Undo a move
by Myungjin Song
If there are some people out there who have followed the not so long trail of my career as a painter, it would put me at a bit of ease to talk about my latest works. It is, after all, rather difficult to put paintings—carefully crafted without using words—back into the linguistic form of expression. To those who have seen some of my earlier works will find my latest creations different. Immediately noticeable is the absence of green, which used to be a dominant element in my paintings. Also gone are the finger people, imaginary figures shaped like fingers as the name denotes. Meanwhile, the images have gotten simpler. The tone is more neutral with shades of beige and grey. In the past works between 2005 and 2009 the color green was predominantly used both as a customary symbol of Nature and a means of imitating it. Behind this image, however, was the conceptual framework of flatness, which defines—and also limits to a certain extent—the art of painting. The recognition of flatness has promoted the artist’s awareness of the identity of painting as a genre, and this central concept is presented to the viewers. For example, my earlier pieces featuring the finger people showed the internal narrative and the outer flatness engage and interfere with each other to experiment a possible marriage of two very conflicting concepts.
Now let’s take a look at my recent creations. The objects on the canvas are relatively simple, often cylindrical and three-dimensional, with slight variations in form. The colors are rather faded, lacking the power and resolve of green. They are close to earth and human skin, easily found everywhere, and thus easily overlooked unless one had a mind not to. The objects appear as if some physical changes occurred inside and are filled with liquid, which in some cases flows over the rim and into adjacent holes (Objects 2, Work 1 and 2). The painting is constantly in a flux with different things occurring, but at the end of the day physical matters move in cycles back to where they left off. The holes will be filled up, the surface smoothed as if nothing had happened. The cylindrical objects are placed near large holes that remind one of the black hole. They look a bit unstable as if they may lose balance and fall right into the holes. Interestingly, the dark holes that look like traps seem also at times to be the entrance and exit for all living things to come into and go out of this world.
In another painting, the cylindrical figures look like they are made of paper rolled into columns. Over the line of paper columns a heavy-looking block slowly makes its way. The paper columns seem too weak to withstand the block as it crosses over them, but they do manage to hold their ground with the exception of those that have fallen under the weight. As if this were not enough the holes on the ground amplify the instability pervading the scene. The coarse brushwork, random and bold, undoes the whole situation to naught (Undone 1). Similarly, there are other arbitrary elements that enter the scene with indifference and turns everything into nothing. Like a snowstorm engulfing the landscape to invisibility, the incidental blots of paint cover up the entire picture plane (Undone 2). The long fair-skinned object makes its way flaunting its volume in an ripple-like movement, and leaves fine cracks on the surface. Then of a sudden, it closes the scene and announces The End (Undone 3).
In one moment, the object is crafted with care and then annihilated the next. Everything seems to flow smoothly on for awhile and then without notice peace is ruined by an act of whim. Even the creator herself is nervous and surprised by such dramatic decline of her objects. But if you think about it, the canvas is no more nor less than a kid’s playground of images. In fact, painting itself is in many ways similar to children playing. Just as kids throw the toys they tire of into the toy box and end their play, I am returning the images I’ve captured on canvas to where they had come from. I may have to hide them in the hole I’m standing on, cover them up with graffiti, or push them aside and out of easy view. This is ultimately an act of emptying the canvas and returning everything to the flat ground on which other images can play.
Naturally, I start to wonder that these seemingly futile situations have developed from the ‘flatness problem’ I had labored over for long. I may have changed the external form and style, but an approach one has practiced for a long time is bound to leave its impact though it may not necessarily be recognized. As I look back to the days when I first learned to add shadows to flat lines to bring the object to life, I realize that I had as much doubt and skepticism about the two-dimensional picture plane as I had a near religious faith in the chiaroscuro, for it made me the almighty creator even if my cosmos was limited to the canvas. Perhaps this is why I always felt painting was an inadequate and self-contradictory genre incapable of capturing major discourses and deep philosophical thinking. Rather than focusing on depicting a concept or meaning on canvas, I concentrated on questioning and doubting the canvas itself. In the past, for example, I sought to highlight the fact that painted images are merely illusions on two-dimensional space by giving viewers glimpses of the white and flat canvas between the objects. The latest works take on a different approach, which I describe as giving some breathing space. This may, however, create rifts between objects, thus leaving them powerless. Perhaps, these holes are what enable one to overturn the situation, though it may seem a futile attempt to add foolishness to what seems to be a foolish enough business of painting.
Regarding my latest works, it may be more accurate to say that I did not seek to give meaning to them, and in fact I made an intentional effort to avoid adding meaning. What I did aim for, however, was the tactility experienced visually in the relationships between the images. This is as much a reality as a thorn stuck under the fingernail, and it has a lasting presence that resonates even after eliminating meaning, such as the concept of flatness I had previously mentioned. Tactility here is not the sense of touch that stimulates a desire to feel something with one’s hands by rendering a very realistic image. It is achieved through the use of painting as a medium to remind one of the everyday tactile experience and to feel it visually at the same time. It may be described as visual tactility, which allows one to guess the next tactile event. The tactile experience is generally achieved when the human body and the object come in direct contact. Tactile information acquired through such interaction is engraved in the body of the person so that the individual is able to understand its property even in the absence of contact. Tactility was explored in my earlier works and is nothing new, but tactility back then was a potentiality that influences the base, whereas in more recent works it is emphasized and treated as something higher than meaning itself.
I wonder how much inevitability exists in the relationship between the artist and his or her work. In a world full of media faster and more direct than art, to what extent painting that has embraced coincidences, transformations and compromises consistently reflects the original intention and thoughts of the painter? Perhaps meaning and concepts that the artist seeks to embody in her work are not inevitably connected to the artist. Perhaps they stumble upon one another by chance in the process of creative activity. The painting, the fruit of the artist’s hard work, will now begin to persuade her that so and so was the message she
wanted to deliver. I think sending a message through one’s painting involves a certain level of self-deception. Would it be too much to say that the artist does not have the initiative in her work and that she only lends her hands to the work for it to manifest itself. After all, all the artist, or in this case, I wanted was to paint a little something for my own satisfaction.
Lately, I feel as if I have hurled my consciousness far away as a shot putter throws the shot. Sometimes it feels like I have left my consciousness way behind me somewhere. In fact, I am quite confused. I’m not sure whether my body is chasing after my consciousness or running away from it. One thing is for sure, though. Whether by choice or by chance, the two will meet again some day. Once they meet, some disagreement may send them on their separate ways. Honestly, I am frightened by the prospect of this foolish hide-and-seek repeating itself over and over again without end and ultimately becoming the history of me as a painter.