Art Criticism

Chung Chang-Sup: Meditation

Chung Chang-Sup: Meditation (Perrotin, 2015).
Exhibition text published by Galerie Perrotin (New York), November 2015.

Galerie Perrotin, New York is pleased to present the second exhibition dedicated to the late Korean artist Chung Chang-Sup (Cheongju, 1927 – Seoul, 2011), following a first monographic show at Galerie Perrotin, Paris last summer.

Born in 1927, Chung Chang-Sup is a prominent figure of the Dansaekhwa monochrome movement, a synthesis between traditional Korean spirit and Western abstraction, which emerged in the early 1970s. While it has remained to this day a driving force in Korean contemporary art, Dansaekhwa has also gained international recognition over the past few years. A selection of Chung Chang-Sup’s paintings was presented until last August along with that of Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo and other key masters at the Palazzo Contarini-Polignac for Dansaekhwa, an official collateral event in this year’s 56th Venice Biennial.

Although the Korean monochrome painting style has never been defined with a manifesto, the artists affiliated with it primarily share a restricted palette of neutral hues – namely white, beige and black –, which originated the umbrella term ‘dansaekhwa’ (literally ‘single color’). However, monochrome as such hasn’t been the main focus nor raison d’être of any of the Dansaekhwa leaders, whose unique ascetic vocabularies led to an overall aesthetics that is formally comparable to that of Western Minimalism: process prevails within the relentless repetition of geometrical or graphic patterns throughout their oeuvre. Parenthetically, Dansaekhwa and Minimalism both rose in reaction to either Art Informel or Abstract Expressionism, respectively, and meant to clear art of self-expression or the emotional outpouring that single strokes and vibrant colors used to carry. As a matter of fact, all the Dansaekhwa pioneers, including Chung Chang-Sup and Park Seo-Bo, were formerly seen as practicing Art Informel, around the principles of which the latter had actually helped establishing in Seoul the Hyun-Dae Artists Association in 1957, hoping to enable young Korean artists to express their anguish in the immediate aftermath of the civil war.

That said, Dansaekhwa and Minimalism differ greatly in intent. Highly spiritual rather than purely conceptual, the quest behind the exceptional discipline of Korean monochrome painting isn’t that of ‘objectivity’, but that of ‘oneness’ between self and matter, which is essential to Asian philosophy, as opposed to the Western Cartesian premise of a split. Far from stepping away during the production phase, as it was the case with Minimalist artists and their manufactured and modular patterns, Chung Chang-Sup, like Park Seo-Bo, is known for his material emphasis of the natural fabric he chose to work and become ‘one’ with – hanji or tak paper –, and above all his complete physical engagement within the artworks in the making. With a strong determination to achieve the unity between self and matter and align his art with nature, his lifelong repetition of gestures and patterns, as well as his uncompromising acknowledgement of the substantial act of painting, were the means of his meditative journey, similar to the strict routine of a Buddhist monk. “As a lone truth seeker gets a glimpse of the God, I believe that Oriental spiritualism and occidental materialism are harmonized on the crossroads of my lonely journey,”[1] the artist noted towards the end of his life.

In the mid-1970s, after having spent two decades exploring Art Informel and making oil paintings, Chung Chang-Sup turned away from the occidental techniques and initiated a series that he called Return, which literally implied “to the tradition”. From this point forward, he began experimenting with hanji, a Korean handcrafted fabric made out of the inner bark of Paper Mulberry tree, also known as tak. Historically and culturally, hanji was not only used as exquisite sheets in painting and calligraphy, but also in traditional Korean architecture as panes for windows and doors, like the house the artist grew up in. “Through the screen of tak paper, one can distinctly sense the wind, light and flow of time outside his or her room, which allowed us to experience both feelings of being inside and outside”[2], the artist recalled of his childhood. In other words, hanji in architecture had the unique property of being able to absorb and transmit nature from the outside to the inside, which made it the most suitable medium for Chung Chang-Sup to begin his journey towards self-enlightenment.

For the paintings of his series Return, which are highly evocative of traditional windows and doors, Chung Chang-Sup orderly applied square or rectangular sheets of hanji on canvases, the remaining blank contours of which he would then, for instance, cover with black ink, leaving the pigments and fabrics freely absorb each other and unite around the edges of the tak pieces of paper. Yet, he soon felt that the hanji sheets were still a mere frame, and supposed that it was because they had been handmade by someone else, preventing him to fully extend himself onto his paintings. So he decided to directly handle their raw material, which gave birth to his series Tak throughout the 1980s and paved the way for his latter and final one, Meditation, that extended from the early 1990s to his death, in 2011.

Thus for 40 years, Chung Chang-Sup worked solely with Paper Mulberry bark, which he soaked and rubbed in large vats of water installed in his studio, while monitoring the color variation of the washed fibers from their natural ocher to white. He would then proceed to the instinctive application and manipulation of the wet paste over the entire surfaces of his canvases, stretching and pressing it into whatever rough textures the material guided his fingers through and beyond the limitations of his ego. “In battering and kneading tak, I unknowingly put my breath, odour and finally my soul into the process, thus becoming a part of the process itself”[3], he stated.

Whereas only the sap of the tree produced the pale yellowish hues of the Tak rumpled ‘paintings without paint’, Chung Chang-Sup introduced other natural pigments in his series Meditation, essentially brown and black out of tobacco leaves and charcoal, as well as geometry, which symbolizes the harmony found in nature. For example, in the earliest paintings of the series, the artist used either a wooden stick or threads to incise the outlines of multiple squares arranged in a grid within the thick tak pulp all over his canvasses, while it wasn’t long before he would strictly focus on shaping, molding and flattening, the form of a single large square in the middle of all his monochrome compositions, as if tempering to his fingertips the surrounding yet united chaos. That is the inner and outer worlds, both literally and figuratively, coexisting in the same meditative and ecological vision.

Chung Chang-Sup’s oeuvre reflects his Taoist belief that the artist must balance material and nature in the unified act of making in order to reach harmony. With an ensemble of 19 paintings, the exhibition at Galerie Perrotin, New York focuses on early artworks from the series Return and Meditation, which both carry the architectural and spiritual resonances of hanji paper through the use of tak fiber in a total embrace with it in place of the artist’s ego.

[1] Chung Chang-Sup, ‘The World of my Paper Works”, in Chang-Sup Chung Retrospective, Gwacheon: National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, 2010, p. 241.

[2] Ibid., p. 239.

[3] Ibid., p. 240.

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