Monochrome Sets You Free
By: Robert C. Morgan
I discovered the work of Ha Chonghyun in 2000 at an exhibition mounted at the Gwangju City Art Museum, curated by the art critic Yoon Jin Sup. Yoon’s exhibition revealed the ineluctable relationship between the Japanese Mono-ha artists and Dansaekhwa, the name given to the Korean Monochrome painters; the two groups worked parallel to one another in the late 1960s and ’70s. While I understood Ha’s work on an intuitive level at the time of the exhibition, it was not until my visit to the artist’s studio in the winter of 2008 that I began to fully grasp the depth of his earlier burlap and barbed-wire paintings, not only as signs of military repression made evident during the late 1970s, but also as spiritual works focused on transformation and resistance that could be read as icons of the human condition.
Ha’s gritty, earth-toned paintings — a selection of which are currently on view at Blum & Poe — hold a sense of completeness in their formal confrontation and affect. They share a measure of exorbitant feeling often suggested by Abstract Expressionism, specifically the radical Elegies of Robert Motherwell and the chromatic insurgencies emanating from Newman and Rothko. Here I found a Korean counterpart, or perhaps an extension, of issues in nonobjective painting that emanated over a historical continuum, from Seoul to New York and from New York to Seoul over the course of decades. Ha’s paintings, uniformly titled Conjunctions, propose a kind of aesthetic experience, a qualitative leap into an epic momentum, referencing both spiritual and secular impulses along the way.
The Conjunctions, which span the mid-1970s to 2009, transmit a message that exceeds the limits of either formalism or nationalism. These eloquent works are pictorial expressions of a paradox that happens when an artist goes deeply within himself and makes contact with his own culture. One might say Ha has made himself “universal” through the act of painting and at the same time vigorously reinvented his Korean roots. His paintings employ a traditional technique used in the Chosun Dynasty (1392–1897) in which the pigments — in Ha’s work, the ochres and dark umbers — are pushed through the weave of the burlap and eventually linen from the opposite side, and then trowelled with a palette knife on the frontal surface. He is an artist who appears to work without trepidation, knowing that the more persuasively he paints, the more the world will return the favor. In this sense, the Conjunctions function as harbingers of a perennial consciousness, shared with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the compassionate Prajnaparamita sutra practiced by followers of Buddhism.
These scribbled, marked, and incised paintings are a challenge to consider the importance of our tactile sensations in discovering fulfillment within the cycles of nature. The force contained within these paintings is a vibrant one, directed toward those willing to contend with some kind of mediated posthuman reality on the verge of pushing us outside ourselves, thereby depriving our sense of awareness about how to live. This is the locus in which the Conjunctions intervene, the place where Ha’s terrestrial vision becomes a form of meditation. It is where the Conjunctions emit their healing power and where they connect us to art, not by conceptual anecdotes but through feelings. Ha’s densely textured surfaces of pulled paint reveal a stark, life-giving potential. His paintings seek solitude, a place where human beings are forced to contend with the deeper realities of nature. They are on the cusp of an indeterminate language, making an appeal for personal liberation in one form or another, even as Korea has emerged from its military past to the democracy and corporate leader it has become on the stage of a new world order.