A stone, a leaf, an unfound door, of a stone, a leaf and a door. And all of the forgotten faces.
Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel
The long journey from home to the strange place called art can be mysterious, treacherous and risky. But, for those who become artists, it is also a movement towards a more magical state of creativity, often a distant destiny from the place where they were born. In traveling this journey, an artist sometimes finds that many of the things he played with as a child (and then rejected in youth) become key elements in his artworks. This can be true for all artists, no matter what country or culture they are from. But, for many artists in Asia, who have lived through their countries' transformation over the latter half of the 20th century, nostalgia for childhood playthings is made all the more poignant by the fact that the place that once was home no longer exists, eradicated by modernization and homogenized by globalization.
untitled 116x80cm mixed media on paper 1987
Korean artist J Young is a very lucky man in that he can go home again to his place of birth, the countryside town of Yecheon in Gyeongsang Province, where ginseng is sold in vast markets and remnants of one-story framed houses remain. It is a three-hour drive from Busan, the seaside resort where he now lives, but he makes the trek willingly to revisit the Confucian temple, to see the pine trees and to gather stones for his art works. This is an artist who is definitely adept at contemporary art practices, but who is rooted in the natural landscape of his youth. He has traveled a far distance to arrive at his latest works, near abstract canvases with cavernous indentations where he inserted a stone, then removed it, leaving a distinct pocket of air. Stone is central to his art-making, though he is not yet a sculptor. In painting, drawing, print-making and installation, he has examined the shape and weight of stones, creating works that recall nature even as they are essentially man-made.
"I'd like to explain how I introduced stone into my artwork. I took many walks on country roads and noticed that everything is scattered with stones. Maybe it would be the same in the US, but when I was young in my hometown I played with stone and soil and earth. I was obsessed with that memory from my childhood. When I went back to my hometown as a grown man, I saw that everything was still covered with stones. I was frustrated and shocked by the scene which motivated me to make art work about the stone," says J Young.
Balancing natural and artificial elements, J Young has come up with a unique vocabulary for expressing his ideas. His theme is often the durability of stone, a symbol for all nature in his work, in contrast to the ephemeral quality of human life. He has drawn from his Korean background using calligraphy as a technique and Confucianism as his outlook. But, J Young is also entirely contemporary, fusing painting with performative actions and installation with interactivity. He works fluently in a variety of mediums in ways that distinguish him from less experimental Korean artists. At the heart of his projects is his unbridled energy, bursting in many directions at the same time. Yet, underlying this expressive exhibitionism is a subtle internal inquiry that nudges viewers into examining the absence of nature in their lives and the emptiness caused by this loss.
"From birth to death, people can normally live a maximum of 100 years. And it seems to me that in the course of life, the human mind changes a lot. I was attracted to stone by the fact that stone does not change."
J Young traces his development as an artist from 1987, the time he was a sophomore at Hongik University, just a year before Korea became a democratic state. As opposed to an older generation focused on political issues and protesting the military dictatorship, J Young was part of the New Generation who turned away from politics and concentrated on more personal concerns. After an early period of experimenting with abstraction, this artist soon began to invest his works with literal references to nature, specifically the symbol of a stone. J Young then juxtaposed commercial packing and logos with his natural materials as a pointed critique of the rampant consumerism of Korean society in the 1990s.
"People normally purchase clothes, cars and Coca Cola as well. But I wanted to commercialize a stone of my own," says J Young. "As you know a diamond is also a stone but most stones are just kicked and abandoned."
untitled 366x122cm mixed media on canvas 1989
In one project, Jeong created wooden boxes to package stones, and then sold them as luxury goods, one to a customer. He stamped postal envelopes with the image of a stone and sent out this altered mail to dozens of individuals. Yet another time, he filled a gallery with smelly crates from a fish market on side and sprayed with Paco Rabanne perfume, a symbolic conflict between the natural and the synthetic. These installations were radical departures for the artist who was trained as a painter. By incorporating an element of performance into the work, J Young anticipates the current trend in relational artworks, art that incorporates audience participation.
In these works as well as many others, J Young is adopting stone as a kind of "ready-made," like Marcel Duchamp's urinal or bicycle wheel. But in this case, the original found object is not industrial or man-made; it is natural and readily available. In this way, the artist is pushing the very dialogue about the original and reproduction, since in J Young’s case, each stone is an original and unique, where as in Duchamp's artworks, the ready-made is a reproduction, manufactured multiple times. However, due to the sheer abundance of rocks in a landscape, it is evident that anyone can "own" a stone. It takes a very talented artist to turn such an easily obtainable element into a valuable work of art.
This examination of originality is most pronounced in the installation, Dolmen, 1992, in which J Young painted a stone bright blue and outlined its form with thin blue line of neon. According to the artist, this work focuses on stone's dual use, as an element of nature and as the foundation of architecture. In this case, the blue line both accentuates the stone's unique shape and demonstrates how a one-of-kind-object can be replicated. There is a tension between the stone and the light, as opposing forces. But there is also a harmony, as if the light is a halo adorning the stone.
"I wanted to create a real situation, even if it is fake. I want to convey my real feelings to the people. That is why there are stones and pigments."
Precipitation (like-150mm), painted in 1991, is a turning point for J Young who was just 27 at the time. The title, later applied to many works he has made since then, refers to a weather report that 150mm of rain would fall in Seoul. Shocked by the figure, he wanted to make a work that conveyed the power of nature to impact even technologically advanced lives. He painted a line of beakers, each holding a stone, in a science laboratory of a painting. Three years later, he painted Like-150mm, 1994, an even more experimental work. For the first time, he embedded actual rocks deep into the surface of the painting and scribbled "Like 150mm" on the lower right hand corner. It is an aggressive work with the almost violent intrusion of stone. Yet it is also meditative, painted in a palette of black-on-black that invites contemplation of its unique texture.
An even more aggressively "real" situation occurred when J Young brought ten truckloads of rotten wood and filled a gallery to its ceiling to create the installation, History-like-150mm, 1999. The wood had been left outside for three years, exposed to storms, and as is natural, became the refuge for microorganisms, insect, worms, flies and butterflies. Soon, the gallery was overridden by bugs, flying through the air. J Young considered the work a success because he had demonstrated that he could "revive" nature even in a sterile setting, celebrating its fundamental role in life as well as its power to infiltrate and take over man-made environments. But as an artwork, this installation is highly subversive. By using something as common place as stacks of rotten wood, he is again inserting a critique of consumerism, defying his audience to buy, or even like, this intrusive artwork.
In another more playful installation, Record, 2000, J Young printed 30,000 cards with pictures of stones and wood which he arranged on a gallery floor. On top of the cards, he placed stumps of tree branches and stones, dispersed throughout the space. To advertise the installation, he also printed stickers with the imprint of a stone, which he put out along the streets leading to the gallery.
People followed the stickers and discovered the installation, but as soon as they entered the gallery, they disrupted the pattern of the cards on the floor. Sometimes, children came in to play with the cards, just as J Young had played with sticks and stones as a child. Every morning, he had to get up and laboriously put the cards back in place.
Highly creative and experimental, J Young’s installations always push the gallery space to its very limits. Instead of the traditional "white cube", empty except for rare objects and paintings on view, these installations overtake the space and reconfigure it into a more interactive environment. Whether it is the aroma of perfume or the fluttering of butterflies, the space infiltrates the viewer's senses and much more than sight is needed to appreciate the work. By doing this, J Young is transformed from being a picture-maker into more of an architect, designing the experience through his use of space.
Moreover, while his innovations in installation art might be read as "western" or at least, "global," his intent and use of materials is influenced by Korean culture, Confucianism and Zen. J Young’s frequent use of text is reminiscent of calligraphy, brought out to the fullest extent in some of his later paintings, in which he applies paint to canvas in the flinging brushwork of ink painting. Turning something as rudimentary as a stone into the focus of his art-making coincides with spirit and principles of Asian philosophies who rely on nature as inspiration for meditation. While the same can be said for many other Korean artists who derive inspiration from Korean culture. But often their works are somewhat provincial and limited. J Young is able to infuse his installations with a global vocabulary, allowing them to be appreciated by audiences from both sides of the world.
Korean cultural influences are in the foreground of J Young’s paintings of the last decade-mural-length white canvases, marked by gestural punches, pencil scribbles and jarring textures. These paintings bear a strong relationship to classical scroll paintings, both in their dispersive composition and their long format. It is not surprising when J Young tells me that they are all landscape paintings based on memories of his hometown. After readjusting my eyes, I can make out boulders and rock formations, pine trees and temples, all against a stark white background that could be snow. Some are applied to multiple panels, like folding screens. In all, the paint is applied with a vigorous gesture, splattering and defying control.
"This is the traditional and natural landscape of my hometown, but I want to express the beauty of space in a simple way. And even though it is made up of natural things, the spirit is a modern spirit. I want to deliver the message of nature but I want to look modern."
Indeed, even though the work may look apolitical, the Korean landscape is charged for an artist like J Young. While some of the works specifically relate to his hometown, others refer to the scenic mountains of North Korea, a subject that comes from J Young's desire for his country to be reunited. Even those referring specifically to his youth betray his conflicts about his upbringing. He often felt repressed by the teachings of Confucianism, which required him to worship his ancestors. Looking towards his future, he had to leave but he misses this landscape all the same.
"I want to express the energy repressed within my body. I have always tried to escape from the social system. My trial and error is expressed in these paintings. I want to express more energy into my artwork."
As opposed to a scroll painting where all the elements are composed in the very essence of serenity, J Young’s paintings are explosive and bursting with free expression. By 2005, he is literally attacking the canvas, aggressively punching it and pounding into its surface. Rather than approaching a painting as an empty space that needs to be filled, he is using the blank void as an element in his composition. His gestures are almost like performances, leaving only the results for the viewer to see. The explosion of energy used to make these works is palpable as clearly indicated by the powerful markings.
This combination of painting and performance is highly innovative, though it can be seen as rooted in American Abstract Expressionism. Like Pollock, J Young applies paint as an extension of the body. But, this artist does not cover the canvas with overall layer of paint, as Pollock did. Instead, he leaves much of it blank, inviting viewers to venture into the void. In this way, J Young’s work closely relates to that of the Gutai movement, which took place in Japan in the 1950s and 60s. The Gutai Manifesto urged artists to rebel against every tradition of art making and to defy the conventions of society. Gutai artists made work by bursting through screens and using their feet to apply paint to canvases. Like them, J Young is putting his whole body into the work out of defiance of society, more than a mere artistic technique.
Despite the similarities of J Young’s technique to these two art movements--abstract expressionism and Gutai--his final results are clearly original. He does not even consider his work "abstract" as it is always closely related to his considerations of the landscape and nature. His challenge is to imbue traditional landscape painting with a contemporary approach to composition. Ironically, by dispersing his markings to the edges of the painting, he comes up with work that may be his most "Korean."
Given his respect for emptiness in these paintings, it is not surprising that his next move as an artist would be to literally create an empty space in the surface of the canvas. To create this result, J Young employs yet another new technique of his own creation. This time, instead of applying stones to the painting, he inserts a wad of aluminum foil into a small box in the painting, fills the hole with plaster and removes the material when the plaster is dried. This leaves an irregular shaped opening in the center of the painting which looks as if a stone was pulled from its interior. At first the opening is almost invisible, a black hole in an entirely black painting. But then, after examining it for several seconds, the brushwork and various markings are seen and the hole comes into focus.
Few viewers examining these works will be able to tell that each hole is entirely individual. It is J Young's secret. In fact, though the openings are similar from painting-to-painting, he is leaves different patterns and textures on the interior. The unique qualities of each, however, can only be found by examining inside the hole which is nearly impossible without a flashlight. Only then, can you see the ridges and indentations that make the work truly original. J Young believes that he is inserting spirituality into each work by creating this space. But, by making a space that looks like it occurred naturally, he is returning to the theme of nature as enduring while human nature is subject to whims and changes.
72x50cm mixed media on paper
"I am a very energetic person but living in the countryside, sometimes I am very frustrated. Confucianism dictates that you follow your ancestors rules, so I felt frustrated and limited by that. I am the eldest son in my family so everything was passed on to me. That's why I feel free ever since I escaped from my hometown. Even though I have the spirit of freedom, when I go back to my hometown, I cannot express all my feelings."
Inverting the stone, so it no longer protrudes from the painting but burrows inside the work, makes this some of J Young's most personal work. The absent stone--a fabricated illusion that is entirely convincing--symbolizes loss, a trace memory of something that no longer is there. For this artist, it is specifically the natural setting of his youth, represented by a stone. But it could also be the loss of nature in modern life, the situation for most people in the urban centers of the 21st century. At the same time, this absence is not necessarily a negative issue. After all, it is only after J Young left his hometown that he could become an artist.
a dolmen installation 1996
To J Young, these latest artworks are his most free, defying all conventions about traditional painting. Each work is more akin to assemblage than painting, incorporating 3-dimensionality into the composition. The opening confounds our expectations of a painting, yet it is impossible to miss. We keep staring at it, wanting it to convey its secret. But for each viewer, it will have an individual meaning, a sense that something is missing from their lives. J Young can point to nature, or his childhood hometown, as the element now gone. But it is clear, from entire body of his works, that his main concern is a loss of spirituality and of a unified identity, now mere remnants of the past in contemporary life.
“According to Confucianism, when you reach the age of 50, you need to empty your mind. So now I need to make an empty spirit and pour my energy into the artwork. I don't know what will happen in the future but for the time being I want to focus on emptying my mind.”
Art Critic and Curator, International Art Critics Association, USA