictorial illusion did have one good effect. By insisting that we attend to what is before our eyes, literally, it reminded us that works of art are in fact objects and deserve to be seen clearly and in full. Minimalism sharpened our vision, and when we turn from the simplicities of a Judd box to Chun’s fields of triangular objects that sharpness is essential. For these fields are complex. The mulberry-paper wrapped triangles go through subtle gradations in size, and their arrangement generates patterns so rich in incident that they sometimes feel like visual textures. It takes intense concentration simply to perceive in detail the landscape of form that Chun creates. So Frank Stella was wrong to say that “what you see is what you see”—just that and no more. With Chun’s Aggregations there is much more to see, from effects of cratered depth to metaphorical evocations of the conflicts that shape our lives. Yet the spirit of Minimalism lingers in the vicinity of Chun’s work, encouraging the kind of attentiveness that takes us out of ordinary time and releases us as well from the temporal sweep of art history. Like a Minimalist box, but with a livelier play of form, each of the Aggregations brings us face to face with the sheer and vivid fact of its being. As our gaze comes into focus, we are fascinated by the minutiae of these surfaces as surfaces, apart from all that they signify. The longer we look, the more thoroughly seeing meshes with the seen, and there is real pleasure in this harmony—not a trivial point, for this power to engage vision is a sure sign of an artwork’s aesthetic value. If that power if lacking, no amount of imagery or allusion or concept will make up for its absence. Everything the Aggregations tell us about Chun, about “Koreanness,” about the conflicts that animate history and define culture—all that would be empty if these works did not compel us to pay close and extended attention to sheer form and color and texture.
We often praise art by calling it autonomous, meaning that it stands apart from images and objects that justify their existences by performing useful tasks. Thus we value a map or a diagram if it provides the guidance we need at a certain moment. We praise a photograph or a television image if it shows us the look of some corner of the world to which the news has given a passing significance. Art has no practical purposes of this kind. Neither created for nor shaped by the routine concerns of daily life, Chun’s Aggregations are superior to all that. Indeed they are, and yet this account of their superiority feels inadequate, for the only meaning it acknowledges is exclusively aesthetic and Chun is concerned with so much more than that: self, culture, history. His subject is the human condition. For Chun, the emblem of that subject is mulberry paper, his primary material and a vital element of Korean tradition. Practically speaking, civilization requires physical order. There must be containers, compartments, and ways to wrap things securely. In Korea, mulberry paper was the preferred wrapping, not only for medicine but also for food and utensils and other household objects. Mulberry paper covered the interior surfaces of housesand formed the pages of books. Beautiful as well as useful, it symbolizes a way of life. When a symbol is shared throughout a culture, it tends to be idealized. Positive meaning eclipse difficult ones, a process Chun counters by introducing conflict into the Aggregations. Yes, he makes these works of mulberry paper but, in doing so, he endows this traditional material with new and often troubling meanings.
My work now is not comfortable work. It is still quiet yet very strong. I want the work to be received like boiling oil and fire.- Kwang Young Chun, 2006 5
Earlier, I noted that the black passages in certain Aggregations give flat surfaces the look of depths hollowed out. Physical facts oppose pictorial effects. Chun augments this aesthetic conflict by comparing the dark streaks to black lines in redacted documents. Destroying sensitive truths, censorship leaves scars in the body of knowledge. These virtual scars are metaphors for scars left by real wounds. Of course, we could see it the other way around: real scars, evoked by irregularities in the surfaces of the Aggregations, are metaphors for blank spots in the historical record and national memory. A sign of fully-realized art is the power of its meanings to morph. Reminding us that history is perennially contested, these black streaks lead to other kinds of conflict: military, political, cultural, social, intellectual, and aesthetic. Once we grasp Chun’s image of information as the upshot of struggle we see as well that struggle is unrelenting. That is why he compares an encounter with his work to exposure to “boiling oil and fire.”
Chun’s triangular elements sometimes bristle over the surface of an Aggregation with startling intensity. His free-standing works can be especially fierce. This is not an entirely physical effect. If information is the product of conflict, then knowledge itself is belligerent. Whatever has meaning has triumphed over its opposition, if only temporarily. The Aggregations symbolize consciousness as a field of battle. Yet these intricately made works are serene overall. Imbuing the Aggregations with conflict, Chun achieves harmony and it is well at this point to remember that the idea for these works emerged from a memory of medicines contained in mulberry paper packages. The Aggregations, finally, are healing presences.
The Kunstwerk Museum’s juxtaposition of Chun and Anselm Kiefer is useful, for Kiefer also intends his art to heal. Mixing his paints with straw and earth, rusted metal and human hair, heconjures up the German past, with particular emphasis on the Second World War. His aim is to recall horrors that our collective memory tried very hard to repress. Suddenly forced to imagine the unimaginable, we will, he hopes, undergo a sort of shock therapy. There is something operatic about Kiefer’s art, especially in comparison to Chun’s. Though commentators often call Kiefer an heir to German Expressionism, and rightly so, his juxtapositions of disparate objects connect him to the Surrealists, who also tried to shock their audiences into a cathartic clarity about difficult matters. In the years between the World Wars, the Surrealists’ most powerful opponents were the geometric painters and sculptors of de Stijl, the Bauhaus, and the Russian avant-garde. The point of sketching this pattern of opposition and affinity is to trace it back to the present and allow geometric modernism to shed its light on Chun’s Aggregations—though the strongest illumination may come from the theory that accompanied art of this kind.
For all their sectarian differences, the geometric artists of the 1920s and ’30s shared one goal: to free art from its ties to appearances. From that freedom would come purity. Thus Piet Mondrian, one of the founders of de Stijl, argued that the goal of the artist is to “create pure relationships.” The relationships he had in mind are those of form and color freed from any representational purpose. Rendered autonomous, art would present a vision of a “unity” including all of humanity and of nature—in a word, everything. 6 Extended to architecture, design, and the organization of society, that aesthetic purity would lead humanity to utopia. With this promise, the geometric modernists undermined their ideal of aesthetic purity. For utopia, had it been created, would count as an eminently practical upshot of “pure” art. We see this slippage from purity to practicality in all the theory spun out in support of geometric art—or, as I’m calling it, utopian modernism. My point is not that avant-garde theorists commit logical errors. Of course they do, for art cannot be constrained by the properties of logic. What I’m getting at is the impossibility of absolutely pure art. A painting or sculpture may lack any common utility but it must be useful in some way. Otherwise, it would have no meaning for us. Mondrian wanted art to rescue us from the divisions and differences—in short, the conflicts—that give human history its tragic cast. Chun also sees life as defined by unceasing conflict and, like Mondrian, makes art to address the results of this violence. He is thus nearly unique among contemporary artists in having attained a vision as grand and as fully developed as any promulgated by utopian modernists during the heroic age of the avant-garde. There is, however, an acute difference, for he does not share with those earlier artists the faith that art can render life perfect.
As visual form attained “purity,” said Mondrian, there would be “a gradual disappearance of the tragic.” 7 Belief in this promise did not survive the Second World War. No one in our time expects painting and sculpture to deliver peace and harmony. However, few artists have been as courageous as Chun in facing up to—and grappling with—the persistence of conflict. As we’ve seen, he builds symbols of violent clashes into the textures of his work. He is an artist of the human tragedy. Yet, for all the clashes of form, all the wounds and scars, actual and symbolic, that shape the surfaces of the Aggregations, these works resolve themselves into an expansive peacefulness. Chun’s art leads us, eventually, to a state of contemplative awareness, and this is our reward for engaging with it fully. Mondrian and the other utopians wanted us to transcend our individuality, just as their abstractions had exchanged images of particular things for “universal” forms. An artist of the specific, Chun appeals to each viewer as a particular person with a unique history. Immersed in the richness of the Aggregations, we confront choices we can make only as individuals. Those of us who are aesthetes value these works for the inexhaustible subtleties of their surfaces. To trace Chun’s interplay of color and form, texture and imaginary light, can be an end in itself, and yet this will not be enough for some viewers. Those who experience the Aggregations as fields of conflict will understand, intuitively, what the artist means when he says that the experience of his art is like exposure to “boiling oil and fire.” Moreover, some who attain this searing vision will see beyond it to the resolutions that give these works their all-encompassing harmonies. Of course, the Aggregations offer further possibilities. There is no end to making sense of works as brilliant as these. At some point, interpretation becomes self-interpretation and I find myself asking: who am I, who must I be, to see these works of art as I do? For I am who I become in the course of my efforts to find meaning in the utterances, actions, and inventions of others. Granted, the meanings of art are subtle and often lost in the rush of fashion or the routines of gallery-going. Nonetheless, fully realized works of art preserve their power not only to engage us in ways thatgenerate meaning but also to illuminate our indispensable part in the process—as the Aggregations do in such an exemplary manner.
1 . Willem de Kooning, interviewed in Sketchbook No. 1: Three Americans, a film by Robert Snyder, 1960
2 . Kwang Young Chun, “Information: a long journey of confrontation, conflict, union and its end,” statement, 20xx. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations attributed to Kwang Young Chun are from this statement.
3 . Donald Judd, “Specific Objects” (1965), in Art in Theory 1900- 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison
and Paul Wood. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing,
2003, p. 827
4 . Frank Stella, in Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd” (1966), Minimal Art: A Critical anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock.
New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968, p. 158
5 . Kwang Young Chun, statement in Dominique Nahas, “Kwang- young Chun: Korean Mulberry Paper Paintings and Sculpture,”
Hand Papermaking, Winter 2006, p. 41.
6 . Piet Mondrian, “Dialogue on the New Plastic” (1919), in Art in Theory, p. 288
7 . Piet Mondrian, “Neo-Plasticism: The General Principle of Plas tic Equivalence” (1920), in Art in Theory, p. 289
Having emerged during a career spanning nearly half a century as one of Korea’s foremost visual artists, the work of Kwang Young Chun has come to emblematize some of the key issues that have unfolded in both Korean contemporary art and the relations staged between the Korean and Western avant-gardes during the last decades of the twentieth and the first years of the twenty-first centuries. From the later 1960s until the mid-1990s Chun undertook a scrupulous, often serial, investigation into the pictorial and expressive qualities of color, line, depth, and texture, responding first to the furious formal and technical innovations of American Abstract Expressionism and then to the “cooler” approach of Color Field and post-painterly Abstraction.
While clearly beholden to the signature development of these U.S. movements, especially during his sojourn in Philadelphia (1969–77), the paintings that resulted progressively opened up their early commitments to formal experimentation and modes of expression predicated on the self to investigate a range of larger experiences arising from atmospheric and elemental affect, various conditions of transience and transcendence, and the implications—for self, nature, and society—arising from the very struggle to paint. By the 1990s Chun had reconceived the project of painting as both a metaphor and a mode of conflict.
One way of gaining entry into the complex, sometimes self-consciously refracted, semantic universe inhabited by Chun is to come at his work by way of a detailed comparison with another Asian artist: Yayoi Kusama. Born in Japan in 1929, Kusama migrated to the United States at the beginning, as Chun arrived near the end, of the “long decade” from the later 1950s through the early 1970s, in which a strategically Americanized variant of international modernism was in the ascendant. This period also bore witness, of course, to an extraordinary upsurge of new avant-garde practices, generated from heterogeneous alliances with popular culture, performance, new media (especially video), and other formations. What appears in retrospect as the peculiarly salient two-step between Chun and Kusama was in fact anticipated by another Korean/Japanese dialogue—also triangulated with the United States, and similarly mute but prescient—between Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono, pioneers of video art and Fluxus, respectively. If Paik and Ono assisted in the delivery of challenging new experimental languages for art in the 1960s and ’70s, Chun and Kusama worked through—and beyond—the late modernist project to return to it some of the larger questions about human conflict and responsibility that had informed the heroic phase of avant-garde art in the first half of the twentieth century.
Chun’s relation to Kusama is significant on several levels. Both artists arrived in the United States looking for artistic and self-affirmation (Kusama in 1957, Chun a decade or so later); both started out in more provincial locations (Kusama in Seattle, Chun in Philadelphia) but enjoyed periods of success in New York City, though Kusama achieved virtual celebrity status and was once deemed more famous than Andy Warhol; and, after a decade or so, both returned to their countries of origin. Kusama left in 1973 and four years later voluntarily retreated to a psychiatric institution, where she continues to work and has developed a new career as a writer; Chun returned in 1977, the year of Kusama’s institutionalization, and became one of Korea’s most lauded artists, nominated as the “National Artist of the Year” in 2001 (among other accolades).
More telling than these biographical symmetries is the commitment shared by the signature styles of both artists to allover formats structured by the rhythmic disposition of fields or clusters of formally similar but variegated visual signs—the compositional sums of which are referred to as “accumulations” by Kusama and “aggregations” by Chun (fig. 1a). The genealogy of Kusama’s units of articulation was complex and included swirls of leaves in the eponymous gouache from 1954; dots, perhaps first visible in the planet-like sphere of Flower (1953 and 1963, fig. 1b); and even eyes (An Eye, 1963). By the mid-1960s, hand-painted polka dots and hand-formed and hand-stitched phallic nodules emerged as the artist’s defining multiples and were applied to flat surfaces such as paper and canvas, as well as to items of common furniture and other objects, including the human body. Chun, by contrast, took up with a more singular and specific form: the triangular, Styrofoam-filled, string-tied packet made with mulberry papers taken from old books (fig. 2a). While varying the scale of the packets, their form and materials have remained a constant in his work since their adoption in 1994.
That these modes of accumulation were not unrelated is attested by the experiments Kusama made as she searched for her preferred unit of aggregation in the 1950s and ’60s and by some of the visualization strategies with which she engaged when the dot and the nodule had already been established. In her earliest work, still in dialogue with traditional genres such as the landscape and still life, Kusama’s attempts to navigate from Surrealist-inflected, perspectival space toward a more unified abstract plane took up, on several occasions, with distinct triangular tessellations as an apparent—if provisional—solution to the compositional problem of achieving an interlocking or allover arrangement. This is clearest in the textured triangular shapes that organize the mixed-media work On the Table (1950, fig. 2b) and the similar field of isoscelean and equilateral forms in Untitled (1952, fig. 3a). A little later, in The Woman (1953), we encounter not only a rhythmic series of dots and dashes but a circumference of irregular, bunting-like triangles, which seem to wrap up (and around) the formally reticent subject of the painting. The act of enfolding itself—an exhaustingly repetitive physical gesture that supplies the latent energy of Chun’s work (fig. 3b)—is also glimpsed in several of Kusama’s early paintings, including the twisted plants and tendrils of Lingering Dream (1949) and the rope-like entwining of Corpses (1950). Clearly fraught with the personal and social implications of the medicine packets Chun recalled from his youth, the activity of folding paper was also investigated by other artists including Dorothea Rockburne in a series of relief etchings Untitled from Locus (1972, fig. 3c). Folding also had crucial practical implications in Kusama’s everyday life overseas, for on one account the money dispatched to the artist by her family was sent in airmail envelopes “like manna folded into paper planes.”1 Medicine and economic manna are two sides in a folded logic of survival and well-being, predicated on reparation and sustenance that, as we will see, open out into still larger questions.
It is surely significant that in what was probably the most performative and multiform delivery of Kusama’s dots and nodules, the 16-millimeter film Self-Obliteration (1968), one image that appears onscreen somewhat like an emblem—rows of dots inside a triangle (resembling a pool rack)—distinctly articulates the overlay and apparent codependence of dots and triangles, with the latter becoming a framework for the former. Her sculptural work with the phallic nodules also gave rise to a moment of conjunction between the sausage-like protrusions and the geometry of the triangle when Kusama chose to cluster the forms over an open ladder in Ladder (1963).
The implications of this striking convergence of repetitive formal means are hard to fathom, the more so because the basic shape of the triangle constitutes perhaps the most obvious ordering structure for an allover format that delivers the first state of difference from a rectilinear grid. As is occasionally the case in the works of Mark Tobey, for example, many artists who have experimented with allover calligraphy have produced patterns that pass—almost unconsciously—in and out of the logic of triangulation. There are, however, several other correspondences between Kusama and Chun, the sum of which suggests that there may be a more salient continuity between their commitments to serial accumulation.
Of special note is that both artists negotiate a signal and portentous shift from the material appearance of their work—its microcosmic detail and granular texture—to a series of macrocosmic, even cosmological, questions, from the serial elaboration of multiple-part objects to charged commentaries predicated on a grandiose gestalt as the production of form and pattern is overridden, and outbid, by existential and ecological issues. Fueled by reflection on the consequences of expenditure and exhaustion, both Kusama and Chun suggest that their accumulative practices are framed at their widest apertures by nothing less than our global condition and, above all, by the unhappy prevalence of suffering and anguish.
Albeit somewhat camouflaged in the inevitable irony delivered by its context, Kusama summarized her version of this critical shift in “Open Letter to My Hero, Richard Nixon,” written in November 1968:
Our earth is like one little polka dot, among millions of other celestial bodies. One orb full of hatred and strife amid the peaceful, silent spheres.
The ultimate referent of the metaphorical potential of the dot—the earth itself—is made utterly explicit here and at the same time coupled with the unremittingly dark association of life with “strife.” Chun’s mode of amplification is similarly direct, unapologetic—and bleak. Building on the contoured topography and cratered “landscapes” conjured from the shaded gradations of many of his recent wall works, in 2003 the artist commenced a sequence of suspended spheres covered, ubiquitously, with his trademark triangular packets in obvious emulation of a globe or planet.
It is clear that both artists are committed to the implication of their works in ethically far-reaching allegorical narratives couched in the languages of death, catastrophe, and oblivion. For both, a key point of origin for these concerns arrived in their experience of conflict. Kusama was conscripted as a seamstress in a parachute factory during World War II, a practice reprised in the painstaking labor of stitching her pouches and nodules. Chun has alluded in several interviews, though seldom specifically, to the impact of the Korean War on his family and community, located near the eventual border between North and South Korea, as he was growing up in the 1950s. Their differently formatted accumulations struck back, then, against the social intrusion of systems of control—military, political, familial. But at the same time each artist attempted to negotiate a way out through the creation of an alternative network. One interpretation suggests that Kusama orchestrated a “cosmic-orgasmic defiance of authoritarian control,”2 whereas Chun’s creation of surrogate spaces—and eventually substitute worlds—was marked by the impact of violent marking, addressing, as he put it, the “…scars of our bodies, the conflicts between members of society, the wars between nations…”3
A final congruence between the two artists, which at the same time opens up a field of differences, turns on their responses to the crescendo of negative diagnosis and tragic experience to which they have repeatedly pointed. Both are committed to a remedial retort that would answer to the pervasive sense of social pessimism with what Kusama termed in the letter to Nixon a kind of unremitting “gentleness.” In Chun’s work, especially after he took up with the mulberry packets in the mid-1990s, the project of remedialization is even stronger because it arises quite literally from the medicinal function of the packets themselves. He thus identifies the very “root” of his work with “the wish to comfort and cure pains in all of us.”4 But while Chun’s capacity—or ambition—to “cure” was formed in an innocent, almost Proustian, childhood remembrance triggered by a chance encounter with formerly familiar objects, Kusama has, throughout her life, been tormented by hallucinations possibly associated with childhood abuse. The difference in the points of origin of the fields of singularities on which their careers have turned cannot be overestimated. Kusama’s dots and nodules were a direct response to frightening and repetitive involuntary visualizations, whereas Chun’s pouches are formal simulations—tinged with wholesome nostalgia—of a historical moment in which community, commerce, and reparation were triangulated and overlaid.
Kusama’s spots and protrusions are, therefore, menacing by their very nature, and the inevitability of their appearance in the mind is matched by their profusion in the artist’s material world. The dots emblematize the sometimes morbid going on and on of something rather than some relapse into happy proliferation. By the same token, “infinity” is another name for repetition without end: a terrifying reminder of an unstoppable condition. It is not surprising that Kusama refers to the dots as a system of “obliteration”—a marking of her whole world: bodies, objects, landscapes, canvases, even scenes of sexual communalism—with specifically re-current itemizations of what Salvador Dalí termed “concrete irrationality.”5
It is at this point that the comparison between Kusama and Chun reaches its limits, for we are left with a set of questions that can be answered only by attending to the specific development of the latter’s work and to key periods, ideas, series, propositions, and materializations through which it passed. Perhaps the most pressing of these might be formulated as follows: in the apparent absence of a traumatic foundation, by what means and through what particular histories was it possible for Chun to suggest in no uncertain terms that he “want[ed] the work to be received like boiling oil and fire”?6
To answer this question we must situate Chun’s work in relation to the debates and conflicts around which modern art in Korea emerged following the founding split in the first half of the century between traditional ink painters, on the one hand, and artists who gravitated toward more colorful media and decorative subject matter, on the other.7 After the Korean War (1950–53) this division became more thoroughly entrenched, and in 1955 Ki-Chang Kim articulated one side of the polarizing drive for artistic modernization in these terms: “Now that our Eastern tradition of painting is fading, we must fall into pace with the times and progress.”8 Contemporary Western art practices—including, for example, the scored and gouged surfaces of Jean Dubuffet’s paintings from the 1940s and ’50s and the Otages (Hostages; 1943–45) series of Jean Fautrier—were often animated by attempts to express “existential” emotions of anger and horror that would have been almost impossible using traditional materials in conventional ways. The essayist and poet Francis Ponge described the Hostages, for example, as “tumified faces, crushed profiles, bodies stiffened by execution, dismembered, mutilated, eaten by flies.”9 Aspects of this resistance also appeared in Korea—though without some of its more traumatic implications—where a variant of Art Informel developed and thrived. As critic and historian Yŏng-Na Kim notes, “Like their European and American counterparts, Korean Informel artists rejected the measured rationale of geometric abstraction. . . . As their work developed, their canvases became filled with vehement personal brushwork which expressed existential anguish.”10 After the military coup of 1961, the gap between traditional landscape artists and those drawn to the techniques of the Western avant-garde widened further, and the number of Korean artists migrating to the West grew significantly. The very act of taking up with Western styles resonated with a pervasive feeling of disillusionment with Korean tradition and at the same time signaled a clearly purposed allegiance to a different path.
This conflict between Korean tradition and Western modernity was played out against a background of similarly predicated antitheses in the wider cultural, social, and political spheres. Discussion of the nature and interactive specificities of the contact zones between Korean culture and so-called Western modernity has, of course, been subject to considerable research and revision in recent decades.11 Laurel Kendall, for example, cites “gallery art” as just one of many “packaged” “modern commodity forms” including “recorded music; commercial venues for food, tea, and alcohol; ticketed performances; [and] shopping mall entertainments,” through which “contemporary South Koreans consume a traditional ‘us’”: “tradition” thus “becomes a commodity enabled by updated iterations of some common apparatuses of modernity that Koreans first encountered in the early twentieth century.”12 As we will see, Chun resists and rethinks the kind of Western “packaging” referred to here precisely by adopting and repurposing a traditional East Asian packaging form.
Like many other forward-thinking artists in the 1960s, Chun adopted aspects of the style and working methods of Abstract Expressionism, to which he was “instantly attracted” when he first encountered it. Interestingly, Chun’s choice had been motivated by a sense of the tension and prohibition in the very project of gestural abstraction. As he observed:
The juxtaposition of conflicting colors, tabooed in traditional painting, was encouraged; the brushstrokes themselves proudly emerged on the surface, creating a tension between abstract forms, colors, and the canvas that burst out from the artwork, leaving multicolored lumps and wild brushstrokes like the tails of comets… I wanted to express the conflicts that were happen-ing between people and between the past, present, and future, though subtly hidden behind a dangerous harmony.13
As with the similar sentiments expressed by artists associated with a range of earlier European avant-garde movements, the development of charged, colorful brush-strokes in Korean art of the 1950s and ’60s marked a desire to challenge and negate the chromatic orientations of the past—first the ruralist nostalgia caught up in the “local colors” movement of the 1930s14 and then the muted, field-like compositions of the Korean Monochrome movement (associated with Seo-Bo Park, Hyong-Keun Yun, Chong-Hyun Ha, Myeong-Young Choi, Young-Woo Kwon, and others) that flourished in the 1960s and ’70s—and to negotiate a new understanding of creative freedom. For many Korean artists in both Chun’s and the preceding generation, the expressive resonance and sheer tactility of bright, abstract marks represented a signal and sometimes a violent initiation into the contradictory cultures both wrought and effaced by modernity. Critic Kyung-Sung Lee encapsulated the dual commitment to pictorial and social struggle taken on by the Informel group when he titled his review of an exhibition of the Contemporary Artists Association in late 1958 “Battle Troops of Beauty.”15
This manifestation of conflict within the abstract language of modernist painting became a central premise and formative condition for the visual project Chun initiated in the late 1960s. Although his work has gone through many formal revisions over the years, he has consistently viewed his technical process as a means to address the social and cultural dimensions of a basic opposition that pitted traditionalists against modernists. After studying abstract painting in Korea, Chun left in 1969 for graduate school at the Philadelphia College of Art. There he developed an apparently more restrained style of abstraction somewhat inflected by the language of contemporary Color Field painting, which led to early success, as attested by exhibitions at the International House in Philadelphia (1971) and elsewhere. More than 150 of the paintings from his American years survive,16 but a key work from 1973 (fig. 4)—illustrated in several catalogues—best encapsulates his aesthetic concerns at the beginning of his sojourn.17 It employs a series of rectilinear framing elements rendered in muted hues to create something akin to an architectural threshold—a door, window, or other such opening—which gives onto a vibrant chromatic plane. This bright flat plane, painted a saturated orangey-red, drips uncertainly into the opening, which is made over as a hopeful destination, attended by the kind of immersive but impending aspect to which Chun, like other Korean artists, was attracted in these years.
Despite the seemingly positive reception of his early work, Chun was caught up in deeply rooted and largely unresolved issues that came to occupy a central role in his thinking about painting. These converged on the question of how the Abstract Expressionist and Color Field styles he had found and adapted truly related to his own life, experience, and culture. Reflecting later in his career on the struggles of the mid-1970s, Chun observed that because these visual ideas and methods were clearly “borrowed,” the style or manner that resulted was not authentically his own.18 He began to question how modernist practices and concerns might coexist within an authentically Korean approach to art making—a mode of reflection consonant with larger trends during the 1970s, when, according to Yŏng-Na Kim, “artists began to think that modern Korean art had become too dependent on Western Modernism without going through a process of proper evaluation and understanding.” It was apparent that Korean artists “hastily followed the latest foreign trends without paying due consideration to theoretical principles or to their own distinctive Korean cultural identity.”19
In tandem with aesthetic debate about the forms appropriate to an “authentic” expression, Chun concluded that his Korean values were fundamentally at odds with the values of American society. He came to realize that, in what amounted to an indulgence in youthful exuberance, he had embraced a visually compelling and formally dynamic pictorial approach that had led him largely to ignore or discard Korean traditions and visual languages to which he was deeply, if subconsciously, attached. His sojourn in the United States amounted, as he put it himself, to a “useless outcry of a young alien who couldn’t adapt himself to the capitalism, materialism, and scientism of the new world that called itself America.”20 This precipitated a kind of crisis about which Chun noted in an interview in 2006: “I wasn’t satisfied with my work, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next.”21
In 1977 Chun made a crucial decision to return to Korea, where he undertook an exploration—that would last many years—into alternative methods by which he might visually formulate the deep sense of social conflict but also shared history and conviction he experienced in the Korean cultural landscape. During what turned out to be a systematic search for appropriately innovative forms and techniques, his work continued to align itself, sometimes squarely, with the available languages of visual abstraction. He was, after all, a modernist searching for another way to acknowledge, and possibly to reconcile, vast social, cultural, and historical differences.
Chun’s work maintained a strong sense of formal continuity from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, punctuated by an important formal shift ushered in during the later 1980s. The immersive and often over-powering color of his earlier works persisted in the form of luminescent fields that often blended many colors within a single visual plane. What resulted were the more reduced chromatic commitments apparent in Untitled (1985) and several paintings from 1989.22 Simply stated, Chun’s brightly colored, painterly fields became more restrained, even muted, while his compositions developed in pattern-like articulations of repetitive abstract forms. Among the forms that emerged were random clusters of oblong shapes made using scraps of tape, paper, and cloth left on the canvas and used for stenciling or applying dye directly to the surface. Individual abstract units appear, multiply, and overlap to establish networks of interlocking forms that resemble rhizomes, crystals, or other cellular forms. Chun termed this new formatting of his work Aggregations. Developing from the center of his images, then dispersed toward their edges, these structural groupings overlaid colorful, shifting hues—in some of the inaugural works—and then displaced the multicolored fields altogether. Bok-Young Kim described the resulting technique of abstract patterning as taking on “a biological description [and] portraying the inner mind by cell[-like] units of light.”23 The primary objective of this technique, according to Kim, was to bring the properties of light, alluded to in the images, into closer proximity to perceptual and other cognitive activities situated on the side of the viewer. With their connotations of organic forces and natural cycles, the aggregations modeled a new framework for the eye and mind to inhabit, as the patterns created a sort of latticework on which to train a revised image of modernity, now shaded from the intense glare of previously vibrant hues. This turn in the later 1980s delivered the founding reorientation of Chun’s powerful new synthesis between modernity and tradition.
At his one-person exhibition at Gallery Hyundai in 1988 Chun showed a body of work that contained sequences of rhizomous, almost “neural,” networks articulated by white latticework that stood out in front of fields of yellow, green, blue, and red marks. These compositions deployed grid-like accumulations of blocks organized row by row somewhat in the manner of Chuck Close’s sectionated formats, though purged of any figurative revelations configured by the abstract units either internally or as a whole. In some works, the final layer of lineation articulates a succession of quasi-triangular forms in which various white spots acted as ciphers for light. These shapes signaled the emergence of a key form that would be consolidated in the following years. In many works, the white blocks stand out from differential gradations of mostly reds and oranges, functioning as blank texts or invisible motifs that organize the composition from the center. The clustered distribution of white marks produces reflective, shimmering effects, as if they inhabited shiny surfaces disturbed by a passing breeze or aquatic undulation. In 1989 Chun shifted away from dense, quilt-like accumulations toward a looser mesh of interconnected parts, both more restrained in color and more contemplative.
One body of work from 1990 uses what appear to be graphic representations of neural networks, thus hinging on and securing the analogies between light and mind that had been hinted at earlier. Bok-Young Kim identifies this operational or linkage system in Chun’s work during the early 1990s as an attempt “to understand his own inner world by analogizing or metaphorizing the light.”24 These inferential “structures of light” (as Kim described them) traverse murky, chaotic passages in several paintings but eventually merge into a unified pattern. They appear to be based on renditions of simple “neural” units derived from a process that involves many additive phases, such as laying scraps of paper with chemical dyes across masked areas and dripping or brushing pigments into the interstices. If some of these compositions stage a somewhat troubled return to brightly colored hues, others follow each other in a more clearly articulated sequence of progressive desaturation, reproducing intensely reticulated monochromatic patterns. Kim describes the space opened by these works as an “assemblage of lines generated by the action of ‘drawing a line,’ in relation to the issue of light.”25 Rather than chromatic intensity, it is now line that maintains a pivotal relationship to the means and qualities used for the expression of light.
These concerns signal a sense of continuity between Chun’s work from the 1970s and the 1990s, as he continues to ruminate on a range of expressive potentialities captured and modulated by the unique properties of light. Arising from his multiyear search for a style suited to modern Korean culture, Chun would arrive at his solution—nearly monochromatic sets of patterned lines—from an entirely different formal direction. His smooth, chromatic surfaces, modulated by gradual blending, gave way to linear patterns of graphic elements. In these more highly differentiated surfaces, fragmented and replicated parts fit together and overlap to shape a different type of visual space that might be described as a palimpsest combining shifting perceptions with evidence of multiple viewpoints, which converge and overlap, collide and accumulate. However, instead of bright, intensely chromatic illuminations, the softened, dappled light associated with these works now appears as if filtered through many small apertures, producing effects similar to those of sunlight passing through an array of gently swaying branches.
Chun’s series of paintings Analogy by Light (1992) primarily used cobalt blue, connoting water, set with nodal flecks of foam-like white distributed evenly across their surfaces. One critic suggested that their “white specks [provide a] culminat[ion for] the unknown impression by floating like a babbl[ing] sea.”26 The white highlights were added as drips and spots atop many layers of blue pigment, built up through a variety of direct application techniques, such as pouring, smudging, and frottage. In Emotion of Cobalt Blue (1992) and other works, these illuminated clusters of lights give rise to a pattern that can be read, macroscopically, as galaxies unwinding—an effect generated not by an absence of pigment, as with the earlier masked works, but by the luminous action of white points and areas glinting on and off a reflective surface. The analogy of light staged here took off from the generation of an “oceanic” feeling that Chun had also activated in earlier works such as ONT-019 (1986, fig. 5a)—somewhat in the manner of Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five (1947, fig. 5b), though with different chromatic accents. But the initial effects of the analogy series, seemingly generated by hovering above a large body of water, gave way to a larger sensation prompted perhaps by observing a deep blue, terrestrial atmosphere as it ripples through the cosmos.
Developing the Analogy by Light series in 1993 and 1994, Chun’s predominantly blue palette became much less saturated and was augmented by soft hues of pink and red. In effect, the whites, which had appeared earlier to be flashes on a reflective surface, were now spread across the entire composition. One critic suggested that they showed “the light blue of the clear sky far away, displaying . . . delicacy and elasticity.”27 Using unprepared canvases set with masking tape and small lengths of paper, Chun applied oil paints mixed with toners and other chemicals in a process described by Bok-Young Kim as a version of the alla prima technique in which the artist “freely controls and variegates the lucidity and brilliancy of colors by taking off the papers or overlapping them in repetition.”28 Crushed, interlinked, and meshed bars thus create a surface that is “actively breathing and pulsating.”29 Each superimposed structural unit is marked by a discernibly separate strip of paper around which pigments hold fast and chemical baths seep in to produce a high-resolution wash of pale iridescent colors.
Most intriguingly, Chun’s cellular units develop distinct outlines, and the interstices between paper strips darken, giving rise to effects that resemble photographic “solarization.” Like the differential emanations produced by this photographic process, Chun’s images tend to proceed from an initial ground, or “exposure,” that becomes a basic framework for successive articulations and superimpositions over the course of their development. Such complex chemical processes engender highly convincing effects of light sensitivity that open up new avenues in Chun’s ongoing analogization of light. Thus, the reticulated edges and graduated hues of the early 1990s generate patterns of cellular automata, which activate various macroscopic or microscopic allusions. To some observers, these finely rendered surfaces suggested a new spiritual dimension, which Kim aptly termed “the sudden gleam of the transcendental.”30 Originating in the delicate formal balance that Chun achieves between color variation and patterning, this transcendent aspect is conjured from a visual “depth” that conjoins material specificity (and a “close-up” point of view) with visual generalization (distant or cosmological imaging) so that physical opening up operates through a conceptual horizon to affirm the tangibility, even credibility, of light itself.
HERE WE GO ’ROUND . . . WITH MULBERRY PAPERS
The gradual shift in Chun’s work—from the strong coloration of the 1970s and ’80s to the allover patterns of the late 1980s and early ’90s—was followed mid-decade by a momentous material change as the artist began to apply triangular, string-tied packets of mulberry paper, or hanji, to his canvases. Widely used in Asian countries, this ancient material derives from a bush native to Korea; its period of large-scale manufacture extends from the ninth to the twentieth centuries. (As of the early twenty-first century, there are still over twenty mills producing this specialty material.) The strength, differential porosity, and translucency of hanji made it perfect not just for writing and printmaking but also for packaging, insulation, greenhouses (using oiled hanji), clothing, and even armor, as well as for the fabrication of such utilitarian and decorative objects as fans, kites, flowers, shoes, chamber pots, and utensils. Mulberry paper is also associated with health and medicine by virtue of its deployment in small pouches storing medicinal herbs that are often suspended from the ceilings of traditional apothecaries. Chun recalls that, as a child, he saw triangular packets filled with herbs hanging in his uncle’s medical office. “I remember that numerous packages of mulberry paper were hanging from the ceiling, each with a name card of the medicine that was wrapped inside.”31 He first incorporated folded triangles into an untitled work from 1987 but began using this material exclusively only in 1994.32 His adoption of mulberry paper in this triangular format clearly has both nostalgic and historical dimensions, but several formal and conceptual reasons also inform his choice.
Chun noted that although this key shift in the material articulation and construction of his work was prompted by the resemblance to Chinese medicine packages, the folded mulberry packet became “the essential expression and private documentation of my desire to regard these triangular cells as the minimal unit of information.”33 As we have seen, the artist’s compositional process already involved the use of scraps of paper on the canvas to create interlocking visual patterns. The function of the mulberry paper was, in fact, extrapolated from this logic to function both formally and semantically as a basic “unit of information” in his patterned works. “To me, the triangular pieces wrapped in mulberry paper are basic units of information, the basic cells of a life that only exists in art, as well as in individual social events or historical facts. By attaching these pieces one by one to a two-dimensional surface, I wanted to express how basic units of information can both create harmony and conflict.”34 Building on this simple form, the artist instigated an entirely original approach to the visual field, at the same time cross-correlating several important artistic and historical trajectories. In effect, Chun developed an alternative to the abstract brushstroke and expressionist drip: collecting and repurposing used papers, he reconstituted the craft of image making by interleaving traditional materials with historical techniques, framing both in an avant-garde configuration and situating what results in saliently fraught relation to ideas and practices of remedialization.
Chun’s “units,” then, literally recycle old mulberry papers that bear witness to their previous uses, whether as packaging or in books or other printed matter marked with either Korean or Chinese characters or both (fig. 6). The artist is closely attentive to the implications of his appropriative technique but especially to the historical weight and documentary cast of the papers and the temporal and ideational stamps they bear. He points to the variety, age, and fragility they evince, but equally to the implications of his own “agency” in “transferring” the “information” intrinsic to them—a process that is at once a kind of “rebirth” but also a delivery system for the conveyance of “minimal units containing different information.”35 By overlaying the spiritual connotations of a “rebirth” with the matter-of-fact transmission of “information” and ideas of the “minimal” with the ineffably wide aperture of the found histories etched onto the papers a century or more ago, Chun spotlights the redemptive mediation reached for in the formal language that has organized his work for the last two decades. “I can’t use new paper,” he noted. “For me the old paper has a life, a history. It contains the soul of the people who touched it. In a way I’m wrapping the stories of people’s lives.”36 Charged by the previous life of this material—almost endless back stories redolent of everyday events and actual contexts, however trivial and dislocated, drawn from the dawn of the modern era—Chun’s pouches expand their intrinsic associational energies by staging innumerable close associations, clustering effects, and “territorial” extrapolations.
Chun, in fact, reorients one of the defining material innovations of modernist visual culture ushered in by the papiers collés of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque—such as Picasso’s Bottle on a Table (1912, fig. 7a)—and later recast by Jasper Johns, who suspended bits of newspaper in the palpable thickness and translucency of his encaustic technique developed in the late 1950s, and Robert Rauschenberg, who transferred printed papers into his works using silk screens, as a retort to the disingenuous self-referentiality of the Abstract Expressionist drip. Chun strikes back against the legacy of formal (and social) flatness with the dimensional palpability of the package (fig. 7b); he refuses the modernist customization of printed paper as a surface (still implicit in the work of Joseph Kosuth in the late 1960s or Sarah Charlesworth in the 1970s (fig. 7c),37 by imbuing it with multiple layers of “content”—the print of Chun’s papers bears one level of meaning; their articulation as containers gives rise to another. And he resists the topical singularity of reference generally proffered by Western avant-garde artists by setting his own folded pouches in teeming, heterogeneous fields of contiguous papers that open up their own compositional horizons, where they refer to other generic orders including landscapes, territories, and sculptural and related objects.
Chun first showed works articulated in the paper-packet technique in June 1995 at Galerie Bhak in Seoul. While many aspects of the exhibition announced the artist’s new formal and referential interests, continuity with his previous patterned paintings was also signaled by the use of titles related to his ongoing series of Aggregations. One of the general dispositions of these works, then, was to add another dimension to his diffuse, allover technique of layering. To this end, Chun applied the folded mulberry paper units to the support structure, creating a thatch of pod-like elements that spill over the edge of the frame. Some of the works featured paper that had been dyed with a single bright color (yellow, blue), whereas others combined these strong hues, as with the violet and blue in Aggregation No. 95003 (1995). But the show also introduced an important shift in Chun’s palette, which now relied more on gradated earth colors—allied to the browns and the grays of the original found-paper materials—along with the associated colors of the inks and aged or tinted papers. This muted range of hues appears in many variations. Aggregation No. 94030 (1994), for example, features nearly monochromatic white elements with black ink lightly splattered across the surfaces; by contrast, the dark and densely printed paper of Aggregation No. 94011 (1994) creates a heavily textured surface punctuated by the white spaces between words. Other conditions of the initial wrapped and tied works include the use of nearly identical forms that underline the impression of mass accumulation and are similar in effect to looking down into bins of individually wrapped candies. In addition, the spilling of the packets over the boundaries of the wall-mounted works lends a sense of abundance, even prosperity, of the kind that might be associated with innumerable quantities of similar, but subtly different, objects.
Chun developed the folding paper technique in several directions at the same time, as evidenced by the series Aggregation III (1997–99), parts of which were included in his 1999 exhibition at Park Ryu Sook Gallery in Seoul. Thus, Aggregation 97-15 (1997) has an almost Op Art–like surface rendered as a relatively uniform plane of color and texture; other works, including Aggregation 98 N113 (1998), employ predominantly earthen colors to create zones of pebbly “soil,” and still others are marked by deeply shaded coloristic highlights (Aggregation 99-AU170, 1999) or pick out distinct, apparently abstract motifs, such as the “cascade” of Aggregation AU48 (1998) or the target-like concentric circles and darker “bull’s eye” of Aggregation 97- 189 (1999). Given the consistency of Chun’s materials and the restraint of his palette, many visual issues still revolve around the nature and implications of his patterns, now directed through a close analysis of texture. During these years, Chun was particularly interested in the placement of the folded-paper elements. Each variously sized form was glued down, and the patterns produced by repeated units have diverse depths and angles of articulation, depending on how much they protrude from or recede into the flat surface. Rather than appearing to be heaped or clumped together, as with the works from 1994 to 1995, these accumulations were more nested, fitting like puzzle pieces or naturally sifted shale or sand. Now rooted solely in triangular forms, the regularized grids suggest a tessellation of the picture surface, with their repetitive qualities implying a kind of individualized pixilation. It is clear that these are vigorously handmade images rendered from countless, contiguous elements that accumulate, irrespective of their iconographic significance.
One of the several Korean traditions from which Chun draws is bojagi: the wrapping of objects for safekeeping or protection during transport. Yet this allusion is accompanied by a deviation through late industrial culture, as Chun’s hand-folded parcels are “stuffed” with wedges of Styrofoam (a “foamed” plastic derived from polystyrene). This light material serves the practical purpose of giving shape and mass to the wrapped paper fragments and also acts as both barricade and bridge between very different material cultures. Indeed, the complex composite constitution of hanji is simultaneously antithetical and in some ways akin to industrial-era plastics in the West, such as Parkesine (1856), Bakelite (1907), nylon (the first purely synthetic fiber; 1939), polystyrene, and PVC (polyvinyl chloride).
In addition to bojagi, Chun’s work after 1995 has been informed by the tradition of Korean origami, a long-practiced craft of creating small folded figures in paper as devotional reminders. Folding and forming the mulberry paper into packets is a reiterative physical practice that accords with Chun’s desire to address both the sociocultural rifts that beset his homeland and the wider conditions of human trauma and suffering: “I have wrapped and tied tens of thousands of triangles made from Korean mulberry paper to embrace my deep longing,” he notes. “The wish to comfort and cure pains in all of us is at the root of my work.”38 Following his embrace of abstraction as a young artist and almost a decade spent in the United States, Chun has come full circle—visually, conceptually, and geographically—returning to Korea and discovering there a way to reconcile tradition with modernity. Conflict is still a central motivation, but it is no longer a force that compels his work to engage in exaggerated forms of pictorial expression and coloristic overlay, becoming instead a kind of antithesis in a new material dialectic—something to be cured or resolved. Rather than simply staging the metaphorical provocation of potentially extreme social and cultural differences, his approach to composition now seeks to integrate Western experimentalism and the values embedded in Korean culture by bidding to repair the experiential rift opened up between them. Neither primarily a commercial nor a conceptualist gesture, this reimagining of tradition instead constitutes a referential turn to the situational and material textures of Korean history, though tempered by modernist-inflected formatting of various kinds. The past is not simply kept alive through references to, say, Korean landscape painting but is retrieved from forgotten texts unearthed in rural towns and villages and then reconfigured by the artist into other dimensions of possibility, including the provision of new temporal and spatial experiences and a startling and seductive topography that assembles, complicates, and even effaces a vast reservoir of visual and textual significations.
Often printed with Korean and Chinese characters, and usually retaining evidentiary traces of their original uses, the recovered mulberry papers release another dialectic in the semantic and sometimes historically traumatic spaces that tangle and clash between these scripts, including the Chun family’s negotiation with its own Chinese heritage as Korean citizens living in the Korean peninsula. While one observer pronounced that the “patched patterns created by light and shade” in Chun’s colorful oil paintings could be seen as “recollective records of the interior consciousness,”39 the folded paper works take off from the artist’s childhood experiences and traffic in the hectic space between personal and collective memory, singularity and profusion, convention and innovation, legibility and effacement. Often somewhat overdetermined in his earlier paintings, Chun’s personal or interior dispositions—his accumulated feelings and “inner consciousness”—are now caught up in the rearticulation of his work as what he terms “remembrance piec-es.”40 Through his accumulation and transformation of material culture the artist, in effect, creates imagined spaces of cultural integration, projected like repressed memories onto almost unending accumulations of repurposed prose.
We can gather up some of the implications of these new orientations by looking across to the experience of other Korean artists whose work began in engagement with the visual abstractions of the 1960s and ’70s but shifted in midcareer. Like Chun, Tschang-Yeul Kim (b. 1929; lives in Paris) played out this move by taking up with image–text experiments, which he began in 1975. Working more directly in the lineage of papiers collés, Kim sometimes used specific, identifiable sources, as in Decomposition (1987), a canvas with oil paint and collaged fragments from a French newspaper. Not only do the words in this piece convey particular visual qualities, they are also comprehensible as linguistic units. By contrast, if the language components of Chun’s mulberry paper works clearly assume an important role as particular works are seen and read, the scale and arrangement of the texted materials also create overall effects more akin to pattern than text-driven legibility: they generally offer more in the way of visual texture than discursive significance. Furthermore, the majority of Chun’s material comes from repurposed sources that are not always apparent or decipherable. The legibility of the texts is foreclosed by their being cut, folded, and bunched together. From the point of view of language per se, therefore, Chun’s textual elements are quite fragmentary: the viewer encounters individual characters or sentence fragments, but words from different papers might float together, displaced from their original contexts. For Kim, however, text deployed as fragments remains recognizable, and one of the main conceptual developments in his career pivots on the interplay of, and clear demarcation between, Chinese characters and illusionistic pictorialism that characterizes his Recurrence series (1989–93).41
While both Kim and Chun introduce text into an abstract visual language, the directional orientation used to stage this apposition is in each case different. The legible, “upright” lettering in Kim’s works is typically determined by, and then plotted onto, precise grids underlying the pictorial plane; Chun’s texts often defy the consecutive and ordered principles established for written language. His scripts twist and turn in all directions as they repeatedly disappear over, and are lost between, the facet-like edges of the small folded packets. Yet, the lost coherence engendered by this shattered semantic consistency is effectively supplied by, or compensated for, the formal and material cohesion of the compositional totality of each work. As the linguistic fragments undulate across the picture surface, they form new relations and assume qualities akin to those of natural phenomena: the wind-rippled surface of a lake, a weathered face of granite, or the pell-mell assortment of a stony beach. For Chun, the found texts provide crucial but rudimentary articulations, but his abstract patterning intimates some of the unknown forces that distribute, arrange, and disrupt the elements that shape the world, including these.
From the inaugural deployment of pasted papers by the Cubists in 1912 through various neo-avant-garde experiments after World War II, one of the principal effects of the posting of printed matter within the confines of the artwork operated as a declaration of the surface underwritten by the flat and generally thin planar materials on which text had traditionally been written or later mechanically impressed. It was the inevitability of this palpable flatness—read primarily from the newspapers collaged into works of synthetic Cubism—that Clement Greenberg identified as one of the defining characteristics of the self-referential modernism he championed. As he suggested in his essay “Collage” (1958–59), with the advent of pasted papers various forms of pictorial depth and illusionism are foreclosed, and “literal flatness now tends to assert itself as the main event of the picture.”42 Like many collage artists, Chun exploits the often fertile tension and strong contrasts that derive from the differential relation in his work between flatness and dimensionality and textual and pictorial languages. But unlike most collagists, he presses further than a mere defiance of illusionistic depth in order to introduce sculptural references—his wrapping and folding literally adds three-dimensional volume to the units of his visual language—to work that is still beholden to the category of “painting.”
Chun’s relinquishment of the flat surface of the image was, therefore, predicated on an explicit search for augmented dimensionality that resets his visual language with a sculptural declension. Unlike the text-based sculptures of Robert Indiana, for example, or the paintings of Ed Ruscha, in which textual legibility is reinforced by a permissive Pop sensibility and often inflated, Chun retains the modest scale of the original printed words and reassembles them into a generally illegible, collage-like accumulation of unanchored signs. He alters the parameters by which these units combine, collide, and cancel each other out, thus enabling them to drift apart linguistically while remaining tightly bunched as a formal gestalt. Abstract shapes and volumes absorb the ready-made words into the microtopographies of a language set free from the confines of rows, columns, and pages. The volumetric illusionism of Chun’s interventions can be understood in relation to a lineage of modernist investigations of dimensionality on a flat plane, including Dadamaino’s (aka Eduarda Emilia Maino, 1930–2004) Volume (1958). Likewise, his relief patterning can be related to Gianni Colombo’s (1937–1993) Pulsating Structure (1959/1971) and other works; while his use of repetitive elements recalls the kind of experiment represented by Eva Hesse’s (1936–1970) Constant (1967). For all their seemingly reductive underpinnings, however, Chun’s images counteract and in many respects contradict the rationales of the Minimalist grid. For they permit the printed word to discover a new landscape of transformation and recombination, a place where language retains the capacity to dream differently based on its ability to accommodate differences within a cohesive visual space. Chun envisions a fabric of multiple, partial impressions that have been recast as the comforting whispers of an adaptable—and modernized—sociocultural machinery. In it, words are allowed to take their place in a mode of visual organization that, to a large degree, defies linguistic structure.
Chun introduced shaped canvases to his visual repertoire in 2001, using geo-metric forms related to rhomboid, parallelogram, and fan-like configurations. Each piece in this body of work, shown at Kukje Gallery in Seoul in 2002, featured subtle shading, a gradation of tonalities, and gentle undulations of color. In addition to the hues of the found materials, Chun also introduced new chromatic possibilities by dyeing the individual pieces prior to assembly. Paper preparation thus emerges as an additional phase in his artistic process, permitting greater chromatic modulation. In Aggregation 01-AP052 (2001, Fig. 8a) and other works made toward the end of this experimental period, Chun augmented his bas-reliefs with a more literal sense of depth which brings to the vertical exhibition surface a sense of horizontality and depth akin to that achieved in Donald Judd’s wall-mounted works from the 1960s, such as the galvanized iron and lacquer Untitled (1967, fig. 8b).
Another of the decisive moves in Chun’s career came about at the same time: the shift in about 2001 from wall works and bas-relief tableaux to freestanding, properly sculptural forms in which his triangular pouches are packed seamlessly together (as in the previous work) but now arranged across and around the volumetric surface of a three-dimensional “object.” The initial effort in this new language was Aggregation 01-MY057 (220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124) (2001), which was articulated as a temple-like forest of columnar shapes, unique in the artist’s oeuvre by virtue of its architectural intimations. Aggregation 001 constitutes the first of a series of four differently oriented sculptural articulations. In the second series, Aggregation 05-AU033 (2005), for example, boulder-like masses sit on the floor in “postures” that might be recumbent or slumped . . . or dead. In another group of works, including Aggregation 06-MY020 (2006) and Aggregation 12-AU042 (2012), the sculptural mass is built up in vertical formats, beset by anthropological or physiognomic intimations that stand in a field of debris sloughed off from the “figure” and pooled around its base. Chun has referred the effects of these stubby, bone-like, shedding forms to experiences of exhaustion and suffering, and even to the more apocalyptic trauma of being “burned to death.”43 A final declension for the artist’s sculptural forms is predicated on another of Chun’s micro- to macrocosmic switches so that suggestions of human scale are replaced by globe-like amplification. Aggregation 03-BJ011 (2003, fig. 9a), Aggregation 06-JN028 (2006), and other works take the form of suspended orbs hovering a foot or two above the floor. Similar in shape and impact to Mike Kelley’s asteroid-like Silver Ball (1994, fig. 9b), Chun’s quasiplanetary spheres dominate the smallish rooms in which they are usually located and seem to possess a virtual gravity that detours viewers around them. At the same time they anchor the ambitious—and ambiguous—metaphors of catastrophe and survival to which Chun’s art making has long aspired.
ONCE CALLED LANDSCAPE
One of the most common filters through which Chun’s works—since the later 1990s, at least—has been interpreted is comprised by the genre and general conditions of landscape. During the last couple of decades, many writers and curators have evoked nature, terrain, and the land or its physical features in descriptions of and analogies predicated on Chun’s work. Richard Klein, for example, notes that Chun’s mulberry paper works from 2008, as in his Aggregations series, appear to “grow up from the ground” and that his “crystallized boulders and monumental pods with irregular surfaces reference the natural landscape.”44 Similar allusions populate the titles of several essays on Chun’s work, for example, “Injecting Life into Arid Landscapes” (September 2008) or “The Landscape as Structure” (June 2011).45 Other works in the Aggregations series (ca. 2004) have been associated with “heightened spatial definition, suggesting a terrain pocked with depressions and steep hollows.”46 This sprawling set of references is both embraced and reaffirmed by the artist, who often frames his work in relation to nature and tradition: “I love nature and I want to live my life in harmony with nature,” he said in 2008, adding, “I hope my work can take this traditional Korean message forward to modern society.”47
This referential field is more often observed or stated than closely substantiated. However, examination of the Korean tradition of ink landscape painting reveals some possibly unexpected similarities with Chun’s contemporary engagement with geographic and topological features. Chun’s works do not, of course, represent particular places but are imaginary spaces that have a measure of affiliation with the Korean “true-view” landscape tradition (chin’g’yŏng sansu) that depicts idealized scenery.48 The craggy and rocky terrain in some paintings in this genre conveys an appreciation of both the textural possibilities of complex landscape forms and the delicate and skillful brushwork with which they are rendered. The distinguished eighteenth-century painter and expert on geography and cartography Su-Yŏng Chŏng, for example, created a kind of geological perspective in The Album of Sea and Mountains (1799);49 Ŭi-Song Yi’s Front View of Haegŭmgang (ca. early 1800s) is characterized by similarly intricate effects.50 Many of the “geological” qualities of Chun’s recent imagery can be attributed to a related emphasis on the textures generated by the arrangement of differently sized paper elements. Eric Shiner underlines these connections: “By the very structure of the work, the viewer must survey the physical surface of the accumulations, as if mapping uncharted territory. . . . Chun builds structures that contort time and space in the here and now.”51 In this reading, not only are the artist’s text-laden surfaces correlated with the visual effects produced by rough and rocky terrain, but the very act of viewing them is delivered into alliance with the discourses of mapping and surveying, procedures that underscore the formalized means of taking the measure of landscapes and their features.
If the abstract textures and contours in Chun’s works retain at least some for-mal relationship to the qualities of traditional landscape painting, another mode of connection is furnished by a shared commitment to the deployment of text in and around the image. The use of textual inscriptions set next to landscape images has a venerable history in Asian art, arguably reaching its zenith in the literati land-scape paintings of the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), which were enriched by the personal and symbolic associations imported into the image by calligraphic inscriptions of various kinds.52 The tradition of word and image combined in a single work was also a feature of Korean painting, as in Chŏng Sŏn’s hanging scroll General View of Mount Kŭmgang (1734, fig. 10a),53 or the textual additions made by Se-Hwang Kang to Hŭi-Ŏn Kang’s Mount Inwang Seen from Tohwa-dong (1700s).54 In fact, the Korean inflection of the landscape genre in the “true-view” movement, within which these works were situated combined emphasis on topographical specificity with elements of idealization and a commitment to locations deemed emblematically “Korean.”55 It is clear that Chun was motivated by a similar range of concerns, which underwrite, and occasionally disturb, his material and formal experimentation.
In addition to the general references to landscape and geological terrain signaled almost irresistibly by Chun’s works, we might note an adjacent set of darker connotations governed by the implicit actions of various violent forces. The artist’s landscapes come across as harsh environments of often unremitting bleakness, composed of apparently exposed and eroding surfaces, windblown outcroppings, and rain-swept planes. The deep, dark hollows sometimes punctured into their surfaces may as easily stand in for sinkholes—and pitfalls—as for temporary protective shelters (fig. 10b). Such seething geological forms suggest that powerful, even aggressive, events may be overtaking the image. Shiner is not the only commentator to allude to the foreboding play of unseen forces that eddy around Chun’s apparently natural formations: “Looking deeper into the crevices formed by the sheer abundance of these abutting shapes which seem to be the end result of an epic explosion of tectonic plates or the after effects of a powerful earthquake, one may envision dark abysses or caves that shelter the past, refusing to reveal the words hidden within.”56 The distinct sense of conflict literally wrapped into the mulberry paper works is amplified by the artist into a defiantly potent charge when he claims that the work should be “received like boiling oil and fire.”57
These messages reach further than the surfaces of the works, however, and evoke more than stark imaginary landscapes, for their unsettling effects also en-compass the horizon of historical events. If a general inspiration for Chun’s work derives from childhood memories, as Shiner observes, it is equally significant that this early period of his life was indelibly marked by the Korean War: “Although the lulling countryside of his youth helped to inspire the geographic nature of his work’s overall surface quality, the violence of the war no doubt became equally important to the artist’s understanding of the world around him, and by extension, may be the ultimate source of Chun’s fractured surfaces.”58 Historical events can alter the social and cultural landscape, and they can also be read from the surface of the planet: “It is not too much of a leap to look at Chun’s peaks and crevices as being representative of this charred and rubble-strewn landscape, and in his own poetic way, he has brought a sense of calm and peace to an otherwise violent period in his country’s history.”59 This dimension of Chun’s work is attested in many ways, but perhaps most simply and dramatically in the very building blocks of his topographical vision, the formal units that juxtapose Korean text and Chinese characters in an “everyday” manner that animates one of the defining polarities for a whole generation of Koreans.
A crucial passage from Chun’s 2011 statement reveals that the connection between landscape and conflict is both explicit and foundational. He begins by framing the mulberry works in terms of history, but then moves from broad historical structures to a catena of more volatile possibilities: “I tried to transform my canvas and the mulberry paper pieces into a window that reflects the history of human life. The scars of our bodies, the conflicts between members of society, the wars between nations…”60 Although the Korean War is not specified in this statement, the traumatic effects of death and displacement are thinly disguised, and the text’s emotional appeal derives from the actualities of living amid the aftermath in a region of heart-wrenching division. Conflict, therefore, has been imprinted into the physical surfaces of his artworks as surely and profusely as the characters themselves: “Just as two nations in war transform their borders, leaving scars on their neighboring countries, or just as billions of years ago continents collided, creating deep oceans and high mountains, in my small universe, the small units of mulberry paper create protrusions and craters over the surface.”61 The political and cultural divisions precipitated by war have engendered extreme differences, social highs and lows that are akin to geographic valleys and mountain peaks. In the end the correlation of landscape, conflict, and serial repetition is pared down to a startlingly direct allusion to rupture and reparation: “The mass collision on the canvas symbolizes a stronger clash of events, which leaves permanent changes and deep scars.”62
LOST IN SPACE
If the natural beauty and emblematic topographical specificity of remote landscapes provide one leading formal and conceptual analogy for the interpretation of Chun’s recent practice, another common understanding of his richly textured paper works takes off from their otherworldly associations. Images of what appear to be barren, rocky terrains lend themselves, almost intrinsically, to comparison with the conditions of outer space or interplanetary travel, with the moon providing the most popular point of reference (fig. 11a). Thus the pockmarked surfaces of Chun’s work invoke “lunar landscapes,”63 “the craters and voids in photographs of the moon,”64 and “cosmic landscapes remorselessly subjected for eons [to] meteor and dust showers”;65 or they simply connote “otherworldliness.”66 In the widest aperture of this reckoning, the densely accumulated elements add up to a grandiose vision “comparable to the individual stellar bodies strewn across the night sky that suddenly appear as the Milky Way.”67 For one observer, “These works can look like craters when seen up close, or like the Milky Way when viewed from a distance”;68 for another, the three-dimensional sculptures (fig. 11b) assume “the presence of small meteorites.”69 The controlling optic of these metaphorical conceptualizations is refracted through the lens of science fiction, with its narrative and imaginative apparatuses of galactic exploration, which give rise to “a new sci-fi presence, a geological, spatial, and extraterrestrial aspect.”70
Chun’s dialogue with the radical visual possibilities enabled by Western-style abstraction is not unique among twentieth-century Korean artists in its attempt to open up traditional culture to parallel spheres of activity that reach for other worlds. Consider, for example, the extraterrestrial implications of the following description of Whan-Ki Kim’s blue canvas 10-X-73 #322 (1973): “The waves of tiny dots seen all together create palpable energy and make the canvas look like a mysterious vortex in the vastness of outer space.”71 As with the commentary on Chun, here the symbolization of mysterious vastness is prompted by a stratum of terrestrial qualities that points the way to otherworldliness. Chun’s imaginary landscapes can be related to the works of Kim in two other dimensions: titling and depth. Similar to the designation of 10-X-73 #322, Chun also adopted an alphanumeric code to govern each work, a titling procedure that draws on the counterreferential systematicity of Western modernist abstract painting, from the “compositions” of Piet Mondrian to the strident semantic neutrality encoded in the titles of Clyfford Still.72 This nominal framework proposes a rational system for mapping a vast terrain through coordinates that follow a logical progression of possibly indefinite succession. On another comparative axis, Kim creates the illusion of spatial depth by recourse to a repetitive material process that unfolds in a manner not dissimilar to the techniques used in Chun’s oil paintings from the early 1990s to allude to depth. Indeed, when Chun gravitated toward mulberry paper, the actual depth of the folded paper continued the exploration of surface possibilities in a trajectory initiated by the abstract paintings but that now built in a reemergence of illusionism. This interplay between the real space of a “relief” and the suggested space of pictorial illusion emerged as a central concern in Chun’s artistic practice during the later 1990s. The to-and-fro between abstraction and illusion had not been as pronounced for Kim, who elided a sense of visual depth in favor of flatness and graphical precision, as in 23-VII-71 #208 (1971) and 100,000 Points (1973).
In Chun’s recent works, connotations of alien landscapes, whether earthly, lunar, or otherwise, arise from the various effects of spatial depth emerging from individually dyed elements that generate relief patterns alongside a spatial illusionism. His visual references to craters and caverns set in inhospitable terrains generate “the counterpart of a kind of sci-fi astronomy,” according to one critic.73 The viewer is transported to an imagined place that relates almost seductively to physical elements articulated by partly comprehensible, if still illegible, details. Sometimes the combination of pictorial illusion and sculptural relief contributes to the apparent creation by a work of its own lighting conditions, either by accentuating available light or, more typically, casting shadows across itself. A productive tension thus arises between real and illusionistic depth: “It’s only when we draw close [to Chun’s works] that we realize these are not actual indentations and hollows, but the artist’s sleight of hand; and yet when we move back, it’s almost impossible to keep in mind that what we’re seeing is not a very real topography, like the craters and voids in photographs of the moon.”74 Illusions of depth derive from the artwork’s diverse surfaces, introducing augmented dimensionality through multiple effects. By inflecting material production and accumulation over time, the textured planes come to represent planetary crusts. Chun’s conjuring of convincing otherworldliness thus follows logically from a complicated process of surface perception that includes displacement from actual relief to illusory depth and from physical materials to imagined landscapes (fig. 12).
If there is a cryptic utopian conclusion to the processes of exploration and discovery in Chun’s work framed by sci-fi storytelling, his references to barren landscapes do not exclude an appeal to dystopian narratives—stories and imaginations of human desperation and planetary or galactic destruction. The grim scenarios that challenge human survival feed a desire for escape and possible rejuvenation, of renewal embedded within a possible reawakening. Chun’s work, in fact, alludes to these challenging issues by explicitly raising the question of how social relations, cultural conflict, and the global future can be reckoned with in works of visual art. For one critic, the correlation of spatial depth with alien landscape suggests an overlay of geographic displacement and social division: “The sense of otherworldliness inherent in the Aggregations movingly reflects the sense of displacement experienced by everyone whose life has been divided by migration, whatever its cause.”75 Another critic reads this social division as an indelible feature of Korean society and connects the war-torn landscape with a different sort of inhospitable location: “With many of Korea’s cities and towns decimated and scarred by the ravages of war, many aspects of the country’s physical landscape became forever altered by the destructive force of bombs and bullets.”76
But there is, finally, another sort of negation established in Chun’s work, one that may not be entirely logical or attributable but that intimates another round of unseen forces. Amid the artist’s cosmological imaginary—“moon craters and black holes in the universe”—one senses the powerful forces of socioeconomic conflict: “our wasteful, anti-ecological corporatism is rapidly taking us backwards into black holes.”77 In this sense, Chun’s visual language of alien environments and speculative fiction helps us to navigate and prompts us to try—at least—to comprehend the coexistence of incomprehensible differences.
I would like to thank David Mather for his assistance with contextual and picture research.
1. Mignon Nixon, “Infinity Politics,” in Yayoi Kusama, ed. Frances Morris (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), p. 178.
2. Ibid., p. 182.
3. Kwang Young Chun, “Information: A Long Journey of Confrontation, Conflict, Union, and Its End,” 2011, originally published online at www.chunkwangyoung.com. An edited version of this statement appears on pp. 164–70.
4. Kwang Young Chun, “Artist Statement,” in Chun Kwang Young, exh. cat. (Tokyo: Mori Arts Center Gallery, 2009), p. 6.
5. See Salvador Dalí and David Gascoyne, Conquest of the Irrational (New York: Julien Levy, 1935).
6. Dominique Nahas, “Kwang Young Chun: Korean Mulberry Paper Paintings and Sculpture,” Hand Papermaking 21, no. 2 (Winter 2006), p. 41.
7. Yŏng-Na Kim, “Modern Korean Painting and Sculpture,” in Modernity in Asian Art, ed. John Clark (Broadway, NSW, Australia: Wild Peony, 1993), p. 158. Since 2011 Kim has been director-general of the National Museum of Korea, Seoul.
8. Ki-Chang Kim quoted in Yŏng-Na Kim, Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea (Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym, 2005), p. 26.
9. Francis Ponge, cited in Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism, 1945–55, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery, 1994), p. 89.
10. Kim, “Modern Korean Painting and Sculpture,” pp. 162–63.
11. See, e.g., Carter J. Eckert et al., Korea Old and New: A History (Cambridge; Seoul: Korean Institute, Harvard University; Ilchokak Publishers, 1990).
12. Laurel Kendall, ed., Consuming Korean Tradition in Early and Late Modernity (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011), p. 3.
13. Kwang Young Chun, “Information,” p. 166.
14. See chap. 5 of Yŏng-na Kim, 20th-Century Korean Art (London: Laurence King, 1998/2005), pp. 106–23.
15. Cited in Kim, 20th-Century Korean Art, p. 211.
16. The Chun Studio and Archive estimates that some 150–200 paintings from the U.S. years are extant; e-mail February 25, 2013.
17. This painting from 1973 was reproduced in black and white in Kwang Young Chun, exh. cat. (Seoul: Chongro Gallery, 1994), n.p. It was also reproduced in color in Kwang Young Chun, exh. cat. (Seoul: Gallery Hyundai, 1992), n.p.
18. Chun, “Information,” p. 166.
19. Kim, “Modern Korean Painting and Sculpture,” p. 166.
20. Chun, “Information,” p. 165.
21. Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “A Korean Turns Old Paper into Quietly Abstract Art,” New York Times (August 14, 2006), p. E4.
22. For both, see Kwang Young Chun exh. cat. (Seoul: Gallery Hyundai, 1992).
23. Bok-Young Kim, “Analogy by Light, Variation of Its Dense/Compact Structures: Kwang Young Chun’s Concept of Line and Space,” November 1990, The Exhibition by Chun, Kwang Young, exh. cat. (Seoul: Dong Sung Arts Center, 1990), n.p.
24. Bok-Young Kim, “Analogy by Light and Its Transcendental Symptoms: Chun Kwang Young’s Recent Works,” in Kwang Young Chun exh. cat. (Seoul: Jongro Gallery, 1994).
25. Ibid. Translation modified.
26. Bok-Young Kim, “Analogy by Light, the Variation of Crowd Structure” in Kwang Young Chun exh. cat. (Seoul: Gallery Hyundai, 1992), n.p. Translation modified.
27. Kim, “Analogy by Light and Its Transcendental Symptoms.”
31. Chun, “Information,” p. 166.
32. The earlier work is Untitled, mixed media with packets, 200 x 250 cm; its date is listed in the 1994 exhibition catalogue (Chongro Gallery) and in the 1992 catalogue (Gallery Hyundai) as 1987. Also see Chun, Kwang Young, exh. cat. (Seoul: Galerie Bhak, 1995), n.p.
33. Chun, “Information,” p. 169.
35. Ibid. Chun notes: “Each triangular package, covered with Korean and Chinese characters, was made from old documents of differing ages and ideas. The documents that were the only means of transferring information at those times were reborn in my hands as minimal units containing different information.”
36. Kolesnikov-Jessop, “A Korean,” p. E4.
37. On Joseph Kosuth’s The Second Investigation (1969), in which both national and local newspapers were infiltrated by various thesaurus headings and subcategories purchased as advertising space, see my “Ideas Being Given: Joseph Kosuth’s Media and Public Projects from The Second Investigation (1969) to the 2010s,” in Joseph Kosuth: Re-Defining the Context of Art: 1968–2012, The Second Investigation and Public Media (London: Black Dog, 2014). On Sarah Charlesworth’s Modern History series (1977–ca. 2003), which took the form of black-and-white photographic prints made from masked newspaper pages, often front pages, from around the world, reproduced in their original scale, each addressing either a particular international headline event (such as the Red Brigade’s announcement of the assassination of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, April 20, 1978), see Sarah Charlesworth, “Unwriting: Notes on Modern History,” in Sarah Charlesworth: Modern History (Second Reading), exh. cat., The New 57 Gallery (Edinburgh, Scotland: By the gallery, 1979).
38. Kwang Young Chun, “Artist Statement,” in Chun Kwang Young (Tokyo, 2009), p. 6.
39. Kim, “Analogy by Light and Its Transcendental Symptoms.”
40. Nahas, “Kwang Young Chun,” p. 41.
41. See Ronny Cohen, Tschang Yeul Kim (New York: Hudson Hills, 1993), esp. chap. 8.
42. Clement Greenberg, “Collage,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), p. 75. This essay was substantially revised from a September 1958 article in Art News.
43. Chun, conversation with the author, New York, September 6–7, 2012.
44. Richard Klein, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, quoted in Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Injecting Life into Arid Landscapes,” International Herald Tribune, September 6–7, 2008, p. 17.
45. The titles are from Kolesnikov-Jessup, “Injecting Life,” p. 17; and from an essay by Kwang-Su Oh in the exhibition catalogue published by Gallery Hyundai in 2011.
46. Maureen Mullarkey, “Arts and Letters,” New York Sun, September 16, 2004.
47. Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Injecting Life,” p. 17.
48. Judith G. Smith, ed., The Arts of Korea (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), pp. 332–33.
49. Ibid., p. 206; also see pl. 97 on pp. 207–9.
50. Ibid., p. 363.
51. Eric Shiner, “Kwang Young Chun: Accumulations of Time and Space,” in Kwang Young Chun, exh. cat. (New York: Robert Miller Gallery, 2008), n.p.; reprinted in Chun Kwang Young, (Tokyo, 2009), p. 13.
52. See, e.g., Wen C. Fong, Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, Eighth–Fourteenth Century, Princeton Monographs in Art and Archaeology, no. 48 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992).
53. Smith, ed., The Arts of Korea, pp. 344.
54. Ibid., pp. 334–35. See also Hwi-Joon Ahn, “The Origin and Development of Landscape Paintings in Korea,” in Arts of Korea; and Wan-Su Ch’oe, Korean True-View Landscape: Paintings by Chông Sôn, 1676–1759 (London: Saffron Books, 2005).
55. See Song-Mi Yi, “Artistic Tradition and the Depiction of Reality: True-View Landscape Painting of the Choson Dynasty,” in Arts of Korea, pp. 352–55.
56. Shiner, “Accumulations of Time and Space,” p. 12.
57. Nahas, “Kwang Young Chun,” p. 41.
58. Shiner, “Accumulations of Time and Space,” p. 13.
60. Chun, “Information,” p. 170.
63. Benjamin Genocchio, “Korean Artists Mix and Nature Mingles,” New York Times, August 19, 2007, p. WE7; and Robert Ayers, “Reviews: New York,” ARTNews, January 2007, p. 136.
64. Ann Landi, “Tradition and Innovation,” in Chun Kwang Young (Tokyo, 2009), p. 11.
65. Nahas, “Kwang Young Chun,” p. 41.
66. Ayers, “Reviews,” p. 137.
67. Kwang-Su Oh, “Ventures into Pictorial Space,” in Chun Kwang-Young: Aggregations, exh. cat. (Seoul: Kukje Gallery, 2002), n.p.
68. Irene Lee, former director of Singapore Tyler Print Institute; quoted in Kolesnikov-Jessup, “A Korean,” p. E4.
69. Ayers, “Reviews,” pp. 136–37.
71. Kim, Modern and Contemporary Art in Korea, p. 30.
72. On the history and theory of titling in modern art, see John C. Welchman, Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
73. Morgan, “Alien Sculpture,” p. 24.
74. Landi, “Tradition and Innovation,” in Chun Kwang Young (Tokyo, 2009), p. 11.
75. Ayers, “Reviews,” p. 137.
76. Shiner, “Accumulations of Time and Space,” p. 13.
77. Morgan, “Alien Sculpture,” p. 24.
Chun Kwang Young is an artist affiliated not only with his native Korea but with the West as well: after his bachelor’s degree studies at Hong-Ik University in Seoul, he traveled to America, where in 1971 he received his master’s degree from the Philadelphia College of Art. He has shown extensively in both America and Korea, and he enjoys positive critical regard, as well as popularity, in both countries. The viewer might think that this double association would cause Chun to address the much-belabored contemporary question of identity; however, he has maintained a distance from such subject matter, preferring to concentrate on materials and themes experienced in his early life. His sense of the autobiographical is easily identified as a language of form taken from memories of early childhood; his method, consistently expressed by small triangular wedges made from mulberry paper, is both personal and at the same time an impartial declaration of the abstract beauty of form. As a result, the combination of more than one focus in his work may be read as art particular to his life, lyrical in its implications of lost culture, rather than compositions intended to emphasize political meaningfulness.
This is unusual in the sense that there is always a strong temptation in contemporary art to focus on the particulars of identity; much of art today is locked in a quest for an internationalized culture that would accept the cultural details of people’s lives. The democratic implications of such art clearly serve a politicized investigation of the self, especially for someone entering Western culture as a relative outsider. Yet Chun has chosen a kind of deliberate beauty as his interest; his emotionally evocative paintings of two and three decades ago radiate a commitment to making the esthetically pleasing object, in this case a surface of restrained yet exquisite hue that becomes increasingly complicated over time. Much of this work may be understood in the light of American field painting, but it is interesting that even in the early work the title begins with Aggregation, the same name of the more recent, remarkable low relief sculptures, made with wedges of mulberry paper, that have earned Chun his large recognition as an artist of note. Interestingly, the mulberry works do in fact refer to early experience--mulberry paper was ubiquitous in the Korea of his childhood, being found as a covering for walls, screens, and window shades. At the same time, packaged triangles of mulberry paper served as containers of medicine; the artist’s uncle was a doctor who worked with medicinal herbs and who passed packets of them on to his patients, so Chun would have seen them very early on in his life. As a result, part of the compositions’ call to awareness stems from a deeply considered and felt memory on Chun’s part, a consciousness that infuses his powerful language of remembering and form.
The practice of containing medications in mulberry leaves is mostly discontinued in Korea; however, Chun has resurrected the forms as vessels of meaning mediated by the history of his life, an identification with method not only sadly lost but also as an act of awareness in regard to past culture. Perhaps the most interesting part of Chun’s esthetic has been his ability to create beautiful, intensely modern surfaces with the insertion of many, many small wedges of mulberry paper, which has been wrapped around styrofoam to support the form’s three-dimensional shape. Chun arranges these small elements, which serve as the basic units of the composition, in increasingly complex ways, so that sometimes the form is set so that it creates an entirely flat surface, and at other times, they are raised up and extend beyond the surface, making the composition stand out in areas as a low relief. His works enact remarkable displays of skill and beauty; in a sense, he might be generally called, without exaggeration or inaccuracy, an Asian artist, since he creates beautiful surfaces without apologizing for his choice, as many Asian have done before.
Chun’s configurations of herbal packets, sometimes colored with tea, are replete with the dignity of his memory. They also refer to Chinese culture in that wishes for good health and good fortune are printed on them. At the same time, they are abstract compositions of marvelous intricacy, which enables him to compose and define his art as relentlessly modern. It is a mistake to separate the content of his work from the details of his forms, but what enlivens his subtle compositions is their relationship to the artist’s past, which can only be remembered and never recovered. This situation might well be the cause of the implied melancholy of Chun’s esthetic, a point of view that incorporates not only the physical artifacts of his life but also the gradual sadness of aging and the recognition of mortality. Chun’s work does not deter him from growing older, like everyone else; however, he is able to stop time, even if only for a moment, by creating art that asks its audience to contemplate these remarkable environments, which move us through suggestion rather than statement. Chun’s statement, in view of its materials, is Asian in its implications, as is his suggestion that we meditate on their existence. At the same time, the work is close to the strict exigencies of the minimalist movement, whose esthetic force was it its peak when the artist was in school in America. It can be said, then, that Chun deftly intermingles influences and stratagems to make an art that cannot be identified as either purely Asian or purely Western. Rather, it is a stance combining the languages and strengths of both traditions. This is an extremely difficult task, but Chun has accomplished it.
It is important to recognize the complexity of Chun’s art, for it symbolizes an attitude toward contemporary art as well as a backward look at the past. Chun’s sculptures have evolved in the direction of greater intricacy; the topography of his Aggregations now has cracks and hollows in them, changes brought about with the inclusion of dissimilarly sized components. What results suggests a whirlpool or vortex, perhaps a fallen star that has imploded within dry earth. These hollowed-out voids open up the space that backs the surface of his work, seeking the mysterious dimensions that lie behind its exterior. Given the large size of these pieces, it is easy to see them as negotiations of a cosmic nature; the space is marvelously convoluted, bringing a grand orientation to the overall composition’s consideration. In some ways, and at least in part because of the mulberry triangles’ differing placements, viewers do not react to the biographical history of their origins so much as they respond to the overall gestalt, its grand gesture composed of nearly countless small elements. Clearly, Chun has used his memory to transform his art into a vehicle for the contemplation of time past, but he has also worked out a thematic and formal agreement, in which the whole suddenly expresses much more than its parts. As a result, we can appreciate the works’ structure on many levels, which define themselves as hybrid responses to issues of formal influences and issues of memory. Because so much is implied in the art, there is a consequent richness of both texture and intention.
Chun is not an artist who is afraid of deliberate beauty; indeed, he thrives on the elegance he creates. The craft that defines his work may seem anachronistic in an increasingly digital artworld, but in fact his art stands out because of its reliance on artisanal intelligence, which does not hinder but rather expresses the complexity and largeness of his themes. As Chun incorporates early life experiences in his art, he at the same time pays homage not only to memory but also to the formal expression of that memory, in terms that can be strikingly beautiful. The world continues to be filled with objects--in New York, the numbers of artists have skyrocketed--but Chun plies his craft with patience and ardor, supported by methods and strategies that take time to be revealed. His relations to lost time might naturally imply a melancholy or nostalgia, yet he strives to transcend the boundaries of both his experiences and his materials. This is a form of honesty, something to be remarked upon because of its independence and gracious design. Chun’s powerful art makes us think as well as see, enabling the complicated, but fascinating, dialogue of influence and independence to go on.
The progress of a serious and committed artist is an inspiring and compelling thing to watch unfold. Once he or she finds a “voice,” it seems, the possibilities for expansion and invention become very nearly limitless, and each new body of work brings a deepening of the sensibilities that make the art stand out as a phenomenon in the context of its time and place.
Throughout the history of art, there have been numerous examples of painters and sculptors who experience an “aha!” moment—a turning point where they discover the medium or technique or approach that best suits their particular vision and forever changes the way they grapple with the process of image making. For the American artist Jackson Pollock, that turning point came in the late 1940s, when he hit upon the strategy of using skeins and blots of dripped paint to create his revolutionary and visually complex canvases. For his younger contemporaries, Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, it was discovering that using unprimed canvas allowed for the unalloyed and immediate impact of color. And one can name numerous other examples from the recent past and the distant thickets of history (where would Jan van Eyck have been if he hadn’t discovered the jewel-like properties of oil paint?).
The Korean artist Kwang-Young Chun experienced a decisive transformation in his career a little more than a decade ago, when he began wrapping small pieces of Styrofoam in mulberry paper, tying them with string, and affixing them to a support. The result was a surface alive and bristling, a kind of “painting” that was not really painting, and one that rewards looking from many different vantage points. From a distance these works provoke all kinds of associations—with landscape, with mosaics, and sometimes even with architecture, suggesting as they do the gritty textures of the contemporary urbanscape. Up close, the characters printed on the mulberry paper, to Western eyes, hint at a convoluted and incomprehensible language, a kind of secret writing akin to hieroglyphs or cuneiform.
As has been oft repeated in other writings on the artist, mulberry paper has deep cultural and personal associations for Chun. He grew up in Hong-Choen in the Kwang-do province, the mountainous countryside of Korea, and it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that most of the traditional houses of his boyhood were plastered with mulberry paper: the material was used in latticed wooden screens, window shades, and as wall covering and carpeting. “I think the thing I first saw was my mother’s face,” Chun recalls, “and then there was mulberry paper. The paper is not just for writing and drawing, but is like the spirit and soul of Koreans.” More importantly, he could see tied-up paper packets at the house of his uncle, a doctor who dispensed the herbal remedies contained in these small, tidy packages to his patients. The triangular packets hung from the ceiling in clusters, where they kept dry and safe from insects, and the minute writing on the exterior offered wishes for good health and long life. This kind of pharmacological practice has largely disappeared in Korea, and so Chun today turns to the paper found in old books to wrap the hundreds of individual elements in his compositions. In that way, he says, he feels “the spirit of the hundreds of people who ever touched and handled and read these books over the years.”
But Chun is an artist who straddles two cultures, and for all his ties to the customs of his homeland, his work is almost equally steeped in recent Western aesthetics. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Hong-Ik University, he traveled halfway across the globe to study at the Philadelphia College of Art, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in fine arts in 1971. His works from the 1970s, when he was showing at the Holly Solomon and Lotus galleries in New York, reveal the strong influence of American Color Field painters, especially of Mark Rothko, in their fuzzy and subtly hued geometries. Later paintings, from the 1980s, seem to take Pollock as their model in the “allover” structuring of the composition and the delicate layering of palimpsests of color. But it’s worth noting that from a young age Chun was comfortable with near-monochromatic formats and with the restrained gradations of feeling that can be coaxed from a limited color range. In their accretions of numerous small shapes, these works are also strangely prescient of the later series Chun calls “Aggregations.”
Many critics have pointed out resemblances between the artist’s oeuvre and the American movement known as Minimalism, which was in part kicked off in Frank Stella’s observation in the early 1960s that his art was a kind of object: “What you see is what you see,” as he told an interviewer. And yet while Chun has borrowed certain strategies made popular by Minimalist artists (and their forerunners, like Ad Reinhardt)—the use of the grid, numbers and dates for titles, and subdued color—his works are really far too rich in allusion to fit neatly into a movement that by and large despised any romantic or associative impulses on the part of the artist. Certain of the “Aggregations” from 2001-02, for example, strongly evoke landscape, the course of a river through a populous country, shadows cast by clouds on an open plain, or any number of other connotations the viewer might bring to the work. Other of the “Aggregations” from the same period are more insistent about their status as objects: the wedge-shaped “packets” poke out from the wall in an insistent and almost menacing way, offering a powerfully tactile and sculptural presence; they hint at aggression and roughness but little else beyond their own ominous surfaces (though one critic found them suggestive of “animate, tiny creatures”—a measure of the richness of readings the individual viewer can bring to the work!).
Though the range of color he deploys is not vast, a word should be said about Chun’s “palette,” to use a very old-fashioned term. Some of the works feature just one or two tones (in addition to the dark characters printed on the mulberry paper), allowing the visual impact to be carried largely by the three-dimensional quality of the surface—the protrusions and shadows cast according to the quality of the lighting projected onto them. In others, Chun has introduced other colors by using tea as a kind of paint, thereby adding a rich spectrum of sienna and ochre tones. And, on a more restrained note, reinforcing the reference to Asian cultures, since tea is a product strongly associated with the Far East. What is remarkable in all of these is largely paradoxical: keeping his color range narrow only heightens the impact. It is only when Chun ventures into too many hues that the “Aggregations” begin to look fussy and overwrought.
In his latest series of constructions, the artist has started to explore new and thrillingly dramatic territory. The works from 2004-05 depend on a variation of trompe l’oeil, a pictorial strategy that has been around since ancient Greek and Roman times. (It was said of the Classical painter and sculptor Zeuxis that he could paint grapes so lifelike that birds would swoop down to peck at them). Meaning literally “deceives the eye,” trompe l’oeil is a kind of tricky illusionism, suggesting three dimensions (usually “real” objects or “real” space) on a two-dimensional plane. Using a range of gray to black tones, Chun creates what look like deep depressions and gouges, causing a sense of rippling, buckling movement across the surface. It’s only when we draw close that we realize these are not actual indentations and hollows, but the artist’s sleight of hand; and yet when we move back, it’s almost impossible to keep in mind that what we’re seeing is not a very real topography, like the craters and voids in photographs of the moon. It’s an almost baroque development for an artist who has so often depended on austerity for effect, and the series only provokes speculation and expectation as to where Chun is going next.
Chun once remarked that his goal is to “tell the story of my culture,” and he has kept true to that aim in the richly evocative materials he uses. But a great artist, especially in an art world that is increasingly global in its reach, must of necessity transcend the narrowness of the traditions on which he initially draws. The work needs broader appeal if it is to have any sort of staying power, and as Chun’s critics and collectors have recognized, he has indeed found a language that speaks on many levels and in universal terms.