KYEUNG MOOK CHOI
In a small but attractive space in Dumbo, Korean painter Kyeung Mook Choi presented ink paintings that bridge traditional Asian art and the knotty necessities of contemporary painting. Choi, who is currently studying for an advanced degree in Shanghai, belongs to a generation of ink painters who have been determined to push forward a view of their art that is not bound to the past. At the same time, he must acknowledge the reality that ink painting is often thought of as being redundant and not oriented toward the reality of our current art world. This is not a small problem, for it is true that certain genres of art seem to have been exhausted simply by their now-archaic place in history. In Western culture, individuals paint excellent figurative works, but do not participate in a general movement—figurative art is no longer a central practice for most people. In the same way, it is true that ink painting may be done by single artists who are committed to a mindset and, perhaps, even a way of life that contemporary Asian culture no longer easily sustains. As a result, someone like Choi finds himself in a bit of a bind—poised between antiquarianism and a lack of interest.
But that does not mean Choi cannot surpass himself and create excellent ink paintings, which he does in this show. Choi, in the middle of his life, looks to a practice of painting that will engage those in his audience who are ready for a new look at a historical genre. His simple, but never simplistic, works of art demonstrate a profound knowledge of the ink-painting tradition. At the same time, Choi remains unafraid of the prospect of abstraction, which supports the imagery in his series on chaos. It is highly difficult for artists to transcend the historical limitations of their genre, but Choi in fact does this, being driven to transform the boundaries of his chosen métier. All good artists look to the edges of their medium and then fight to move beyond the circumstances of what they have been given. In Choi’s case, this happens with real exuberance and passion. Unfortunately, his bravado may not meet with understanding in New York, which likes its Asian artists to be socially challenging and up to date in a Western sense. Only time can tell if Choi’s achievement will register in New York, where the asthetic rejects the historical in favor of the absolutely new.
Choi has three series of images: one based on spheres, one based on metaphysical and astronomical chaos, and one based on calligraphic lines. These kinds of pictures are themselves innately anti-historical, for Asian ink painting emphasizes the reality of nature—that is, recognizable mountains and streams, flowers and birds. The gap, then, between Choi’s paintings and the legacy he has inherited is seemingly unapproachable, due to the fact that the artist is working with a way of seeing. Yet at the same time, it is fair to say that Choi is mending relations between the past and the present. Just by practicing ink painting, he is keeping it alive. And the kinds of stroke-making inevitable to his practice can be understood only in light of the past he supposedly is freeing himself from. It is true that his subject matter is different from his inheritance, but innovation is the requirement of the time. Choi’s chaos sequence is particularly new in the sense that it references something that is more an idea than a viewable entity. As a result, he is really on to something new.
The artist calls his works “situations,” which means that they refer to contexts that are more than the sum of their parts. The spheres relate images of abundance and weight; the colors red and black are used to compare and contrast feelings of intensity and relative calm. In one work, the balls drop through a small painted opening in the center top of the painting, and fall to a heap on the floor of the composition. The imagery is deeply satisfying and says something about balance—not only compositionally, but also philosophically, and maintain a spiritual equanimity. All of Choi’s art can be read as parables of emotional calm, even when the calligraphic paintings are clearly referencing sperm, the great agent of fecundity in human life. Choi’s scribbling in the calligraphic works both pays homage to and moves beyond the accomplishments of the past. The portrayal of a sexually active image like sperm in a traditional medium like ink on paper shows how we can innovate and contemporize an ancient practice. In the chaos series, we find Choi working with large amounts of black, which billows across the paper. Only a small amount of white relieves the weight of the anarchy sailing past us. Choi is a poet of contingencies, someone whose view demonstrates an awareness of what is around and above us. In this fine show, he amply indicates his wonder with the world and proves how an age-heavy method can be made relevant again.