Sea change and so on: The paintings of Jung Hur
by Daniel Kany
“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
-Ariel’s Song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Portland, Maine is well and widely known both for art and cuisine. So it could easily be argued that Jung Hur is the consummate Portlander: He is a master chef who owns an acclaimed seafood restaurant; and he is a painter of international import. While this may seem a light-hearted jest about the Korean-born Hur, it’s not by chance that he chose to settle in such a city.
Hur’s most challenging artistic project to date has been his decades-in-the-making Balance, which integrates a series of Hur’s paintings with his culinary creations.
While percolating his ideas for Balance, Hur developed an ideogram that has become his personal symbol. It takes the form of a stylized old-fashioned key and keyhole.
The keyhole has a place in Western art history—Edgar Degas’s famous series of “keyhole” nudes.
The idea behind Degas’s nudes is that the subjects do not seem to know they are being looked at. And so they go about their daily activities—dressing and washing—unawares. But the moment the assumed male gaze is questioned, the presumed innocence of the works is uncomfortably and unceremoniously torn away.
As this issue of sexuality and the gaze took center stage, we generally lost sight of Degas’s powerful insights about the relationship between the viewer and the canvas: While we presume an encounter with another person when we experience a painting, that person cannot necessarily see us or, more importantly, respond to us.
Degas’s keyhole nudes brought to bear issues not only of painting, but of photography by replacing the human gaze with the idea of the lens. With this, Degas (an accomplished photographer) began to shift his attention away from what we see to how we see.
Hur’s ideogram is much like a combination of Degas’ lens with the philosophical realms brought to bear by the yin-yang symbol and all that it represents. The yin-yang symbol, after all, is not only on the Korean flag but is also the basic philosophy (and epistemological system) to which Hur has long subscribed.
The basic idea of yin-yang (in Western art terms) is a dialectical entity of two opposites that define and form each other. To move “up,” for example, implies the direction “down.” Night implies day, and each is in fact defined by their cyclical relationship; and so on.
What yin-yang handles particularly well are the dynamics of change. Life is motion, energy and action. It is both positive and negative. Seasons shift continuously into each other. Tides ebb and flow. And time itself is defined by change.
The thing that makes painting so different from any other art form is the issue of time. Theater, film and music all have set aspects of time that are beyond the control of the audience. And while literature is left to the reader’s pace, there is still a clear script about the beginning and the end—and how you get from one to the other.
Photography shares the 2D design element with painting, but even it functions with a pre-defined—essentially instantaneous—relation to time.
Strangely, representational sculpture is closer to photography. It often feels like an instant sliced from the chronological pulse of the universe: a frozen moment.
Stroke by stroke or gesture by gesture, paintings are executed as the physical labor of the artist. There is a sense of actual work; and how that work relates to process is meaningful to the audience. It matters if a painting is made en plein-air or if we see a painting as process-driven. One idea introduced by Modernism is the practical myth that a painting is a map of its own making—and therefore, to a certain extent, its meaning. In other words, our sense of the artist’s time spent making the painting matters to the viewer experience in terms of how we try to understand the art.
Hur’s paintings are fundamentally about time and the experiential logic of painting.
It’s because of this that Hur doesn’t talk about narrative in his paintings, but rather drama—which is a very different thing than theatricality. There is no preset narrative (that would be fiction). Instead, it is the drama of the viewer as she encounters the work and lets her thoughts determine their own path.
The logic of Hur’s painting is dynamism. He puts very specific ideas into play; but he does not try to contain them or force them to be seen from a specific viewpoint. His paintings engage priorities and perspectives the way a chef uses ingredients: They are not bits to be parsed and separated, but components of a shifting, dynamic and balanced whole.
But to encounter a painting is to encounter another person – or something like a person. Certain paintings act like the presence of a person while others mark the absence of a person. Sometimes, we encounter both. While this may sound slippery, it is the essential truth of language – which is not the thing, but a stand-in for the thing.
A portrait, after all, is not the person but a marker of that person in a form very much like memory. While this might feel like a “This is not a pipe” conversation with all of its seemingly unnecessary structuralist complexity, against the backdrop of yin-yang this idea takes the form of a reasonably common and eminently accessible conversation about absence/presence.
In contemporary culture, the most completely synthesized form of the absence/presence discourse involves the 0/1 pair that is the basis of binary language.
Computer code sends an electrical impulse through true/false gates that ultimately guide it to a specific logical destination (a binary Odyssey known as “Boolean algebra”). We also see this modeled in, for example, trees as they move from a single trunk both downward with their roots and upward with their branches in patterns that—while they are extremely difficult to describe mathematically—are easy to recognize. While few can do the math, anyone can notice the basic differences between the branching patterns of a pine tree and an oak. This is because what matters isn’t the final accumulation of specifics but rather the most basic systems that drive them.
We can literally see such systems at work (or maybe at play) in Hur’s recent paintings such as Untitled (Triskelion)—a swirling tree (ripe with Boolean algebra) that hints at countless decorative traditions. Moreover, this type of systems logic was the driving force behind Hur’s traditional Korean brush floral paintings: It was just harder to see when his technique and aesthetic were so deeply connected to a specific school of painting.
It is this kind of systems logic that Hur uses to guide and inform his painting. He is not interested in details as picky points of description. Instead, details for Hur are the aesthetic textures of gestures that come in entire layers rather than individual strokes.
And it is through this systems approach that Hur’s paintings are treated as holistic entities (gestalt) rather than as arbitrary symbols such as words or shapes associated with specific ideas. This is both how and why Hur’s paintings are insistently abstract even when they contain legible imagery—or even recognizable objects like jackets or underwear.
For a sub-series of his Change works, Hur put one of his jackets on a canvas and painted it into place. Hur then covered the jacket with a solid color and then painted a grid of his keyhole forms over that. The result is a painting that continuously flows between different modes such as the flat surface of painting versus sculptural relief, monochrome versus figure/ground, abstraction versus rendered object and so on. These combine to energize the change as the jacket shifts between representing a human encounter and marking the space of the encountered person as absent. Hur’s signature grid of keyhole forms further fuels and complicates the presence/absence drama: It represents a mode incompatible with descriptive rendering but which insists on bringing Hur-the-painter into the equation. It’s a battle between No One and someone. (Imagine Odysseus battling and blinding the one-eyed cyclops: But if No One beat Polyphemus, can we say for certain that he lost?).
Hur hints at the fleetingness of perspective simply by tilting his keyhole form. Instead of a circle, his keyhole form bends into an ellipse. Even if we don’t notice this as an overt gesture, we feel it: In some of his paintings, Hur tilts his keyholes off in all directions, and the chaos is palpable. This is akin to painting a harbor scene in Maine and depicting the moored boats pointing willy-nilly instead of all facing towards the oncoming flow of the tide.
In the particularly striking painting Untitled (Window Form, Hur removes the expected materially-active and gridded surface from the center of the painting. Instead, we stare into a sky so sublimely stormy that it could make Caspar David Friedrich tremble. And with unexpected literalism and startling solidity, Hur has held us back in the room with the painting by putting a wall below and on either side of the scene—which then clearly reads as a window. But the rendered room is gridded (even in perspective) with Hur’s signature keyholes. One reason why it is such a powerful painting is that it inverts the open spatial potential of Hur’s grids: When grids of the keyhole forms are placed on white paintings, the white reads as space like the white of this page. Playing the part of a window frame, we see the white as absolutely solid.
In Western thinking, we generally take information from one painting and apply it to the next. (For example, if that form is a keyhole here, then it probably is there, too.) But with Hur’s dynamic dialectical approach, we can’t think in terms of a map key where elements always mean the same thing. A keyhole lens in one painting might fix you in place. In another it hints that you can see past something. In another, the lens hints that someone else might be looking at you—like from the peephole in an apartment door. And then Hur makes matters infinitely more complex by deploying phalanxes of keyholes in grids—which opens even more doors to additional sets of issues about contemporary and modernist representation.
While Hur’s method of enquiry may sound Eastern (or strange), this thesis/antithesis approach lies at the foundation of Western philosophy—most famously within Plato’s Socratic dialogues. Art historians often talk about it in terms of Renaissance/Baroque. And we connect this to genres (modes) with Nietszche’s Appollonian/Dionysisan dialectic, the opposing masks of Tragedy/Comedy, or even major/minor in music.
Since perspective implies direction, it’s no surprise that Hur looks to the Modernist echoing of the picture frame (i.e., the horizontal bands imply the horizon, and the vertical bands imply not only the verticality of our bodies, but our bilateral symmetry as well). This is particularly well illustrated in some of Hur’s earlier Balance relief pieces that use breast forms to echo the presence of the body’s bilateral symmetry and its verticality within the earthly system of gravity. In some of the wall relief works, the breasts are presented as though on a standing woman. But others have a horizontal logic, and the orientation of the two elements in back/forth directions ultimately implies the movement of lovemaking. But Hur’s conceptual content only starts with the witty sexual conclusion: He uses the sexual reference to examine the verticality/horizontality of the world as conceived by painting.
Beneath this thinking is the idea that painting mirrors the world in a complementary way. “Right becomes left when you look in a mirror or when you face another person,” explains Hur; “Up, down, east, south, west and north, backwards and forwards: Direction and perspective are always relative. When you try to fix something in space, you turn it around.”
But, of course, there is a flip side to the cool remove of Hur’s systems approach—the part that relates to sensation rather than sense. Drama, after all, conveys a real-time emotional experience. (This is a quality of cuisine that appeals to Hur: Let’s not forget that as a sushi chef, he prepares food for the diner in front of the diner while conversing with the diner.) This is also why the physical experience of painting is key for Hur: To stand in front of a Modernist painting, after all, is to experience your own body as a sensory and perspective system encountering that painting. (Think Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman.)
Hur’s work in Change takes the enlightenment (scientific) discourse of systems and puts it into orbit with Romanticism’s fundamental position that the individual’s perspective is paramount. Hur’s dialectic is powerful enough to deconstruct this opposition of scientific objectivity/Romantic individualism as a complementary pair.
Hur gives us grids made of varied individual elements—a model for balancing the idea of “people” against the “individuals” who comprise a group. Or we can imagine that while each piece of sushi fits a general definition, it cannot be precisely the same as all others because it’s handmade. It is on this route that Hur takes his ideas about art and painting to the cultural logic of mass products, branding, language and even logos. But whereas most American artists have a hard time in this theater without becoming acidly polemical (e.g., Ashley Bickerton) or uncomfortably complicit (Warhol), Hur examines cultural change with a comfortable (even playful) philosophical mindset.
By setting his sights on processes rather than fixed points, Hur matches his method to his object: systems and their sensibilities. He sets up phenomenological moments and dramatic inversions, but always in a dynamic setting. After all, change, Hur reminds us, never stops.