On ViewMarc Straus Gallery
January 10– February 26, 2016
“These trees are magnificent,” Rilke famously observed, “but even more magnificent is the sublime and moving space between them, as though with their growth it too increased.” Especially in the West, so scant is our awareness of negative space—of the gaps, pauses, and silences between things—that it often takes a great poet to bring it to our attention. With a kind of poetry of his own, Korean artist Jong Oh does just this—and to unusually powerful effect. Nominally a sculptor, Oh is more like a composer of space, whose delicate, site-specific structures give shape to this otherwise imperceptible substance. But with this show, his third at the gallery, Oh expands his formal lexicon to include several photographic images whose considered placement lends the work a decidedly philosophical mood. Here, Oh’s hybrid constructions point not just to the invisible medium we so take for granted but to a still subtler realm of invisibilia: that which lies hidden within, in the cognitive structures unique to our humanness.
Although the eight works on view are individual pieces, one doesn’t experience them as such in the gallery setting. Entering each of the show’s two rooms, it is the seamless whole of the largely empty spaces that strikes first. Gradually, as senses sharpen, the structures emerge: suspended from the ceiling or extruding from the walls, long black strings vault through the space to form rectilinear configurations of deceptive simplicity. Pulled taut by an ingeniously orchestrated system of weights and anchors, the strings become lines so sharp and exacting they might be a geometer’s demonstration of some Euclidean principle. But while the constructions have all the exalted elegance of a mathematical theorem, otherworldly they are not. On close inspection, the strings reveal their humble origins: somewhat coarse, and clearly painted by hand, the fibrous material exudes an earthiness that belies its virtuosic precision. Feats of illusionism abound. Seeming to float in midair, the figures are punctuated by small stones, weights, and metal rods. All are left raw, each being there only to serve some structural purpose. Strategically placed planes of Plexiglas here and there cast shadows on the surrounding walls, further amplifying the perceptual drama. But above all there is space: bound, incised, bent, folded, cornered, and angulated, space is here rendered gloriously palpable.
Ambulation is essential for the full experience. This becomes especially apparent in the show’s larger room, a cavernous interior bathed in light. Moving around and between the structures, one becomes acutely aware of the shiftiness of perception. From one angle, for example, Line Sculpture #13 (2016) looks like a floating half-rectangle bisected laterally to enclose a smaller rectangular plane. A slight step to the right or left and it becomes something else altogether: now a single closed rectangle, folded in half as if draped over an invisible rod, here clearly a denizen of the third dimension. The effect is both dazzling and unsettling. In such a labyrinth of shifting appearances, the reality of one’s spatial and temporal finiteness—a reality we’re generally all too eager to forget—becomes something of a smirking fact. For while visitors to Mt. Kilimanjaro could be forgiven for claiming they’d seen the mountain having only witnessed one side, not so here. Seeing through the works, we never see just one side but also the obverse of its opposite—a side we know will appear utterly different. The “whole truth” being forever beyond grasp, one is reminded of the artifice of all fixed perspectives, of how any one viewpoint, however privileged, cannot but be partial. In this respect, Oh’s work shares less of a kinship with the American Minimalism with which it is often associated than with the epistemological juggernaut that was Cubism.
With the limitations of our perceptual faculties high on the mind, the show’s two digital prints acquire deep significance. In Surface Water #3 (2016), the show’s conceptual linchpin, a large image of gently rippling waves hangs vertically against one corner, its planar support spanning both walls. Suspended several inches in front, a hovering rectangle of black string becomes a second frame through which we see the water, the first being the picture rectangle itself. Here, spatial illusions give way to a powerful metaphor, as the reduplicated rectangle becomes a stand-in for the means by and through which we see the world: the invisible but ever-present lens of human reason, with all its tacit limitations and distortions. What we see is never the world, we are reminded, but the world filtered through the geometry of our mental equipment.
If the great value of art lies in its potential to transform consciousness, drawing attention to the shape of that consciousness is one powerful means of arrival. Using the very instruments of reason to expose some of its most coveted illusions, Oh’s spatial poetry challenges us to see both the world and ourselves more fully. If we can’t transcend our finiteness, we can at least know it—an awareness that, in a sense, puts us one step beyond it. With its quiet intensity, Oh’s work beckons us to do just this—and to revel in the appearances while we’re at it.