BLUM & POE, NEW YORK | OCTOBER 30 – DECEMBER 23, 2015
Comprising a survey of twelve paintings, this exhibition presents a thoughtful overview of Yun Hyong-keun’s (1928 – 2007) quietly compelling work. Yun was a central figure within the Korean group of monochrome painters known as Dansaekhwa that emerged during the mid 1960s. A characteristic shared by the members of this group is a questioning of the medium of painting using process—most notably, forcing paint through the weave of or repeatedly soaking, linen. From the early 1970s Yun developed a way of working that combined the techniques of both oil and ink painting. Typically, somewhere between geometry and gesture, the “Umber Blue” series are remarkable for their brevity and solemn beauty. The paintings recall both traditional Chinese ink painting and Modernist abstraction. Whilst never abandoning haptic pleasures the images produced also seduce the eye. The extraordinary subtleties created make for a specifically close-toned and complex reading within and around the simple, direct shapes. Using only umber and ultramarine, Yun added turpentine to repeated saturate linen or canvas. This could take place over days, or even months, the color becoming intense and dark whilst retaining a luminosity that appears to emanate from the painting itself. Edges are blurred where they mark the extent of a painted area against areas unpainted. The various layers are partially visible as they soak into fabric unevenly. During the 1990s, in the last decade of Yun’s life, these edges became increasingly sharp.
Umber Blue (1978) seems to image something familiar—in this case it could initially be taken to represent a void between buildings or trees— but this almost automatic optical response doesn’t last very long. Also confounded is an easy comparison with the work of other artists; take for example Morris Louis or Pat Steir. And yet, there is a connection in the use of repetition to will structure into being, and the ineffable gradients of tone that result from a layering of overlapped pigment. The central, rectangular zone of raw linen is important in that its texture and color contribute to the paintings’ effect as much as the stained column shapes either side and the uneven, narrow stained area at the bottom edge. The stepping of tone caused by repeated staining doesn’t stay still—it’s like watching changes of light and shadow on the ground as clouds pass overhead. Ground is an apposite idea to contemplate, as, for all the physical presence that these paintings possess, they embody an essence of our seen world, namely, that for all our knowledge of materiality, appearances don’t conform—things often appear far more fluid and capable of coexisting in flux. This is the contradiction that the paintings embrace. The way in which they are made is clear; the slowness straightforward, but seeing them induces rapid awareness of their shifting complexity.
I was reminded of Barnett Newman’s remarks about how, in standing in front of one of his paintings, he wanted the viewer to become aware of that experience as real, and certainly this is true here. The paintings aren’t illusionistic; they make one aware of time passing, of simply being, and encountering the movement of time.
Burnt Umber & Ultramarine Blue (2007) is stark due to the contrast between the umber—darker and at the same time more luminous, because of the ultramarine—and the lighter cotton, used instead of a closer-in-tone linen. Superficially it recalls the oil on canvas, or ink on paper paintings of Newman. Two vertical rectangles with irregular edges flank the open area between them. The comparison serves to elucidate the differences between the two artists work, however conceptually—in some respects—they may align. The iterations of one layer after another toward a desired degree of darkness and luminosity is not at all like Newman’s use of strident color. It’s surprising that Yun’s work isn’t better known in the West, it surely will be, as it expands the field of abstract painting and is not a derivation of the abstraction that is already established and familiar.