Seung Yul Oh

Starkwhite, Auckland
February 2006

The energetic and exuberant playfulness of emerging artist Seung Yul Oh has been hard to ignore in recent years. Fresh out of art school, he has quickly become a precocious, energetic and unpredictable presence. His quirky solo projects, collaborations and contributions to group shows have appeared in all manner of alternative spaces around Auckland, from artist-run galleries to car-parks to page-works in glossy magazines.

Oh is a self-confessed obsessive doodler and has an improvisational ethic permeating all aspects of his practice, so it was little surprise to find in Artspace’s 2005 new artists survey, Compelled, which showcased a group of emerging artists for whom making is a compulsion. Oh’s work emphatically occupied the main room, responding to the gallery’s hard-edged white cube with large, goopy dollops of candy-coloured polyurethane foam and plaster. For his master’s gradate exhibition at the end of 2005, the large rocking plywood crescent named ‘Twiddle Twigs’ was an even more lurid presence, with its bright orange veneer and sleek retro-minimalist geometry upstaging the coy shonkiness of most student work.

 ‘Twiddle Twigs’ made a return appearance in CHEW CHEW Tongue, Oh’s first solo dealer show. Placed in the window of upmarket gallery StarkWhite, this could easily be mistaken for corporate plaza art, but a photo in the local paper of Oh riding the sculpture like a see-saw quickly deflates any airs of ostentation.

It is this playfulness that is at the core of Oh’s prolific practice. The incessant doodling evident in his paintings may recall the anthropomorphic mind games of the surrealists and abstract expressionists, but it is the creative act itself that interests Oh, not some manifestation of the inner psyche. For Oh, every gesture involves a creative decision, including eating and excreting. It is this (usually concealed) messy transformation of art-making that he enjoys exposing most, and this explains the recurring motif of intestinal tracts.

In 1962 Robert Indiana produced his ‘Eat/Die’ painting. Such a succinct and profound statement seems too definitive to trump but, whereas Indiana cuts to the chase and takes us from A-to-B, Oh is more interested in the journey. Oh’s work is more about the process than the concept; life as a creative act—I eat, I learn, I make stuff, I shit. It’s in the execution, not the result; the artisan, not the idea.

A creative process familiar to us all, digestion is a fundamental process of human life—the ultimate quotidian process—but it still involves decision-making. To put the abject into more formal terms, it is about input and output, materials and extrusion strategies: accompanying an ambiguous image of multi-coloured muck in a recent issue of Pavement magazine, Oh included a statement about the results of eating different flavours of ice-cream.

Like the internal mechanics Oh is fond of revealing, this is the constant process of studio practice made public. A combination of materials that may work one day can easily mutate into a new idea the next, so it is not unusual to find works from previous shows reconstituted into new forms. Little wonder then that after two weeks Oh decided to reconfigure his StarkWhite exhibition, positioning the main elements in a single axis and removing most of the rest to the office.

There is an undeniable boyish humour in Oh’s interests, which tap into the ceaseless imagination of childhood; of sticks and snails and sticky messes and exploded toys glued together in strange configurations. For a child, inflating balloons is like second nature, and it is not much of a conceptual leap to imagine a mop as a maggoty monster or the large box-like structure titled ‘Equivocate’ as an upright beast, even without the ubiquitous pair of eye-holes.

The apparently unaffected joy of Oh’s making results in a humour that defies the earnestness of expressionism and dares us to equate his scatological infantilism with Freudian analysis. This is Oh the prankster who, by simply wrapping the gallery’s central poles in black polythene to conceal a fan, can create a shimmering kinetic installation that can rival the most intricate feats of engineering.

As an earlier video work (in which people inflate balloons until they burst) ‘The Ability to Blow Themselves Up’ confirms, the sincerity of a startled response—for the artist and the viewer—is an important result. The show’s title invokes a similar theme; a reference to Duke Ellington’s Chew Chew Bubblegum, it reminds that even mastication can have its surprises. However, it should also be noted that there are more prosaic motives at play—the artist has said that the word tongue, in Korean and English, is similar to dung, which becomes a proposition for an unexpected mouthful.

Post script: By the time this goes to print Oh will have completed a large installation for the Auckland Art Gallery. It will be interesting to see the results of working in such a controlled environment, where every move needs to be planned and quantified well in advance for the purposes of budgeting, insurance and other infrastructural inconveniences. Barely thirty years after conceptual and post-object art first challenged the institutional practices of these exact same spaces, it is good to have Oh reaffirming the contingent nature of creativity.