Ruggedly Refined Monochrome: Ha Chong-Hyun at Tina Kim
Ha Chung Hyun: Conjunction at Tina Kim Gallery
May 4 to June 16, 2018
525 West 21st St, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, tinakimgallery.com
It is not uncommon among contemporary Korean artists to find the same title used repeatedly for different paintings, often over a period of several years. Although one might find a number sequence to differentiate one painting from the next, for the most part the repetition of the title is perennial.
This practice began with artists in the early 1970s associated with Dansaekhwa (monochrome). While Park Seo-Bo, Lee Ufan, Yun Hyung-Keun, and Ha Chong-Hyun never conceived themselves as a collective, each of them focused on the use of a single word-sign in their work that served as a kind of thematic structure. In Ha’s case, Conjunction was the signifier of choice. For the western viewer this might suggest a conceptual underpinning to the artist’s work, but, even if true, the idea of conceptually underpinning work has a Korean precedent that has nothing to do with Conceptual Art.
For those familiar with East Asian brush painting, the abstract (empty) mind always plays a formative role in relation to the brush and ink. Space exists primarily as an idea sublimated at the service of both. In this context, there is no such thing as material divorced from idea. Instead, they are inextricably bound together–in contrast, for example, to western Color Field painting where the formalist dictum determines more or less what happens on the surface. In the latter case, any idea beyond the visual construct is taken (for the most part) as a literary adjunct and therefore exists outside the concerns of what a painting should be or will become. Among the Dansaekhwa painters, things are different.
Ha’s recent works at Tina Kim make for a beautiful show in much the way that works by Morris Louis or Sam Gilliam might be perceived as beautiful, but the terms of their respective beauty emerge from different cultural strata, where the painterly language – whether formalist or otherwise – plays a role in ways unique to those cultures. In relation to Ha, emphasis needs to be given to an Eastern point of view that carries its own history and ideas related to color and form. For example, Ha’s paintings begin as verso before they become recto. Such works as the blue Conjunction (16-322) and the red Conjunction (17- 25) go back as early as the 17th Century to the Chosun Dynasty when painters began to push their mineral pigments through the weave of hemp cloth to the frontal side, giving the color density as it so. Ha applies blackened smoke to the surface before beginning to spread his monotones in separate units that connect obliquely to one another as a loose geometry.
In Conjunction 16-382, once the blackened smoke had tinted the surface, Ha began pulling white paint diagonally from the left side to the top edge and eventually from the bottom edge to the right side, completely enshrouding the surface with a dense linear construction of white lines. In contrast, Conjunction 16-321, which is black, is done by way of vertical globs of thick paint that intensity the relief quality of the surface applying forms derived from Hangul, the Korean language system that also has its roots in the Chosun era.
In his work, Ha is not merely playing with the idea of monochrome variations. Rather he is intensely searching out ways and mannerisms in which his paintings can take him to the nth degree of his Korean identity. The question that confronts Ha in each of his paintings is, essentially, Where – rather than what – is my identity? This was the tormented interior question that emerged among the Dansaekhwa painters, each according to their own means, in the 1970s. They were living through a period of military dictatorship in their country and had suddenly become strangers to themselves. Ha’s ruggedly refined paintings, the reductive surface plays an indefatigable role in relation to the artist’s stolen identity.