Jihoon Ha paints “pictures.” A picture or painting is a device that generates an illusion on a surface or plane. It is also an endeavor to bring about an event on a canvas as well as an action made up of paints and brushstrokes on a flat support surface. Of course, paints and brushes can be replaced with other materials and means. A picture may remind us of a concrete image and raise questions concerning the ontological condition of painting while holding the limit of that condition as its content or maximizing the material property of various conditions that form a painting. In addition, discussions on and interpretations of paintings can be infinite. The flat surface a painting inhabits is not only material but also psychological and spiritual.
In Ha’s painting a mass formed by paints and brushstrokes occupies its center in a sculptural way. The three-dimensional shape stands out on a two-dimensional base while its inner portion displays diverse features and physical conditions of paint like a landscape. Paints are pushed outwards as a certain amount of pressure is applied with a certain tool at a certain speed and time and are stained with washed marks. His work seems to represent multifarious situations derived from paints in connection with external conditions. In his painting an illusion is brought about by the physical expression of paint and two-dimensional brushwork. A process of constantly reducing to paint itself is sensed in his painting which can be interpreted as abstract and conceptual due to its purely physical, tactile brushstrokes (gestures) and prominent materials. When seen from a certain distance, his painting reminds viewers of some type of landscape. In this sense his work harks back to the typicality of landscape painting which is still regarded as conventional figurative painting. A stable horizontal and vertical composition is formed through an integration of a stable horizon and a shape reminiscent of an uplifted mountain or island. Thus, his work can be seen as a representational painting that seeks the general conventions of landscape painting.
The rather confusing brushstrokes that fill the center of his painting and lead to the chaotic tangling and downwards slip and smudging of paints create a crack in such a representational quality. The artist’s physicality to handle paints is sensed as it is. The accumulation of paints with their broad and flashy spectrum of hues make it seem as though the colors were used as a way of bringing about a situation rather than as a medium to refer to or represent a concrete object. Ha adopts a mix of diverse colors in the same space, an act which alludes to how he is able to make a foray into eliminating distinctions between colors. He has not employed any ill-matched colors as they are all in accordance with one another - he showcases colors of great diversity in variations of speed, time, and force. The colors and materials in his paintings resemble floating life forms, arousing unfamiliar textures and feelings. His scenes seem as though they are generating animated beings. The vitality and dynamic flow of a tremendous amount of energy can be paradoxically sensed in the mass and its static posture. In this respect Ha’s painting is strongly suggestive of Cezanne’s. Cezanne’s paintings composed of the flow of intermittent brushstrokes and intersections and clashes of cold and warm hues bring about depth, cubic effect, and even a feeling of solidness in a flat canvas using only paints, brushwork, and colors. It can be said that Ha’s work has encountered Cezanne’s modeling consciousness.
The image of what is either a mountain or island at the center of his work captures the viewer’s eyes from the beginning. It was employed as a way of showcasing the physical property of paints, color sense, and the subtle aura that arises from paintings. He seems to explore distinctive brushwork to generate sensations which are different from preexisting brushwork: brushstrokes that apply, scrub, and push away paints as if rendering brush lines in Oriental painting styles and effects arising from momentous gestures and the intuitive application of paint. He seems to arouse subtle sensations and a strange feeling on the surface of the canvas through such peculiar methods. Perhaps his method represents the newness of painting he is attempting to create. It reminds viewers of analog and somewhat iconic afterimages.
A painting inhabits the surface or skin of a canvas. This surface refers to both its inside and outside and recollects or generates ideal space thus making it uncanny. While traditional Western painting tirelessly explored its inside, modernist painting obsessively sought after the physical condition of flatness. In contrast, the paintings of today seem to be taking note of the ‘surface’ once again. Unlike modernist painting, this style seems to live on the border between the inside and outside of a painting and is thought to be taking the two layers into consideration simultaneously. Paintings of the times seem to concentrate on the superficiality of the skin of a work in various ways. We can take note of the diverse movements to embrace another possibility of new painting, painting about painting, and painting beyond painting (meta-painting) based on such a surface. Viewers can witness how such movements are visualized by the artist’s freestanding perception, imagination, and interpretation of the surface, painting’s ontological condition, and the artist’s brushwork in order to represent it externally. In this sense painting has been constantly reincarnated and newly aroused. Nowadays a painting defines itself through its surface in its own methodology and manner. It is my belief, however, that such methodologies are progressing in a direction that is different from that of previous works (as made apparent in exhibitions under the name New Methodology that were organized often throughout the 1970s and 1980s) that employed novel, unfamiliar materials and grafted foreign materials onto those of conventional painting.
Ha’s paintings can be taken for either a type of landscape or just marks of paint made by a brush. They are masses of materials of figuration and abstraction. I above all regard his painting style as a methodology for brushwork. That being said, Ha applies paint with a variety of tools such as his hands and sticks in lieu of conventional brushwork. He tries to settle foreign situations and senses on the surface of the canvas in special, unfamiliar ways and styles. At a glance, the painting in which a reddish tone stands out resembles a color-field abstract painting but when viewed from a certain distance it becomes a simple landscape. An enormous mass (an image of an island) takes up the center of the scene and its inner portion is filled with various colors and brushstrokes. The mass seems to be bulging out from the bottom, making this freestanding image of what appears to be an island seems rather overwhelming. This entails that the image of the island at the center of the scene is relatively closely related to the viewer’s body on the outer perimeter. The ground has been applied with a single hue and is in contrast with its bottom portion that is suggestive of a horizon line or land. His painting demonstrates a drastic composition that has been divided with horizontality and verticality.
This is obviously an impressive image of an island but it is not a representation of any specific one. It would be more correct to say that the artist paints using subject matter borrowed from the image of an island. This image, however, at the same time works as a dim clue to his work’s theme. To the artist, it represents some landscape which is a minimum function. Like his painting, a landscape is required to ruminate on his experiences and memories pertaining to his frequent moves as a child, reminiscences about the seaside and living at home, and living in a strange, foreign land. This is because a scene that looks like an island, a huge mass, or a being that has positioned itself before the viewer has been summoned. The landscape, image, or mass that resembles an island is not only a minimum medium to paint but it is also a minimum clue to represent his own emotions, content, and narratives. He tried to condense his impressions, memories, time, and emotions of the landscapes he had gathered within such a form. This mass is a general image (icon) of the island as well as a space that connotes gestures to speak out about how anything that is hard to visualize such as memories and emotions can or cannot be expressed. This space is also filled with brushstrokes that disclose a conflicting structure between representation and non-representation.
Seemingly chaotic brushstrokes filling the inner portion of the island seem to depict details of a concrete landscape but the spontaneous brushstrokes and colors are irrelevant to this. His paintings, particularly rendered with gestures of scrubbing, pressing, and pushing paint outwards with tools like a hand, stick, and knife rather than relying on a brush, make viewers feel a subtle energy and force. These are abstract as a whole. He showcases brushwork, paints, colors, and the material property itself rather than representing or illustrating the external world. Of course, the shards of his feelings, memories, and emotions lay dormant in such gestures and they are images and materials that replace any unnamed ambiguity.
Ha presents his experience of landscapes that have been carved into his body. This refers to how a man meets the concreteness of his life through his body itself. He craves relationships in which humans encounter the world directly, something which seems to be a gesture to explore and face the dailiness and concreteness of life rather than grasping it conceptually. This is probably because he is painting. Painting a picture can be described as “work done by a living body and of changing the world by making a stroke with an arm muscle.” (Kim Hoon) In other words, painting is not done by any conceptual manipulation but rather by a living man’s arm muscles. Such brushwork generates new, strange things that we have never seen before. Above all else, a painting is associated with either the external world (objects) or the artist himself. He sees and feels the external world through his body. Painting transfers this to a canvas and thus making a painting involves very sensitive, subtle, and physical conditions. Our bodies perceive while exercising. Painting is, after all, the product of philosophical labor that the means of production of physical systems and nervous tissues inflict on the material of its concept and manifestation. Art is a field in which we can enjoy the most concrete access to the problem of human perception. Art is a genre through which we can dream of any variation of our perceptions and senses. Art may accept itself as the object of self-reflection and can address the contents of perceptual political reflections pertaining to the media like film and photography. This is contemporary art’s self-identity as a reflective thought on sense and perception which can be referred to as so-called “politics of perception” or “politics of genre.” We humans perceive the world through our bodies (sense and sensibility). The formation of a new body is a development of a new direction to perceive the world.
Ha’s awareness of his physicality with his hand, knife, and stick in lieu of a brush coupled with his methodology composed of brushstrokes to help him escape from the conventions of painting seem to demonstrate his intent to break away from the limitations of painting and stereotypical styles. His desire for his work’s surface to depart from conventional patterns of painting and generate a new perception perhaps aided the emergence of such a methodology and style. However I am not sure whether or not this methodology generates an effective surface or new senses. For this reason this issue is associated with both the problem of methodology and the problem of how to create a new methodology to perceive the world and things through others and other senses.
Modern times is not a fixed period in history but refers to “an effort to be new all the time.” (Seo Dong-uk) Contemporary art can be considered in this context. An endeavor to depart from past art and unfold new thoughts on art can be called contemporary art. This is a way of thinking about art based on a concept different from that of preexisting art and a breaking away from conventional methods. Authentic contemporary art can be defined as an artistic act anchored in right thought on present life and culture, reacting to them. This is not a term to refer to an artistic action restricted to the same age. True contemporary art closely involves and reacts to issues raised by life in modern times. In this respect, both philosophy and art are pestered by a similar task.
There are no fixed, absolute artistic idioms. Even the concept of art is honed in a process of alteration. Friedrich Nietzsche states there is no fixed truth. For him, the advent of truth is associated with the “problem of setting up perspectives.” A perspective of a new truth derives from criticism of established values and truths, and what makes it possible is “will to power” (Wille zur Macht). As being (das Seiende) is the outer appearance of power, will to power is a factor through which beings are able to appear with differences without colliding with each other. According to Nietzsche, what’s important is beings remain in their nature with differences from other beings, not denying either themselves or other beings. Thus, one of the significant critical issues raised by postmodern philosophers after Nietzsche is to shatter the ontology obsessed with “I”. The key point is not the fixed being of “I” but “events” and “creation” taking place in the world around “me”. (Kang Shin-ju) If I want to grasp “I,” I have to face “unfamiliar symbols” “outside the door.” (Gilles Deleuze) It is not until the time that thoughts are generated. If there is no encounter with the external world, there are no thought, creation, and change.
We have realized with the help of Nietzsche that contemporary art is after all associated with the problem of perspectives. A single ideology or perspective is absent or impossible. Painting is after all selected and interpreted by each individual’s sense, worldview, preference, belief in art, and view of life.
When the concept of art was interpreted and accepted in the dimension of mimesis theory and expression theory, most paintings verged on illustrations. As artists began to consider painting conceptually in a context different from this, painters were able to represent their conceptual, aggressive introspection of the existing method and paradigm of painting itself, their everyday lives, and concrete experiences in paintings. Meanwhile, it has only been recently possible to enhance their work without separating it from life. Nowadays painters obviously pursue more diversity than before while emphasizing their tactile intuitions and concepts of temporality. They pose novel questions, preparing various exits and outlets in their works. Recent paintings are at times subordinate to the market as a conventional medium. The number of the exhibitions featuring two-dimensional paintings has remarkable increased recently and painting has been a mainstream in a lot of art fairs. Thus, the Korean art scene seems to see a renaissance of painting. In contrast, some paintings are absorbed in standardized methodologies or styles and others depend merely on the power of description by hand while overpackaging it as the recovery of painting or hand. And, this aspect goes with the art market. What’s noticeable are the trends that a body of figurative artists make their way to specific art fairs, their pictures with great skill and care (maximization of their skill, amazing illusionism, familiar interior) are very well-received by the general public and the market, and young artists collectively produce paintings verging on hyperrealism and pop art. Steadily selling two-dimensional paintings draw new attention due to a long-last recession in the art market and it has been a driver to make artists reenter the genre of painting.
Hackneyed and ornamental representational paintings dependent on optical tricks are mass produced owing to the over commercialization of the art market. The issues to examine in this situation are discourse and content, value and quality, capital and economic efficiency rather than social efficiency, and artists focused primarily on “superficiality and style.” Some point out that recent paintings seem very refined and diversified but their styles are gradually being standardized. They also have well-made flashy, amazing surfaces but the messages they convey are often poor and absent.
As the strong influence of mainstreams in art has disappeared, plural, liberal thinking is available for art and painting. A new inspiration in painting can be revived when we cross space and time more freely, untrammeled to any region, gender, race, history and tradition. Some points out that we need to free painting from the aesthetic sense, fixed notions, and historically central perspectives we have put emphasis on for a long time. I consider it has only recently become available to think about painting from various perspectives.
The primary trend of recent paintings seems to pose questions concerning the direction of painting and the status of painters in today’s rapidly changing cultural environment. They are thus characterized by meta-paintings or paintings about paintings. They are thoroughly conceptual but sensuous or emotional in a sense, taking deep roots in the long-held tradition of painting. The role and status of painting can be maintained if many stick to painting without converting it to installation or computer art in a transition period of today. So to speak, painting is a forum where the conceptual meets the perceptual immediately as well as the maintenance of the non-conceptual movements of the body and nature. In this sense the nature of painting cannot be reduced to any one aspect such as flatness, formativeness, color, or conceptuality but can be defined in accordance with historical conversions of peculiarities formed in a situation where all these elements overlap. It is not too much say that the nature of painting lies in plurality and a strained relation engendered by this factor.
While some claim that painting today is in crisis, what’s more important is to recover its original plurality, breaking away from the reductive narrowness of the past. There are assertions that painting is necessary to execute effective visual criticism of media art that seeks an escape from the body and to form an alternative visual culture. And some see painting as the only medium for undying cultural actions and mediating the practice of humane life. I think this awareness has helped revive painting recently.
Ha’s work that experiments with a wide variety of expressions verges on meta-painting. He walks a tight rope between figuration and abstraction, content and form, speed and difference in brushwork, and clarity and ambiguity. He seems to enjoy the idea that contemporary painting cannot help but be located on the border. Or, he seems to assert that such a border is a place where painting can stay.
By PARK Youngtaik, Kyonggi University Professor & Art Critic