FROM IMAGE TO SUBSTANCE:
THOUGHTS ON EUNKYUNG LEE’S META-PAINTINGS
Hye Jin Mun
WHILE SEEKING TO COMPREHEND INTERNALITIES OF OBJECTS IN THEIR UNFOLDING, YOU REMAIN CONTENT IN OBSERVING THEIR EXTERNALITIES. YOU CLING TO THE SHELL WHILE YEARNING TO TASTE THE MARROW.1
As Maurice Denis famously noted, we should remember that first and foremost, a painting is essentially a flat surface covered with harmoniously arranged colors before perceiving it as a horse in the battlefield, a nude woman, or even an anecdote. As history demonstrates, the focus of artistic interpretation has gradually shifted from the “what to paint” to the “how to paint”. The long-standing debate over whether to prioritize representation or non- representation may, in this regard, be understood as perspectival conflict regarding the prioritization of content over form or vice versa, which in turn shows how artists have ardently inquired into the medium with respect to the definition of painting. Whether one favors theme, or compositional elements such as lines, colors, planes, or rhythm, there exists a point that is often and universally overlooked; while a painting may be an anecdote or a plane of color combinations, it is first and foremost a compilation of paint, applied to a foundational surface. Materiality has, of course, been a central concern; for instance, Clement Greenberg advocated an extreme form of materialism, insisting that purity in art means willingly embracing the limitations of each medium and as such the originality of paintings must be attributed to the inviolable planarity of the painted surface, the tangibility of oil paint, and the material of the supporting plane. However, even Greenberg neglected to highlight the material foundations that produce the planarity of abstract color fields of paintings – in other words, the raw materials of paint.
TEMPERA AS META-PAINTING
Eunkyung Lee’stempera work, since 2008, is an experiment that reinstates substance as the focal point of media exploration. Substance has always been key to practical production, but its importance has been largely overlooked of late. Her paintings, with their focus on substances that precede the image – or more specifically, substances (pigment and medium) that create the colors, are meta-paintings that return to and explore the most fundamental constituents of paintings. To this end, the artist summons the tempera, which is now seldom used due to its unwieldiness and slow pace, back into the folds of contemporaneity. Tempera painting involves the use of powdered pigments, mixed into egg yolks. Since the yolk is the main medium, the resultant paint is hardly durable, prone to spoiling or degeneration. The range of color availability is also limited due to the lack of demands and difficulty of preservation – as such, one must personally produce necessary paints with pigments in order to generate the kinds of colors in need. Because tempera tends to be unpliable, it can neither be spread out smoothly nor stacked to created thick materiality. Still, due to its superior chromatic impact, far exceeding that of watercolor, tempera endured until oil paint on canvas became mainstream in the 16th century.2
Lee may have chosen tempera because “the finished, dried end product’s color comes ever-closer to the original pigment’s color, facilitating the prediction of the final hue.”3 Given that her ultimate objective is to experiment with the “pictorial event, generated by colors as a sculptural substance with proper mass and texture,” the tempera technique adequately serves her need to ensure maximum proximity to the pigment’s chromatic feel.4 Indeed, my experience that tentatively produces tempera paint at the artist’s studio using materials such as lapis lazuli (mineral), cochineal lake (insect), and realgar (mineral) proved that mineral paint retained the texture of the particles, which could be literally felt in the process of mixing and applying the paint, while animal or plant-based paint had finer grains that allowed for a more even and deep development of the hues. If the pictorial event Lee aims for is to reveal the comprehensive sense that comes from the substance by “fully absorbing the texture of the grains that get caught at knife or brush-point” while creating and applying the paint, tempera is an optimum material for her type of meta painting.5
MATERIAL AND IMAGE
As any artist would know, the property of an image or the techniques used to create it are dependent upon the materials.6 The subjects and techniques applied to draw a fast-drying acrylic painting drastically differ from those suitable for slow-drying oil paintings. In the same vein, the materiality of the substances in Lee’s tempera also affect the conceptualization or characteristics of the images. Collected Samples (2010-2011, 2013) series, which precede this exhibition, consist of everyday images collected from fliers, magazines, the streets on to round canvases that resemble sample plates. Since the objects are taken from the surface of actual items such as packaging papers or labels, the images are figurative and the forms are – albeit partially – still discernable. Since then, Lee has been scratching the surfaces of her works by sandpapering the canvas or engaging in performative feats such as pushing the canvas around the floor with participants’ feet. The canvas, cracked and deformed like graffiti or the surface of a skateboard, gestures back to tempera’s fragile materiality -inelastic and unendurable, easily succumbing to impact. As another critic had noted, the physical vulnerability of the material ruptures the representative structure, attesting to the fragility of the illusion.7
Since then, her work has shifted away from figurative images, focusing more on the surface of paintings and the essence of images. The Matters Considered Out
Of Place (2018) series, introduced at the exhibition PHARMAKON (THISWEEKENDROOM, 2018), demonstrates the full extent of a technique wherein layered paint is exposed through sandpapering process. Legible forms and illegible abstractions coexist, with two disparate dimensions (a representative image versus an abstract image that instantiates its own materiality) made of identical materials interface. The process of transition from one dimension to another is also interrelated to artist’s transition from figuration to abstraction.8
The six pieces in her Eclipse series, presented at the current exhibition PLACEHOLDER (PLACE MAK, 2020), showcase the current state of Lee’s work in full-fledged abstraction. As she uses three to four layers of paint to generate a single hue, stacking up at least thirty colors, each of the pieces comprise scores of tempera color layers. In her later works, Lee scratches out the color layers using different sandpapers of different textures. Sandpapering is an act of reversal, “digging into, or behind surfaces that usually protrude forward or upward.”9 Her work presents the transformation of abstract forms, dependent upon the strength and direction of grinding, the order and method of color stacking, and the area and depth of the scratched surface. For instance, the area and direction of the surface exposed by sandpapering in A Half (2018) converge upon the points of the polygon; the correspondence between form and exposed color planes is a new development that cannot be found in her past productions. This tendency to transform abstract sense into physical form can also be seen in other works. In Basil(2018), wherein she uses the infinity symbol to represent the unwavering vitality of basil plants in the height of summer heat, the area and depth of the exposed paint layers become wider and deeper as they approach the cusp (the concentration point of energy) where the bell shapes interface. Meanwhile, she also conducts experiments in which the same form evolves into different abstract expressions through discrete grinding techniques. Déjà vu (2019) embodies distinction and repetition through identical yet different, and different yet identical forms by grinding out identical forms into different shapes, while A Half, a diptych piece forming a set, capitalizes on the formal characteristics of the canvases (one whole when connected, but discrete objects when separated). Here, she maintains the same paint layers when the canvases are attached, and applies distinctive grinding techniques when they are separated, connecting the formal transition to a qualitative difference in the images with diverging colors and formal expression.
The Eclipse series minimize brush techniques, color or formal conversions that often serve as key factors in oil paintings. In the pieces, the brush is merely a tool for uniformly applying a color plane, and the artist’s own interpretation or interference is held at bay. The technique of reserving expression and simply stacking up color planes is the result of embracing tempera’s materiality. Drying faster than oil paint and forming a relatively solid layer, tempera paint is naturally conducive to stacking, facilitating the process of grinding out layers. The transition from tempera to oil paint during the Renaissance period was, in this vein, due to the fact that oil paint was better suited for glazing or impasto techniques, if the coagulation process was properly controlled, allowing for a natural shading effect and texture expression.10 Oil paint and canvas combined, which respectively helped artists demonstrate their artistry through splendid brushstrokes and ensured the mobility of the resultant product, the history of art clearly shifts its focus from “what one paints with” or even “what one paints” to “how one paints.” In this light, the minimization of brushstrokes and the illusion of imagery in the Eclipse series can be understood as an archeological discovery that redirects artistic attention from technique or concept to material and substance.
SUBSTANTIVE IMAGINATION AND INTIMATE TIME
Tempera, for which all the paint must be personally produced by the artist, is ultimately an exploration of coloring pigments. Working on tempera over years, Lee studied various natural pigments and organized a chronology of the history, characteristics, raw material, and chemical composition of the varied colors.11 Pigments for black paint alone range over a wide spectrum of materials, including minerals(soot, volcanic glass), animal(squid ink) and plant-based elements(grape seeds). These colors display subtle yet distinctly unique differences in their hue and texture, which cannot be readily found in other kinds of paint. The black hue of grape seed charcoal displays a bluish tone, while squid ink produces a semi-transparent black hue with a tinge of fishy odor. Gazing upon, touching, and feeling the colors nature offers, Lee contemplates on Nature’s time and marvels at the infinite potential of the substances: “I reconstruct the present, creating paint with fresh organic materials every day, slowly layering the colors and repeating the process of scratching and grinding them out. By doing so, I incessantly intervein internal and natural times in the form of artistic language, record the phenomena unfolding within myself in the shape of colors, and continue to reflect on their significance.”12
Lee’s words, implying a near-religious degree of self- discipline, is reminiscent of Wolfgang Laib’s attitude. Laib’s work, wherein he uses purely organic materials such as dandelion pollen, milk, rice, and beeswax, is a ritualistic process from start to finish – from collecting the materials to actual production. The process of harvesting only four to six bottles of pollen after six full months of toil, then sifting this hard-earned yield and spreading them over the gallery floor in thin layers, is a reverent ritual of expressing humility and surrendering himself to nature. Through the pollen, which embodies the artist’s prolonged efforts and discipline but also symbolizes the origin of life that fosters the next generation, the viewers are presented with the timeless flow of nature and sense spiritual forces nestled within concrete objects. With her tempera, Lee also experiences the abundant and delicate colors arising from natural materials, drawn into reflections where “natural time and internal phenomena become intertwined.”13 Having accompanied paintings since the beginning of history, the archeological time of pigments intersects with the present time of the artist as she senses the hues of the colors, while the temporality of slow and arduous endurance, through the process of repetitively applying, drying and restacking various color planes, interfaces with the viewers’ temporality of presentness as they instantly sense the resultant painting. This nonlinear temporality, whereat past, present, and future are interwoven, is at once Benjamin’s dialectic time of creative transcendence and Bergson’s time of cosmic duration.
Lee’s approach, entering the time of substance to create colors by moving beyond image and form, is none other than Bachlard’s substantive imagination in its aspiration
to the abyss hidden within the physical images beneath their surface: “working people are not restrained to ‘the surface of objects’. He dreams of intimacy – as ‘profoundly’ as a philosopher. He pours the maximum amount of beeswax wood can absorb, while remaining wary of excess.”14 Strindberg saw the cosmic mystery nestled within the minuteness of objects in a walnut seed, and Francis Jammes discerned what lies beneath the surface through the foaming streams in the Pyrenes. Audiberti, meanwhile, felt the delicate darkness concealed underneath the whiteness of milk.15 Uniformly, they discovered the most detailed intimacy of substance, delving straight into their core. As the creator of Water (2018), which embodies the unique kinetics of tension that Lee observed in water, Lee also went beyond the surface of objects and penetrated their core, and as such could be seen as a dreamer.
Here, I would like to make a suggestion. Lee’s work began with her exploration of pigments and progressed toward abstraction, moving away from instantaneous images and instead diving into pure sensations. Perhaps, by deepening the connection between the intimacies of observed objects as the origin of the abstract images and the intimacies of pigments that visualize them, a new path to yet another field of profound imagination may open up. This because, unlike Armadillo (2019), a three-dimensional piece that generates wind along the patterns of maple seeds attached to a spherical shape, explorations of the pigments and the abstractions in her paintings remain separate, practicing her substantive imagination in disparate manners. Should these be brought together, the intimacy she pursues, with which she reaches out to primal archetypes by drilling all the way down to the core of the substance, will acquire a newfound force. Then, “just as the darkness between the stars rest on the celestial sphere, the night of minerality each of our hearts harbor” may ever deepen.16
1 Franz von Baader’s words from the following book. Clemente Susini, Thèse, vol. 1. p. 69. (re-cited from Gaston Bachlard, Earth and Reveries of Repose: An Essay on Images of Interiority, trans. Yeong Ran Jeong (Seoul: MunhakDongnae, 2005), p. 17.)
2 Chang Rim Jeon, Art Materials to Know before Drawing (Seoul: Art Culture, 2014), p. 141.
3 Ibid., p. 141.
4 Artist’s Notes, 2019.
5 Artist’s Notes, 2019.
6 The process of oil painting tends to be slower with a stronger emphasis on brush strokes since it is easier to add on to or amend what one has already drawn, while acrylic paintings tend to favor techniques or subject matters that require speedy production and smooth texture because of quicker drying.
7 Sol Gu Choi,“Preface,” Mysterious Continuum(Seoul: THISWEEKENDROOM), 2017.
8 Here, the coexistence of two dimensions signify life and death, or also figuration and abstraction. “Fish guts rolling around on the sushi kitchen floor or a fox-fur muffler with a taxidermied fox give rise to an uncanny sensation of displacement, and push us to witness a living death, along with a death that has been granted yet another life.”Artist’s Notes, 2019.
9 Artist’s Notes, 2019.
10 Jeongmu Yang, “The Innovativeness of Italian Renaissance Paintings: Focusing on Materials and Techniques,” The Collected Essays of Korea National University of Arts, vol. 3 (Seoul: Korea National University of Arts, 2000), pp. 223-240.
11 This is Lee’s modification of Jo Volley’s The Pigment Timeline(2013-2014)
12 Artist’s Notes, 2019.
13 Artist’s Notes, 2019.
14 Gaston Bachlard, Earth and Reveries of Repose: An Essay on Images of Interiority, trans. Yeong Ran Jeong (Seoul: MunhakDongnae, 2005), p. 58.
15 Ibid., pp. 17-73.
16 Ibid., p. 39.