A resplendent exhibition at Blum & Poe introduces Los Angeles viewers to the first internationally known group of contemporary artists from South Korea.
Beginning in the 1960s, these six artists zeroed in on the basics of painting: the materials a painter uses to build a composition (oil, canvas, pencil and paper) and the things he does with them (scrawl, stamp, stab, stain, squeeze and scrape).
The results are magnificent: quietly gorgeous abstractions that hide nothing behind their deliberately worked surfaces yet remain deeply moving.
The power of these paintings resides in the way they lay everything out there, for every viewer to see clearly, while simultaneously conveying the wisdom that individuals, at their very best, merely scratch the surface of life's infinite mysteries.
That combination of sharp focus, great purpose and even greater humility makes these paintings look as fresh as the day they were made and, in their emphasis on face-to-face experience, profoundly out of step with the tiny screens and keyboards that define so much of modern life.
Organized by guest curator and scholar Joan Kee, "From All Sides: Tansaekhwa on Abstraction" is six solo shows wrapped into one eye-opening exhibition. Tansaekhwa can be translated as Korean monochrome painting. As in the U.S., South America and Europe, its artists are not purists: Few of their works consist of a single shade and none loves reductionism for its own sake.
Instead, subdued palettes of creamy whites, sandy tans, hazy grays and inky blacks invite viewers to sense subtle differences in tone, tint and temperature, not to mention texture, atmosphere and density. Expansiveness, not limitation, is the goal. Restraint and patience, along with perseverance, open up the possibility of unforeseen freedom.
The size of the exhibition is perfect: Its 41 works, all made from 1973 to 1985, are evenly distributed among its six painters, each in a single gallery. Visual links are made deftly and efficiently, neither belabored nor made a mess of by overreaching.
Creation and destruction, or making a mark and obliterating it, come together in many of the paintings. Park Seobo uses a pencil to scribble into layers of wet paint, carving out sharp indentations and leaving the residue to fall where it may. Kwon Young-woo stabs and slices big sheets of paper, combining, on the cut and punctured surfaces of his works, the delicacy of snowflakes and the violence of gunshots.
Chung Sang-hwa applies paint in a way that makes it look like as if it had been peeled off, its craggy shapes forming irregular patterns that bespeak willfulness and surrender.
Time, and the way humans mark its passage, also plays a major role. Lee Ufan makes his sequential compositions by filling a brush with paint or glue and pressing it gently to his canvases until it no longer makes a mark. Yun Hyongkeun stains paint into the weave of raw fabrics, creating mesmerizing collisions between fullness and emptiness, figure and ground, matter and void.
Ha Chonghyun turns space inside out. Using rough, loosely woven canvas as if it were a silkscreen, he pushes paint through the surfaces of his works from behind. Sometimes the paint barely protrudes, like a seedling pushing its way out of the soil. At other points it accumulates, like mineral deposits on the walls of caves or valleys.
The capacity to make the most of the smallest of spaces defines these artists, their times and their attitude toward life. Assuming nothing and expecting less, their works are not plagued by the sense of entitlement that undermines so much contemporary art. Instead, their DIY, between-the-cracks approach to art-making embodies a kind of independent generosity that never grows old.
You could say that makes their art timeless. But that's too grandiose a word for their salt-of-the-earth works.