The conduction of eyesight: Insoo Chun’s Stygian waves

Insoo Chun's work is exemplary of a contemporaneous approach to Ottchil painting, a traditional technique that utilizes natural lacquer and mother-of pearls as its base material. At first glance, viewers may conflate this with the likes of Dansaekhwa, a minimalist and monochrome style of Korean painting that, following its inauguration in the 1970s, has proffered a practice constituted by the meager use of mark, line, and the flattened pictureplane, with textured Stygian and grey-blustered canvases taking the center.

However, although Chun’s work admittedly turns backwards in history—towards an admittedly minimalist purview—this is a much more sensitive, detailed minimalism, one that meets its past without remaining beholden to the strictures of orthodoxy. A review of Ottchil is an important preliminary, Ottchil being a natural, traditional material used not only in Korea but also in Japan and China, which offers unique colors and surface finishes. Ottchil artworks were originally made of wood, metal, and hemp, featuring embellishments ranging from Ottchil powder and mother-of-pearl to Korean paper (hanji) and hemp cloth.

Undertaking Ottchil requires a great degree of restraint and patience, as the natural lacquer used is both extremely labor intensive and duly sensitive to temperature and humidity. Such is the cost of returning to a historical painting practice, one at ends with contemporary digital printing techniques and rote machinations that have become common practice for the “just-in time”, Amazon artists of today.
Chun’s is a humanist, ambient painting to its core. Not merely the mode of painting but the material is imbricated in labor intensity: this lacquer is a natural varnish made from the sap of lacquer trees (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), native to Asia.

The production of lacquerware, a notoriously prolonged and labor-intensive process, has been dubbed an “art of time”, requiring, at minimum, three to four months to complete a single work of lacquerware, which begins with the collection and refinement of the sap. Such prudent patience, inherent to both the material and mode of Chun’s work, is evident upon viewing the paintings. The works, aptly titled “Flow” (and numbered accordingly) are vast and sprawling—measuring at 140 by 160 centimeters, these are swathes of serpentine, weaving glistening strokes, the heaving wave-crescents here an index of the artist's applicatory movements.

In Flow #1, there are three planes, each creeping beyond the shadows, tucked and enveloped into the most ebony jet of charcoal sable, speckled with gleaming gold flakes (i.e., the mother-of-pearl). One might be reminded of the stars, the abyss of dotted light opposed to the infinitude that is darkness. This is not the darkness of anxiety, of being swallowed up whole. This is a melody, a meditative becoming. My eyes scan across the canvas, following rivulets and ribbons of raven threads. My eyes are gently guided and prodded in the painting's own direction, its internal movement is quiet but any effort to upend it is sure to be stymied. Thus, my eyes are, like maestro's conducting a great philharmonic orchestra, gestured by the artist. With this painting, that direction is upwards, the wave-like crests pooling into a central figure that is crowned by a cloud-like tuft of onyx.

Flow #10 is more brilliant yet, this time a scarfing cast of bright, flaxen dust dividing two wave-like raven waves that twain, destined never to meet. The uproar, if not ocean waves, might reverberate of animated gusts of coal-blithed bloating wind, blazing and breezing only to outburst and surge into gilded atoms.

Flow #11 is perhaps the most subdued of the works, as the zenith point is decentered, shifted leftward. This is precisely why Flow #11 best speaks to the mode of conduction that Chun has mastered—the commandeering of how we view these paintings, our eye guided and piloted to the left side, where the peaking act occurs.

Are these figurative works, in some sense? And, if so (a significant “if”, given the quandary of how we might event settle this inquiry), how valuable is this line of questioning? This question has long bedeviled art historians’ examinations of so-called “non-objective” abstract art, though as Robert Slifkin remarks (in reference to debates regarding abstract expressionist artworks), action paintings were first and foremost works of the imagination: fictive, artificial, dramatic, theatrical, and consequently, fundamentally figurative. Slifkin sees the “fundamentally figurative” facet of action paintings as something that Greenbergian self-reflexive medium-specificity and formal autonomy simply cannot account for. For, without this “fundamentally figurative” relationship between abstraction and its representational anchor of meaning unearthed, we are left spinning in the void and deprived of a dialectical conception. As Alfred Barr famously delineates, there exists a historical tension between abstraction as a verb and abstraction as a noun, where the latter picks out non-objective art (e.g., Malevich) or concrete art that appears to have no relationship to the empirical world (e.g., Theo von Doesberg).

But according to art historians like Pepe Karmel, the latter is simply never the case—abstract art always contains an allusion to the empirical world of experience. Consequently, we might take Chun’s Stygian, ink-pooled determinate negation of representation as an Aufheben, or dialectical negation. 1. Consequently, as Karmel argues in his Introduction to Abstract Art: A Global History:

There is no either/or relationship between abstraction and figuration. Figurative imagery often gains expressiveness by becoming more abstract and abstract imagery derives meaning and power from its figurative associations.

What Karmel highlights is not merely a historical operation where abstraction increasingly negates mimetic operations, however—although as Karmel eruditely demonstrates vis-à-vis case examples like Theo van Doesburg’s Composition VIII (The Cow) (c. 1918) and Malevich’s trajectory from 1915 to 1925, the history of early abstract art is one inextricably tied to the abstract-ing of figurative references.

Indeed, representational anchors might even serve as pentimenti, invisible to the naked eye of the abstract art viewer but guiding the artist’s process of abstract-ing. More importantly, however, the dialectical operation in question is, in keeping with Hegel’s phenomenological account of perceptual consciousness, also a psychological, experiential, and embodied operation, bringing the abstract artists’ praxis into the terrain of the viewer’s embodied experience. This is why it is valuable to highlight the expressive power through which the meaning of Chun’s abstract artworks are relayed to its viewers. As Karmel notes, “real-world experience is requires to trigger the making of abstract painting” and “reality provides a necessary stimulus” for both viewer and artist.

This need not be a conscious transaction wherein viewers of abstract works like Chun’s Flow #1 consciously relate it to the rising wave of an ocean crossed by star-slipped fields—the figurative stimulus embedded in the meaning of an abstract artwork can be and often is non-conceptual, non-discursive historical content that unconsciously informs the affective and somatic particularity of the abstract work at hand. I may have seen oceans and starry nights in the past and, upon seeing Flow #1, make an aesthetic judgment about the artwork that relates to these past perceptual experiences without being conscious that I am doing so. As far as the abstract artist is concerned, even if there does not exist an empirical, real-world anchor from which the artist inaugurates their abstraction process, there subsists a visual theme or archetype which combines abstract forms with meanings, where these meanings are generated by associations with the real world. That is, even in the case of so-called “non-objective” artists (and Chun may very well be countenanced as one), who begin with abstract rather than figurative models, the abstract works’ aboutness is ultimately not fully non-objective/abstracted from empirical reality, chiefly due to the aforementioned associative apparatus—consciously or not, referential meaning invariably seeps, matching the rising tides of Chun’s unbreaking Stygian waves.

Such is the case due to the perceptual necessity of interpretation or recognition. When this is a conscious operation—such as when I make an aesthetic judgment likening Flow #1 to a figurative, star-crossed ocean—this is an operation of reflective aesthetic judgment that assigns conceptual categories to particular aesthetic elements. This takes place after the work is somatically and “automatically” perceptually received. This is why it is a reflective aesthetic judgment, which seeks to find more general concepts (e.g., “ocean”, “stars”, “night sky”, etc.) under which a set of given particulars (e.g., the deep, dark strokes that rise and the speckled gold flakes) can be reflected.

Critically, the referential apparatus that elicits meaning is not licensed just in the “automatic” and immediate affective experience; meaning arrives thereafter, always too late. Karmel recalls Greenberg’s position from “Modernist Painting” (1960) that genuine art subsists only in a kind of experience that is in keeping with “Kantian immanent experience”. The immanence of materials in Chun’s work is only heightened by the poise and magnitude of size, prodding her into a veritable tradition that Western viewers unfamiliar with Ottchil might liken to Newman and Gottlieb.

Citing Greenberg’s “The Crisis of Easel Painting” (1948) Karmel, in his tome, Abstract Art: A Global History, underscores the New York School’s—and especially Gottlieb, Lewis, and Pollock’s—intentional appropriation of Native American “totemic imagery” that extended “embryonic imagery into an all-over web”, or what Greenberg called the “decentralized”, “polyphonic” painting “that relies on a surface knit together of identical or closely similar elements which repeat themselves” anticipated by Mondrian, Picasso, Braque, Klee and Italian Futurism but only arrived at by Pollock (amongst others).

This “all-over” abstract image, composed of non-discursive elements, is thus demonstrably dependent on historically preceding modes and techniques of figuration, which are dialectically negated. But none of this need be clear to us when we are conducted by Chun’s waves and its pooling, heightening tensing—appreciation of the work, like its material, is immanent.


1 See G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), §167 for Hegel’s description of the movement of consciousness where, in the knowing of the other (viz., “dialectical negation” or “determinate negation”), I am actually reflected back into myself. In turn, the negation of something always involves both the destruction and preservation of that entity. Preservation is thus a “moment” of a larger process within negation that invokes preservation, not elimination.

(Text by Ekin Erkan, PhD)