Oonju Chun (Phillips Gallery)

oonju the great

Even to the untrained, unknowing eye, the art of Uunju Chun has an appeal to it that registers along with a level of Asian influence, specifically, a harmony achieved in a Zen Buddhist state.  Although Chun is Southern Korean, she is not Buddhist, but it is undoubted that her Asian heritage has been an influence and much of the mystery and magic of her work can be attributed to this ancestry.  But Chun professes an ardent love for the purely abstract uniquely as a form of art singularly and always has. 


Chun says, “I have always, even at an early age, found abstract images to be more beautiful and powerful than objective images. It was a natural course that took me to paint the way I do.  It requires absolute creativity to form something that, in real visual natural surroundings, does not exit. This method allows me to create something from absolutely nothing.  I find this method of painting to be more challenging, but also much more satisfying.”


To ground the methodologies of Chun from the mysterious and the magical to the realms of art critical theory, a terse quotation from Rosalind Krauss proves most useful to guide us in our investigation to realms of reason.


“Modernism, that is the ‘mainstream’ evoked by the history of books–the most coherent version of which is Clement Greenberg’s, but there are others–is seen as progressing in a straight line from Manet to abstract expressionism and beyond. The modernist interpretation of modern art, which is an extraction that dares not speak its name, partakes above all in an ontological project: once art was liberated from the constraints of representation, it had to justify its existence as the search for its own essence.”


Rosalind Krauss & Yve-Alain Bois’s “Formless: A User’s Guide,” 2000.


This comment is just what the philosophical complexity of Chun’s abstraction hinges upon within the being of the utmost in sophisticated purity.  This is what the essence of her work is concentrated to, the “constraints of representation… to justify its existence as the search for its own essence,” when Chun states with a Kraussian-like search for truth; “I relinquish the responsibility to create meaning, however on a certain level, that is the most meaningful aspect of why I paint.” 


Says Chun, “I don’t want to make any statements with my painting.  I am not a conceptual painter, but a spontaneous, reactionary painter. When I paint, it is a purely spontaneous visual response to lines, colors and composition.  I am not thinking on a conceptual level and I love that. It is liberating and exhilarating. 


For the purity of Chun’s work to function literally on the same level as cited by Krauss, as an enduring Greenburgian process of Modernism, measurable in Chun’s work, this is manifest in the artificial linearity as opposed to natural non-linearity that is a singular focus as opposed to conceptual manipulation towards a realization of “justifying (its) existence as the search for (its own) essence.”  Quite simply put, this is art that is linear and without alternate construct, recognizing only itself, a mirror reflection, art that is for its own sake, purpose and utility.


When Chun paints a canapé that to many may look noisy, aggressive, loud, vociferous, while at the same time fecund, ripe, full, abundant, lush, rich, and piquant, they are mistaken.  Because there is no noise but silence.  There is no fecundity but formlessness and anyone who may think otherwise has not understood the essence of Chun’s work. 


Chun, how is your work, in its own unique way, essentially a reflection of itself?  Says Chun, “My images lack any conceptual consideration, one can say it is less complicated, rather, quite simple in its essence. I cannot explain the meaning of my work because I do not impose any.”  Chun’s work, without conceptual interference, is allowed a formlessness as introduced by Krauss, made demonstrative by looking in a different direction, and there, Chun’s formlessness shall resound with more security.


Chun, how do you wish, in your body of work, to engage with your own audience, as an artist?  “My paintings are totally devoid of meaning from its creator. I think that is why it works better at striking certain ‘raw’ emotions. The emotional response is direct and immediate.  It goes from my eyes to directly to my heart.  It does not require mental interpretation.  If a viewer feels the similar emotional sensibilities as I do, then, my paintings have spoken to them,” says Chun.


Only in the silence, only in the formlessness is this kind of relationship possible and thus the formlessness is demonstrated.  We have a work of utmost purity, without the hindrance of meaning, that is able to be communicated by its author with its audience on a level that is exact, given this purity, thus demonstrating a fulfillment of the measure of the kind of formlessness Krauss is speaking of in her book.  The self realized essence is discoverable in a relationship with an audience that answers back with the same essence that it expresses, a mirror image of itself.


Further demonstration is found in the lack of any kind of structuralism, which is the designation for meaning.  Structuralism allows for semiotics and semiotics creates binaries of meaning that shift from authenticating to a challenging of one to the other.  Without any kind of structural implications, without anything read as symbolism, semiotics are disqualified.  This does not have to mean literal figural icons, but any form of visual structural signifier such as contrast of light and dark, balance, tonality shift, paradigm shifts, binary shift, tonal rhythm and harmony, texture giving designation, repetition, anything centering the attention such as angularity or a centrifugal area such as a concentration or boldness.  Without structural signifiers of any kind, the stuff that abstract work is quite usually replete with, here, no occasion is given for the structure to arise, thus creating no grounds for semiotic relationships and the development of meaning.


Chun, if meaning is lacking in a state of formlessness in your work, what is the role, therefore, for emotional sensibilities?  Is there a role for emotional sensibilities?  “All art forms evoke emotion,” says Chun.  “You must feel a certain way when you see my work!”  Emotional reactions to abstract images are subjective.  They are subjective upon one’s own life experiences, cultural experiences, visual experiences, emotional sensibilities, etc.  My paintings become what each viewer gets out of it.”


Chun, how do you feel the ability to focus on your work for a show as prodigious as a solo show at Phillips Gallery has helped you develop as an artist and connect with it on a deeper level?  Says Chun; “I deal with self-doubt as an artist constantly, asking myself if my works are relevant in the current culture and how my viewers will react to my work and so on.   Having this show gives me a sense of affirmation about my work, that is, until I am faced with the next wave of angst and self-doubt.”


The opportunity to view a large body of Chun’s work has been a thrilling experience having been a long-time admirer of Chun and her abstraction.  Meeting and being able to discuss her work with her, being able to engage in a discourse between her and myself about her art, which impresses me so greatly, was an experience I shall never forget and Chun is most certainly one of Salt Lake City’s very best abstractionists.  The lesson I learned from Chun, something I knew but was able to define in her work, was the honor in the noble tradition manifest today in Utah’s contemporary abstraction, everything from Mark Slusser’s pein air painting to the total formlessness of Chun herself.  This is where the intelligence to make great art is found, this is where the mind is required to create understanding from formlessness. 





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