by Barbara Pollack
The world can change in a moment, as has been proven by recent events in the news. Disturbing, violent, tragic and abrupt--how is an artist supposed to keep up with these changes and mark the passage of time in a way that makes sense of these senseless occurrences? This is the key issue in J Young's latest series, Moment, artworks that encapsulate the present time by juxtaposing destruction and creation, serenity and violence.
In Moment, J Young brings together the various themes that have filled his artworks for the past 30 years. His main inquiry throughout these years has been the struggle to depict the conflict between Nature and human nature, between endurance and metamorphosis. Through paintings, sculpture and installation, he has explored these themes, trying to find a way to condense these lofty issues into the simplest of terms. Minimalism has been his guiding principle, but he has never shied away from monumental questions of life and death, of mortality and immortality.
Born in 1964 in Yecheon, a small rural village in Gyeongsang Province in South Korea, J Young is a member of a generation of Korean artists who came of age after great political upheavals and who sought to turn away from specifically political subject matter. Influenced by his childhood in the countryside, he often brought elements of nature into his work, specifically the use of a stone, no larger than a hand, appearing repeatedly in his installations and three-dimensional wall reliefs. One time, early in his career, he boxed stones in elaborate packing, like luxury goods, and sold them in a gallery. Another time, he printed images of stones on cards and laid them out on a gallery floor, inviting viewers to play with them as he had played with sticks and stones as a child. This later evolved into embedding stones into the surface of his paintings, creating assemblages using this natural element. It should be noted that he only used a single stone, about the size of a hand, not other aspects of nature such as twigs or leaves.
In 2005, J Young took the radical step of creating deep indentations in his canvases, as if he had removed a stone from their surface. His monochromatic canvases--either white or black--had become three-dimensional friezes, very much reflecting the actions taken in their making. He called these works "landscapes" and they did appear to be vigorous, almost violent reinterpretations of classical scroll paintings. Viewers, undoubtedly confused by the hollow space in each, could read the mysterious hole as either a smile or a denotation of absence. But for J Young, it would always be the mark of a stone, a gentle reminder of the ever-present nature of Nature, impacting our lives, even for those of us who live in urban settings.
Of course, J Young has come a far way since his childhood home, having been educated in Seoul, attending Hongik University's College of Fine Arts and gaining a masters degree there. His artworks have brought him all around the world with exhibitions in China and Japan, Europe and the United States. And even, back home in South Korea, his country has changed, evolving as most Asian countries have in the past thirty years, under the pressure of globalization and industrialization. This evolution has been more of a revolution, disrupting the traditional way of life in which J Young was raised and eradicating much of his childhood home. To reflect that great upheaval, the artist had to come up with a new way of working, one that would be a radical departure from his past.
And so, in 2014, J Young started his Moment series, commenting on the contemporary, on this very moment in time. In Moment, J Young bends, punctures and creases thin sheets of metal, which are then painted by technicians as if they were shiny new automobiles. These works are glossy and polished, but their shiny facades are disrupted by the artist's intervention. Corners are folded and sometimes it appears that nails are pointing up through their backs. You can feel the presence of the artist, J Young's performance as he activates the metal. They are sublimely serene yet packed with violence as they rest on the wall.
Pointing to a photograph of an automobile, J Young explains, "You can see a similar kind of crease on the car as is in my artworks. It is very artificial but I want to show it in a very natural way so it looks both intended and not intended. I believe that this crease looks like a wrinkle in the human face. You can have wrinkles when you are very sad but also when you smile. A lifetime of emotions can be represented through this crease."
The Moment series represents a sharp departure for J Young from his previous artmaking techniques. In the past, his works were matte and somber, almost exclusively monochromes of black and white. He painted these canvases himself, giving them a rough hewn patina. Now, with Moment, he eschews the hand-made quality so present in his early works and pursues a high gloss finish and a multicolored palette. Starting again with white and black, he soon added the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow. Now, he has moved into a greater array of hues, including pink, magenta, green and sky blue. When he first started on the series, he painted them himself, sanding between each layer of paint to create an industrial look. But, later he turned the painting over to automobile body workers, to get an even more manmade appearance.
Shiny as a new automobile, these works perfectly balance the traditional surfaces of Korean ceramics with the post-industrial facade of the contemporary Korean landscape. J Young brings together past and present in these abstractions, just as they combine industrial production with the human touch. The imperfections only add to the power of these works, ever reminding us of the limitations of modernization. Yet, by exercising great restraint, these works are also sublime and serene in their composure.
To create these works takes great strength. J Young must put all his strength at work to make these folds and bends in the metal. As he works, the panels vibrate, a sensation that viewers can almost feel when they observe the final art works. Like remnants from an anonymous performance, the creases in the metal panels remind us of the presence of the artist, the very human quality underlying even the most industrial of objects.
Yet, this is not just a test of physical strength. It also takes enormous concentration and strength of mind to achieve these results. The creases and folds are representations of the artist's internal thought processes, his ability to maintain a state of mind that is calm and serene in the face of great agitation. Within each work, therefore, is the tension between this state of serenity and the state of fluctuation, a battle that reflects those conflicts so evident in contemporary civilization.
The contradiction between the physical process of making the work and the spiritual state that the artist needs to be in to make the work is evident in the artworks in the Moment series. On the one hand, the evidence of the artist making the work--creasing, folding, crumpling and hammering--is palpably visible. We can almost feel him in his creative process. On the other hand, the works are serenely quiet, even when they are brightly colored. You can sense J Young's sense of restraint and his acute focus which reigns in any trace of exhibitionism.
Artworks in the Moment series are achieved through a combination of creation and destruction. In this way, they are in keeping with a theme present in the contemporary art works of the Italian modernist Lucio Fontana who slashed his canvases to create a negative space within the surface of his works. It is also an act akin to Abstract expressionist paintings, where the artist destroyed any semblance of depictions of reality with passionate abandonment. The goal in either of these examples is to create the perfect artwork through an act of destruction, encapsulating all the violence and destructive forces in contemporary society. J Young's achievement, however, is that instead of merely capitulating to destruction, he chooses to use this force selectively, achieving a balance that has few precedents in the history of art.
J Young's interventions--folds and creases--may be misinterpreted as a limitation or a defect. At times, it even looks like the art work has been damaged during shipping or installation. But, like ripples caused by throwing a stone in a stream, they can open up the possibility of infinite variations. Adding color also adds to the possible variations on his theme, bringing a new level of vitality to his creations. For an artist who for most of his career worked with the most minimal of means, this interest in variety is a sharp departure. It reflects a maturity and confidence in his art-making, as well as a fearlessness about taking risks.
At one point, J Young focuses on a work in which a bolt nearly punches through the surface of the metal. "What does this mean? Everyone wants to stand out. Everyone wants to be the center of the world. This represents the instincts of the modern people that they want to be stand out among so many people. You want to promote yourself to other people and you want to make an impression on other people. This instinct is represented through this bolt. It is my way of putting human nature into the art work."
This is diametrically opposite of what J Young intends when he reasserts the image of the stone in some of the Moment artworks. For him, a stone is the exact opposite of human nature. Human nature is variable, fluctuating, impermanent and mortal. The stone, on the other hand, endures and remains over many thousands of years. He inserts the mark of the stone, again as an indentation in the surface, for viewers to ponder. He asks that they take a moment to contemplate such a immovable, immutable image in contrast to the glossy surfaces of his moment works.
Though many of these works hang on the wall, either vertically or horizontally, in one instance, J Young brought together dozens of lengths of painted metal to create an installation that fills the gallery. The walls are lined with tall vertical panels, folded and creased, creating dimensionality against the white background. On the floor, there are numerous pieces of distressed metal, lying prone, as if wounded. The work is striking in the bright colors applied to each metal panel. To J Young, this work is a metaphor for humanity with the colors representing the range of human emotion. This is a crowd, full of sorrow, joy, fear and even a little humor, as can be found in any collection of human beings.
Works like this one, represent a departure for J Young Jai Young from his early installation work. He once famously brought a load of rotting wood into a gallery, allowing the worms, termites and other insects from the woods to circulate within a white cube. Now, he seems much removed from nature, with as little of the environment in the space as one would find in a auto dealership. But, here he is now looking at human nature, which can be just as elemental as a the trunk of a tree. J Young feels free to switch up his materials and his textures in order to make his point about contemporary life and the recent revolution in social interaction. He is unafraid to abandon past practices to reach his goal.
Indeed, by employing industrial painting techniques, J Young Jaiyoung creates works that feel absolutely contemporary even while he meditates on eternal struggles. For as long as there has been art, artists have contemplated the role of nature in human lives, and vice versa, the impact of humanity on nature. J Young has reinvented his art-making practice in order to find a contemporary way of addressing these issues. In many ways, his folds at the corner of his metal panels is akin to an intentional crack in the glaze of a Korean vase. He puts it there for us to take a moment and consider the imperfections that make us human. It is as if he has come up with a new way of stating what he has been questioning all along.
In so doing, J Young has created a personal vocabulary that nonetheless has universal appeal. The colors and shiny surfaces have a playful quality, like a new toy appeals to a child. The dents, folds and puncture marks creates a tension, an imperfection, that causes the viewer to pause and reconsider his initial reaction. This tension between delight and disappointment is fundamental to the human condition, especially in contemporary society where new gadgets--iPhones, tablets, microwave ovens, smart cars--are abundant. They satisfy our addiction to the "new", or appetite to own the latest innovations and inventions. At the same time, they confuse us and distract us from life's essentials. They disrupt our thought processes and our relationships, make it all the harder to meditate on more important themes and values.
In the Moment series, J Young brings together all these concerns, by both supplying us with artworks that mimic the look of the new while making us stop and contemplate what our expectations are from these new experiences. These are rigorous artworks, achieving a balance that is often absent from real life. It is the ultimate achievement of this artist that we are not confused or stymied by his efforts, that we can see quite clearly both sides of the dilemma that he is presenting to us to consider. As such, these are much more than mere abstractions. These are enigmas and puzzles that force us to sort out our contradictory feelings about our experiences in contemporary society.
These works are the ultimate summation of J Young's lifetime as an artist. It has taken him almost four decades to come up with a method of working that captures all he wants to say about nature and about human nature. Evoking a maturity, the artist possesses a fluency with his materials, knowing just when to make a crease or indentation, to disrupt the surface or leave it polished. We sense that these works are the products of capable hands. But they are even more so the product of a capable mind, acutely focused on his art-making and ideas, able to bring the two together in a single art work. As such, the artworks make us pause for a moment and reconsider our place in society and all the things that threaten our serenity. They make us know that "just for a moment," we are in the safe hands of a master.