CHUNG SANG-HWAby Jonathan Goodman
GREENE NAFTALI | JUNE 1 – AUGUST 5, 2016
DOMINIQUE LÉVY | JUNE 1 – JULY 30, 2016
The Korean artist Chung Sang-Hwa, now in his mid-eighties, is best known as a participant in the Tansaekhwa, or Korean monochrome painting movement. He has traveled greatly in the West and spent extensive time in Paris, where he first moved in 1967 and likely picked up some of the abstract painting concerns facing Western artists at the time. His minimalist painting is not without its references to sculptural depth, which he suggests by creasing or cutting into the surfaces of his canvases; often scored into grids, they are given a textural complexity that complicates their minimal bias. According to the life documentary notes of the exhibition catalogue, Chung connects with such artists as Ha Chong-Hyun, Kwon Young-Woo, and Lee Ufan—practitioners interested in erasing the disparity between painting and sculpture. Inevitably, seeing the two outstanding shows at Dominique Lévy and Greene Naftali, the viewer wants to incorporate the work into a Western tradition it may not belong to. But it is impossible to place a show like this in its ideal context; instead, we must look at the complexity of the show as an additional effort to present and understand the complicated—and sometimes merely imagined—relations between Eastern and Western contemporary painting.
In the long run, though, it is the immediate experience of the painting that persuades, and in this case, Chung is supremely successful. The critic (and also the viewer) hesitates to make grand connections between similarities of style coming from the great distances that separate the Korean artist from his colleagues in the Western sphere. These distances are both actual, in a geographical sense, and symbolic or metaphorical; even when stylistic similarities occur between artists from different backgrounds, or even periods, it does not mean one is influenced by the other. In Chung’s case, the idea of a monochromatic work of art had philosophical, as opposed to conceptual, implications that we in the West may not so fully intuit. The difference is linked to a sustained spirituality evident in the work of Chung’s generation. These distinctions between the two outlooks can be subtle to the point of vanishing, but it is clear that New York was not the only place where Minimalism and monochromatic art was practiced. It is important to see Chung in his own right—as an artist who, while curious about practice in the West, also remained committed to debates flourishing among Korean artists.
This can be seen in a beautiful untitled work from 1979, in which Chung has worked out a semi-grid in triplicate in a painting of white lines on a black background. The lines connect and intersect in a puzzle-like fashion, perhaps similar to ancient seal script. Unlike the Americans, whose primary impulse since modernism has been to make something new, Chung suggests the historic classicism of his culture which distances him from a superficial avant-garde and gives depth to his work. Another similar painting, Untitled 80-9 (1980), is a broader piece of work, with right angles painted in white, partial squares, building a hierarchy of contemporary abstraction perhaps influenced by early textile patterns. This association may not be technically accurate, but the fact that the work generates such speculation indicates that Chung is in fact looking backward as well as ahead.
Still, the grid, a Western invention, also predominates as a rigorous concept in Chung’s oeuvre. In Untitled 82-10-8 (1982), we can see the composition covered in squares of equal size. It is a marvelously tactile painting, one committed to a Western idea, although again the lines could be taken as something specifically Korean: crackling on a ceramic glaze. But the real impulse behind the work feels like an attempt by Chung to achieve depth in a two-dimensional exterior, as well as create a self-sufficient identity for an entirely abstract object. This self-sufficiency, a hallmark of monochromatic painting, stands as a representative quality of Chung’s aesthetic. His paintings refer to themselves, without recognition of external cultural information. Untitled 12-5-13 (2012) enters the realm of color: it is a deep, beautiful cobalt blue. Close investigation of the surface reveals a subtly broken surface made up of straight and twisting linear folds on the deep-blue exterior. It is one of the most intricate and interesting finishes of the paintings I have seen by Chung.
One doesn’t have to categorize or pin down an artist like Chung, whose sensibility easily crosses geographies and cultures. But it is important to remember how the old deepens the new in this wonderful show, so rich with meditation, memory, and spiritual perception.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.