Divisions on a ground

Fri, 23/02/2018 - 06:52 -- eyeline
A critical meditation on Chung Sang-Hwa: Seven Paintings

The Korean born artist Chung Sang-Hwa’s solo exhibition, Seven Paintings at the Lévy Gorvy Gallery in London comprises a series of recently produced works, each measuring approximately 130 x 97cm, whose ‘white’ monochrome gridded surfaces have been realised through sustained additions, subtractions, re-applications and sgraffito-like scorings of acrylic paint on canvas. The resulting nuanced colour/tonal variations and ‘crunchy’ textures of Chung’s work are drawn out to some effect by the colour of the gallery’s walls, which have been painted an almost vanishingly contrasting light greyish-white. Despite their initially starkly monochromatic appearances and resistance to exact photographic reproduction on the Gallery’s website, when viewed at first hand Chung’s paintings reveal themselves, over time, as visually complex and aesthetically compelling. They are formally reminiscent of works by the internationally better known minimalist painters Robert Ryman 2 and Agnes Martin, 3 and in particular a series of grid paintings produced by the latter during the 1960s. However, when viewed in relation to the historical circumstances of painting in East-Asia their significances can be understood to diverge from those conventionally associated with western minimalism.

Chung Sang-Hwa was born in Yeongdeok, Gyeongsangbuk-do, Korea in 1932 and graduated from the oil painting department of Seoul National University in 1956; after which he adopted the assemblage-like informel style of abstract painting—a localised variant of European taschisme—then prevalent among progressive artists in South Korea. Chung moved to Paris in 1967 before relocating to Kobe, Japan, where, as the pamphlet accompanying the exhibition indicates, ‘his distinctive process of the repeated application and removal of paint from the canvas was conceived and refined’.4

In 1992, Chung returned to South Korea, establishing a studio in Gyeonggi Province where he continues to live and work. He is a leading member of the loose-knit art collective known as the Monochrome Painting Group (Tansaekhwa), active in South Korea since the early 1970s. As the exhibition pamphlet also indicates, together this group developed a ‘blending of tradition and innovation’ that not only has intellectual/practical ‘ties to Minimalism’, but also ‘Taoism [sic], Neo-Confucianism, and Buddhism’.

A desire to combine the formal innovation of western modernism with traditional East-Asian cultural thought and practice has not only been an aspect of the work of artists from East Asia and related diaspora, but also European, North American and other western artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Yves Klein, Brice Marden and Bill Viola. Chung’s work is thus part of a trans-cultural tendency that seeks to mediate artistic practice as an expression of modernity through East-Asian cultural perspectives.

Artists from east and west have sought to align themselves with East-Asian cultural thought and practice—including that associated with Daoism, Confucianism, Chan/Zen Buddhism and the Korean variant of Zen known as Daam—because of their perceived consonance with notions of transformative transcendentalism and otherness espoused from its very beginnings by western high-modernism (specifically, the work of Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich). In the particular case of artists from East Asia this alignment also imputes continuity with traditional modes of artistic practice and therefore localised cultural identities. Historically ink and brush painting and poetry/calligraphy in East Asia have been strongly informed by notions of aesthetic resonance, spontaneity and meditative non-desiring definitive of a combination of Confucian thought with that of Daoism and Buddhism. A blending of western modernism with East-Asian cultural tradition consequently carries with it traces of localised cultural differences resistant to the hegemony of a purely western modernity.

Chung primes his canvases with water soluble glue size to which he adds Kaolin clay; a combination that provides the artist with a surface durable/malleable enough to accept repeated scoring and scraping. The grid patterns of Chung’s paintings are first drawn on the reverse of the canvas support. He then folds the canvas before stripping ‘the hardened material [size] from the surface in narrow bands’. He subsequently ‘fills the [resulting] segments of bare canvas with acrylic paint’.5 On the basis of this studied preparation Chung is able to pursue an extended process described by the critic Oh Kwang-Su as ‘taking off/removing and re-painting’,6 resulting in resolutely non-expressive multi-layered surfaces. While those surfaces are at first sight unforgivingly monochromatic (with the variegated imposition of sgraffito-like grids), on extended looking, they give rise to a multitude of subtly differing tones/hues susceptible to shifting perceptions in relation to changing conditions of light and proximity—white is never simply made white (on the day of our visit to the gallery Chung’s paintings at times took on a distinctly blueish caste). His non-expressive accretive approach may be interpreted as culturally resonant with Buddhist meditative practices used as a means of achieving enlightenment through suspension of the desiring self; a reading also applicable to the work of other Korean painters, such as Yun Hyong-Keun, and supported by gallerist Dominique Lévy’s description of Chung’s patient application of technique as ‘a modality of being with the world rather than acting upon it’ that is both ‘meditative and physical’,7 as well as a further description of Chung’s paintings in the exhibition catalogue as involving a ‘long engagement with ritual and process’.8

Arguably, what is also crucial to a localised understanding of Chung’s work is the concept of qiyun shendong (vital energy resonance engendering a sense of life), historically considered the defining desideratum of traditional Chinese ink and brush and, by extension, other technically related forms of East-Asian landscape painting. The term qiyun shendong was first established in the fifth century by the Chinese historian Xie He in the preface to his book The Record of the Classification of Old Painters, as one of ‘six principles to consider when judging a painting’ (huihua liufa), the other five of which are: ‘Bone Method’ (Gufa yongbi), referring both to the physical quality of brush strokes as well as to their significance as indexes of a painter’s personality; ‘Correspondence to the Object’ (Yingwu xiangxing), depiction of form in terms of shape and line; ‘Suitability to Type’ (Suilei fucai), application of colour; ‘Division and Planning’ (Jingying weizhi), formal composition and its relationship to the depiction of space and depth; and ‘Transmission by Copying’ (Chuanyi moxie), learning through copying from life and paintings by past masters. Qiyun shendong combines the notion of yun (resonance) as a locus of pictorial-symbolic representation involving a sequential-interactive relay between nature and artist, artist and artwork, and artwork and viewer first set out by the neo-Daoist Confucian philosopher Wang Bi during the early Six Dynasties period (220–589) with that of qi (literally ‘breath’) upheld by pre-Daoist and Daoist texts as the cosmological condition of the possibility of all being. As Zhang Dainian makes clear, qi, which supposedly manifests itself through an entirely spontaneous (natural) interaction between cosmic opposites signified by the pairing yin-yang—respectively that which turns receptively away from the light (female principle) and that which turns assertively towards the light (male principle)—is conventionally understood as having no absolutely definitive ontology.

In popular parlance qi is applied to the air we breathe, steam, smoke and all gaseous substances. The philosophical use of the term underlines the movement of qi. Qi is both what really exists and what has the ability to become. To stress one at the expense of the other would be to misunderstand qi. Qi is the life principle but is also the stuff of inanimate objects. As a philosophical category qi originally referred to the existence of whatever is of a nature to change. The meaning is then expanded to encompass all phenomena, both physical and spiritual. It is energy that has the capacity to become material objects while remaining what it is. It thus combines ‘potentiality’ with ‘matter’. To understand it solely as ‘potentiality’ would be wrong, just as it cannot be translated simply as ‘matter’.9

In short (and at risk of undue abstraction), qi is a non-rationally intuited condition of reciprocal interaction (resonance) between ‘being’ and ‘non-being’ that is simultaneously categorically neither and both as well as continually open to transformation while remaining in some sense resolutely unchanging. As Jason Kuo explains, the Chinese term ‘Kong (emptiness), a synonym of xu, is often regarded as the appropriate mental preparation for artistic creation’. Kuo goes on to quote not only the poet Sushi, who states ‘[i]f you wish to make the words of your poetry subtle and miraculous, never tire of emptiness and stillness’, but also the poet Lu Ji, who asserts, ‘[w]e [poets] struggle with Non-being (xu wu) to yield being (you); we knock upon silence for an answering Muse.’10 In other words, as the central principle of traditional East-Asian painting qiyun shendong can be understood to correspond with a wider cosmological metaphysics of supposedly spontaneous non-desiring creativity.

Such thinking has undeniable structural affinities with the similarly non-rational Derridean conception of différance as a pervasively deconstructive locus of the possibility of all linguistic signification, insofar as both envisage continual interaction between otherwise opposing terms as a condition for articulations of being. However, it is important to grasp that while différance can be understood to demonstrably suspend all supposedly authoritative meanings through its non-rational actions, qi is party to an ultimately metaphysical cosmology and therefore the two should not be conflated. Oh Kwang-Su states that, in South Korea ‘[d]econstruction and experimentation with materials were the rage during the early seventies’ and that ‘they were supplanted by the Monochrome Movement with its sharp focus on the problem of structuring the plane’.11 It is therefore possible to register not only a desire on the part of the Monochrome Painting Group to secede from a then dominant western avant-garde’s deconstructive use of collage-montage/assemblage12 and, indeed, non-figuration (as Yves-Alain Bois has argued, the resolutely non-figurative works of Robert Ryman can be interpreted as involving an extreme post-Greenbergian self-reflexivity that effectively derails any settled interpretation13), but one that in focusing ‘sharply’ on pictorial construction involves a reversion to the traditional principles of Gufa yongbi and Jingying weizhi. Moreover, although Chung’s work clearly deviates from traditional modes of East-Asian ink and brush painting in terms of its decided non-figuration, use of modern materials and demurral from any overt personal expression associated historically with Gufa yongbi, there is an abiding sense, in relation to its openness to shifting interpretation and a consequent engendering of complex aesthetic feeling, of a trace relationship both to a meditative relinquishing of self and to the reciprocal principles signified by the combination of qi and yun.

From the perspective of deconstructivist theory/practice this reversion to tradition is necessarily to be placed under suspension (sous-rature) as unduly metaphysical; as are assertions of any essential correspondences between traditional Chinese ink and brush painting and a civilization-specific East-Asian cultural identity/habitus. It is nevertheless possible to uphold the durable relevance of traditional thought and practice to an understanding of painting in East-Asian cultural contexts; that is to say its ineluctably deconstructive differing from-deferral to (différance from-to) traces of prior linguistic significance. As a consequence, in addressing the significances of Chung’s work we are left to shuttle between two structurally similar but ultimately differing interpretative frameworks.

Chung Sang-Hwa: Seven Paintings. Installation view, Lévy Gorvy, London, 2017.

Chung Sang-Hwa: Seven Paintings. Installation view, Lévy Gorvy, London, 2017.

Chung Sang-Hwa: Seven Paintings. Installation view, Lévy Gorvy, London, 2017.

Chung Sang-Hwa: Seven Paintings. Installation view, Lévy Gorvy, London, 2017.


1. The term ‘division on a ground’ as part of sixteenth and seventeenth century European music composition refers to constructions of successively higher and faster parts onto a repeating bass-line. The term is paraphrased here as analogous with Chung Sang-Hwa’s accretive painterly technique. As such it is intended to signify the openness of Chung’s painting to shifting cultural perspectives. A further relay of associations is implied in relation to the contemporary composer Michael Nyman’s interpolation of the compositional device of division on a ground—as exemplified by the seventeenth century composition Another Division upon a Ground by Mr. P.B. (presumed to be Paul Banister)—into his soundtrack to Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), a quasi-deconstructive meditation on the uncertain significance of visual perception/representation. An associative rhyming of (Michael) Nyman with (Robert) Ryman extends that relay still further with regard to Chung’s ‘minimalist’ approach.
2. Robert Storr et al., Robert Ryman, Tate, London and Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993.
3. Frances Morris and Tiffany Bell eds., Agnes Martin, Tate, London, 2015.
4. Pamphlet accompanying the exhibition, Chung Sang–Hwa: Seven Paintings, Lévy Gorvy Gallery, London, 2017, not paginated.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Dominique Lévy, Chung Sang–Hwa, ex. cat. Greene Naftali, New York, 2016, p.7.
8. Anon., Chung Sang–Hwa: Seven Paintings, ex. cat., Levy Gorvy Gallery, London, 2017, p.7.
9. Zhang Dainian, Key Concepts in Chinese Philosophy, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing and Yale University Press, New Haven CN and London, 2002, pp.45-46.
10. Jason Kuo, ‘Emptiness – Substance: Xushi’, in Martin. J, Powers and Katherine R. Tsiang (eds.), A Companion to Chinese Art, Wiley Blackwell, Oxford, 2016, p.331.
11. Oh Kwang-Su, ‘Pure Plasticity-the Art of Lee Seung-jio’, in Chung Moon-jo (ed), Lee Seung-jio, ex. cat., Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, 1996, p.18.
12. Gregory L. Ulmer, ‘The Object of Post-Criticism’, in Foster, Hal (ed), Postmodern Culture, Pluto Press, London, 1985, pp.83-110.
13. Yves-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 1991, p.16.

Chung Sang–Hwa: Seven Paintings, was shown at Lévy Gorvy Gallery, London
24 May – 17 August 2017. See https://www.levygorvy.com/exhibitions/chung-sang-hwa-seven-paintings/

Lynne Howarth-Gladston is an artist, curator and independent scholar with a PhD in critical theory from the University of Nottingham. She has exhibited her painting internationally. Paul Gladston is Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures and Critical Theory and Director of the Centre for Contemporary East-Asian Cultural Studies at the University of Nottingham. He has written widely on contemporary Chinese art.