Dominique Lévy’s current exhibition of Chung Sang-Hwa is the first solo exhibition of the Korean artist in the United States. While the artist may seem unfamiliar to the New York audience, it is a well-timed exhibition that follows a steady and continual rise in the recognition of Dansaekhwa (literally translated from Korean as “monochrome painting”), a loose movement of South Korean artists that emerged in the mid-1960s, with which Chung is associated. Dansaekhwa artists did not operate under a manifesto, but took influence from Eastern philosophies such as Taoism, Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism, as well as avant-garde art movements including Abstract Expressionism, Art Informel, and Gutai.
Comprising 15 large canvases, spanning from 1969 to 2014 and divided into two separate levels, the exhibition is a retrospective that is far-reaching in both scale and attention given. However, considering Chung’s signature technique of repeatedly painting, removing paint and then repainting—a process he has been practicing since the late 1960s—it is nearly impossible to recognize which are his earlier or later works. For example, one could hardly imagine that Untitled 2013-7-15 (2013) and Untitled 1982 (1982) have 30 years of history separating them, both having creamy white paint with grids created through scoring and folding. The earlier painting has both squares and diagonal lines, while the later one consists of just square grids, yet this difference is not necessarily telling of technical or conceptual development between the works. Each painting is self-contained, with its own sets of rules and problems that the artist poses and resolves within the confines of the frame.
In keeping with the namesake of Dansaekhwa, most of the paintings in the show indeed restrict itself to the use of one color. With the squinting of one’s eyes, or under very bright lights, the paintings transform into nearly flat, minimal squares of white, cream and dark gray. The color restriction allows Chung to work with the texture of the canvas as if it were a sculpture. Rather than drawing a picture, the paintings literally become surfaces—of the earth, mud, sand or even ripples of water.
Exceptions to the lack of temporal development between the works, and with the monochromatic palette, are Untitled 69-3 (1969) and Untitled 73-5 (1973). These pieces represent the earlier stage of experimentation for Chung, as they are less methodical than other works and focused much more on pattern, color and texture. Still, one can detect the sculptural ways that Chung utilizes the canvas, as it can be seen that the artist has torn segments of paint off of the surface. Strategically placed in the upper level of the gallery, the exhibition avoids a dull chronology of highlighting these earlier pieces, managing to truly focus on the core of Chung’s creative output.
When studied carefully and observed with the artist in mind, it becomes extremely baffling to think how he had created these works. The grids and scores on the canvases are not results of expressionist gestures, swift movements or dance; they are not labored, in the sense of a person becoming a controlled apparatus. Instead, what has happened is, the labor is married with the spirit of dance and expression, becoming a kind of silent humming. Within the grids and lines on the canvas are not small squares of flat, immobile color, but drips and dimples of very active paint—as if each square could also be a composition unto itself.
And it is in that marriage of labor and gesture, restriction and expression, borders and expansiveness that Chung may be reaching what one could posture as a painting very representative of South Korea and the culture of his generation. Born in 1932, while his country was still under Japanese colonization, he grew up during the Korean War that divided his country, and saw South Korea become a young and unstable democratic nation ruled by a military dictatorship. Chung’s life, as well as those of his contemporaries, were thus marked by a continuum of constraints, pain and upheaval. When he left Korea in 1967 for Paris, and then Japan, it was a means to search for a likeminded artistic community and to develop his own voice. Chung, and therefore the Dansaekhwa artists, should not be mistaken as those working within a vacuum, or to be ghettoized as being the minimalists of the “East.” Rather, they should be recognized as significant players within the canon of art history that deserves further critical study and observation.