Balance & Change

By Sarah Maline

When the path comes to an end, change. Once changed, you will pass through.

                                                                                    I Ching (Book of Changes) The slick, commercialized environment of contemporary painting favors artworks whose physical presence has become negligible—as long as an image can sparkle on a tiny handheld screen it can find an audience and, possibly, a buyer.  In dramatic contrast, Jung Hur’s imposing, seductively layered canvases assert the absolute necessity of their real presence, and in their spirit of philosophical inquiry they invite the viewer into a far deeper dialogue. 

Detail from  Untitled (Big Shadow)

Detail from Untitled (Big Shadow)

Rigorously trained in traditional Asian ink painting in his undergraduate and graduate-school years in South Korea, Hur’s fascination with the colors and composition of Japanese food led him to become a master chef. Through the two powerful mediums of pigments and cuisine, Hur has developed a unique poetics of painting and performance to navigate [허1] his cynosure: the Asian construct of yin-yang.

The yin-yang cycle is a continuum of change and transformation between complementary forces pervading all realms of nature. The yin (originally, “the dark side of the hill”) represents absorption, cold and heaven, while yang (“the light side of the hill”) is penetrating and warm, generated from the earth. Both states are simultaneous and entirely contingent upon one another; through their endless flux balance and harmony emerge. 

This exhibition brings together two significant bodies of Hur’s recent work that together venture forth via his powerful poetics of painting and performance to explore perspectives of yin-yang.[허2] 

The first paintings (most from 2012-2013) are of an intimate, table-top scale and relate to the presentation and reception of food. In most of these works, Hur’s most frequent and resonant symbol for the yin-yang interface, the repeated form of an antique keyhole, acts as a rhythmic structural grid for each composition.  While the keyholes (often bite-sized) create a robust pattern across the surface of the paintings, they themselves equivocate, inviting visual penetration into to a deeper space, while at the same time with their own rich interior patterns pressing the viewer back to the surface of the canvas. It becomes impossible to define the threshold between surface and the visual path beyond. 

In last year’s Balance exhibition in Portland, Maine, these pieces established a clear analogy between the visual engagement with a painting and the process of eating a well-constructed meal. The exhibition became a collaborative performance by the artist/chef and the viewers/diners as the viewers were presented with painterly plates of cuisine featuring Hur’s keyhole forms.  There was a compelling conversation created among the food—its beauty, color, layers, design, symbols—and the paintings, the diners/viewers and the chef/artist. So while Hur pointedly chooses to ignore some current efforts in painting to redefine the medium in response to perceived challenges of new and popular media, his work enthusiastically engages contemporary trends in food culture. Over the past two decades, the making, presentation and consumption of food as an event of great drama, as performance, as a transformation of chef, foodstuff and human consumer, have become staples of food programming on television. And consumers, even Americans, have learned to look before they eat, to imagine the chef’s process just as they intuit the painter’s process in a contemporary expressionist painting.

When talking about his newest work, Jung Hur often speaks of drama. He has recently moved his studio to a larger space off Neal Street in Portland, Maine and his canvases have expanded to truly environmental scale to build an immersive perceptual and experiential space. The viewer is now active in a different way. Before, presented with food and paintings, the viewer eats, absorbs, and engages as a recipient and consumer. Now the viewer seems to have passed through the keyhole to live on the other side; the keyholes often become reflective.   

While immediate reference to food recedes somewhat with large scale, the keyhole and other symbols persist and new references develop.  The surfaces (some ten years in the making)—still built up in layers of paint, acrylic medium, stenciling, leaf appliqué and graphite powder--are full of shadows and pentimenti that suggest the artist’s process and the passage of time.  Most of these new works are vertical, towering before the viewer.

In Untitled (Window Form) Hur presents a cool, aqua treelike form made from variations on the triskelion (an ancient form of running spiral originally composed of three rotating legs), indicating the endless dynamism of the yin-yang cycle. The tree-form holds an opaque keyhole at its center and stands against a deep brown/black field. The dark field reads as an absorptive space like a deep window, while the bright treelike form resembles a leaded or iron window grille. The keyhole itself bristles with tiny wires. As ever, the border between the real and the imagined virtual space beyond is indistinct. 

Two large horizontal paintings form a distinctive and more literal dualism that invites the viewer directly into the artist’s experience.  In Untitled (Wallpaper) deep blues and greens suggest wallpaper or a textile design (the pattern, in fact, resembles that of a quilt from the artist’s childhood). The exuberance of the pattern is gently fixed, quieted, balanced by the keyhole pattern, now in reflective silver-foil overlay.  The keyhole is rotated almost to profile, less the classic antique form now than something more like a fish-shape with softly fraying fins. Like the earlier Balance work, this painting invites a deep and visceral engagement seen obliquely the silver forms shine forth almost alone on the surface, the rich patterns beneath revealed fully only as the viewer moves to the front of the painting.

Across from this painting is its companion, Untitled (View from Window), a darkly effervescent ink painting in acrylics framed with a Balance-style pattern of keyholes.   This view of a stormy sky outside the window of the artist’s former studio on Exchange Street, seen with its companion wallpaper painting creates a literal interior/exterior set of views.

In Hur’s work, past and present, real shadows are often created by gallery lighting to further articulate a painting’s surface, to both reveal and obscure. Painted shadows often evoke a mysterious sense of presence and absence as in Untitled (Big Shadow), in which a shadow of a keyhole looms over the bottom half of a large vertical canvas, ominously darkening the rhythmic marks, stamped red blots and ghost keyholes beneath. This disconcerting play of absence and presence in which the negative space of the keyhole seems to cast the shadow creates an almost impenetrable visual field for the viewer. 

Similarly, Hur’s recent series of paintings integrating real clothing on paintings’ surfaces—men’s jackets and women’s underwear —builds on states of absence and presence. The jackets are at first hard to discern beneath the pattern of brightly colored keyholes. Obliquely lit, the shadows of sleeves, collars and wrinkles reveal the garments first. Obviously the clothing references the former presence and current absence of its inhabitants, but it also renders the keyholes resolutely opaque—whatever imaginary space exists here is on our side of the keyhole. 

The rigorous structural and conceptual integrity of Hur’s work is both intrinsically modern and timeless. His mode of philosophical inquiry bridges traditions of Chinese and Western thought just as does his approach to painting. Further, Hur’s combination of food, expressionistic painting and the systematic symbolic forms into one solid aesthetic conversation may perfectly express Nietzsche’s dualism of Dionysian and Apollonian forces in addition to revealing dualities of yin-yang.

Nietzsche saw the perfect art form in Greek tragedy, whose structure synthesized elements of rationality and order (Apollonian) with forces of chaos, emotion and disorder (Dionysian). The audience was at once able to glean personal understandings of the world as well as experience an intoxicating loss of self in the performance. The deep engagement of the audience in the performance of Greek tragedy was itself actively performative, just as the viewer of Hur’s work becomes a participant in both the painted environment and the process of eating. Of course, Nietzsche saw his complete art form as a desperate response to an essentially meaningless and cruel world. Hur’s work, in contrast, responds to a generous world in which meaning and harmony continuously emerge and recede through cycles of balance and change. Jung Hur’s work constructs a complex experience of discovery and deep engagement for the viewer that mirrors his own creative process as artist and chef.