Chung Chang-Sup’s “Meditation” is on show at Galerie Perrotin, Hong Kong, until 21 December 2016.
Experimental tak fibre on canvas works by the late Korean Dansaekhwa master Chung Chang-Sup are displayed in the artist’s premier solo exhibition in Hong Kong. Selected from his “Meditation” series, the canvases embody the spirituality, tactility and the ritualistic process involved.
In the spirit of Dansaekhwa, the late Korean artist Chung Chang-Sup’s oeuvre is characterised by the repetition of gestures and rumination over the materials. The exhibition entitled “Meditation” is the gallery’s third exhibition dedicated to the artist. Two shows of the same title were held in Galerie Perrotin’s Paris and New York locations respectively last year. The show runs from 3 November 2016 until 21 December 2016 at Galerie Perrotin in Hong Kong.
The full possibilities of the Korean tak (mulberry bark) paper are explored in the “Meditation” series, which spanned from the early 1990s until the artist’s passing in 2011. As one of the most celebrated Korean artists in the Dansaekhwa movement, Chung creates works that are alive with the artist’s soul, exemplifying his lifelong devotion to achieving oneness with nature. The zenith of Chung’s experimental phase with colours is marked by the two six-paneled canvases in ultramarine blue and vermillion red hung on the gallery’s main wall. These works were regarded as failed attempts by the artist himself, and they have remained hidden during his lifetime until the second solo exhibition with Galerie Perrotin New York last year, when the blue piece was finally shown to the public for the first time.
Chung Chang-Sup and the Dansaekhwa movement
What is Dansaekhwa? In an earlier article, Art Radar explained in detail what the movement was about. Dansaekhwa, literally meaning ‘monochrome painting’ in Korean, refers to the style of painting that gained popularity towards the second half of the 1970s in South Korea. Artists in this group limit their colour palette to only white, black and beige. Although stylistically the iconic works resemble Western minimalism, it is not a fair comparison. To understand Dansaekhwa, we must historically contextualise the movement and note its strong ties with the socio-political conditions of Korean society at that time.
Dansaekhwa artists sought to connect with their roots following the painful years of Japanese colonialism, the end of the Korean war in 1953, and the separation between the North and South. They sought to find a new Korean identity, away from the influence of the Chinese and the Japanese. Acclaimed Dansaekhwa masters include Chung Chang-Sup, Park Seo-Bo, Chung Sang-Hwa, Yun Hyong-Keun, Ha Chong-Hyun, Kwon Young-Woo, Kim Whanki and Lee Ufan.
The late Dansaekhwa master Chung Chang-Sup was born in 1927 in Cheongiu, Korea. He received his BFA in Painting from the College of Fine Arts, Seoul National University in 1951. He passed away in 2011 in Seoul, Korea. He has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally. In 2010, a major retrospective of Chung’s work was held at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Gwancheon, Korea.
His works were also exhibited in Villa Empain in Belgium, Palazzo Contarini-Polignac in Venice, Kukje Gallery in Seoul and at the Sharjah Biennial 12. They are included in permanent collections such as that of Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, Busan Museum of Modern Art in Busan, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum in Japan, M+ Museum for Visual Culture in Hong Kong and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in the UAE.
Honoring tradition: Exploring tactility and materiality
Hanji, the traditional handmade Korean paper is used extensively in many Dansaekhwa artists’ works. Since the rediscovery of hanji in the 1970s when Chung was in his 40s, Chung found a medium of expression that enabled him to convey a sentiment that he lacked as an oil painter. Hanji is a material that is often found covering windows and door panes in traditional Korean houses, honok. Chung saw hanji as an inseparable part of his childhood – a time when he lived in a honok. The physical properties of the thin hanji allowed Chung to witness the passage of time, fleeting lights and the changing seasons from inside his home, generating a multisensory experience of nature.
Chung took a step further and enhanced the traditional hanji using another kind of material. When he produced the pieces of paper himself, he chose to retain a higher proportion of the natural fibre of hanji, known as tak. Tak (mulberry bark) paper is used in his “Meditation” series, which is the primary medium of the works exhibited in the current exhibition at Galerie Perrotin in Hong Kong. The philosophy behind using tak paper lies in Chung’s deliberate decision to endow the material a sense of agency, as well as autonomy.
Historically, hanji lacks agency and autonomy and is merely used as a support on top of which art is created. Chung elevated the material’s status by highlighting its materiality, making literal the raw fibres of tak. Through massaging, kneading, battering the wet tak pulp and mulling over the material over a long period of time before applying it on top of the canvas, Chung drew attention to the texture of the material itself, allowing the medium to become the focus of the meaning-making process.
In the “Meditation” series, Chung Chang-Sup used the physical properties of the medium to capture the repetitive gestures he applied to the work. The rhythm of the meditative act is documented across the surface. In terms of composition, the borders of the painting represent the physical limits inherent to the materiality of the world that is traversed by the act of meditating. In a spiritual sense, the artist also transcends the confines of his inner world to express himself in the space of the painting.
Commenting on Chung’s mature works in his “Meditation series”, critic Yoon Jin-Sup says:
His creations are placed within an ecological, cosmological and terrestrial perspective which is diametrically opposed to the formalistic vision of Westerners.
Experimentation and Spirituality of the artist
At the height of the artist’s experimental phase, Chung departed from his usual neutral colour palette and included bold colours in his works. The two experimental six-paneled canvases in the exhibition are juxtaposed against his mature works in the “Meditation” series. Through viewing these works, the audience gets a glimpse of the psyche of the artist, as well as the ritualistic philosophy of Chung’s artistic practice.
Earlier on, in the 1960s, three decades before the works in this exhibition were produced, Chung had briefly moved away from the monochromatic palette and explored the mixing of oil paint with Eastern ink painting technique. Hence, the artist’s oeuvre over his lifetime is not merely a static, linear journey of similar monochrome style. Instead, these bolder works serve as documentation of phases of experimentation throughout the artist’s life.
Chung Chang-Sup is regarded as one of the foundational members of the Dansaekhwa movement. Although his signature style is marked by the use of hanji or tak paper, his philosophy centred around the idea of spiritual freedom, with a hint of Korean Confucianism. Highly innovative, the artist paid tribute to Korean tradition, and at the same time aimed to discover himself through his works of art.
According to Galerie Perrotin, Chung Chang-Sup wrote the following in a note in 1992:
My work begins only once pre-existing methods, forms and norms have been totally eliminated. Just as an artisan reveals himself through his work, I reveal a world (the making of a painting) from which all (intentional) painting is absent, while appreciating the spiritual freedom linked to the abandoning of all knowledge, intentions, and memories of intentions, memories of my childhood and forgotten details. My hope and desire is that I will discover another me (through these activities).
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