Aside from “Please don’t touch,” it’s rare to see a warning posted in an art gallery. Perhaps, though, there should be more. For example, the exhibition of Oonju Chun this month as Phillips might fare better if there were a sign advising the viewer not to read the title cards. Of course not all viewers read them anyway, but consider the painting titled “S.T.O.P.” What’s that about? Every bit of oil on this canvas appears to be not just in motion, but positively dancing, pirouetting, sometimes reversing course and at others oscillating. But what about those periods between capital letters in the title? Aren’t they called “full stops?” Or what if it’s an acronym that we can look up? In fact, S.T.O.P. can stand for “Stop Throwing Out Pollutants.”
Clearly, this search can go on, perhaps forever, with nothing approaching proof of any right answer. But what does the artist herself have to say about it? In her statement, she expends over a hundred words, repeating herself in dazzling ways of saying that if there is any meaning to be found in her art, she didn’t put it there; it comes from the beholder. And she implies further that such a viewer is missing the point, which is not a meaning to be deciphered, but a pleasure to be taken.
To be sure, Chun’s painting is quite straightforward. In fact, she paints spontaneously, making marks instead of plans, then responding with another to the way each daub or stroke now strikes her. Once in the gallery, however, what follows, in the seemingly inevitable effort to talk about this process and its results, is a great irony. The response to such meaningless, while sensually and emotionally plangent, bodies of pleasurable, colorful gestures, is too often not what it’s supposed to be. While the artist calls for a response from the heart, audiences — and especially critics — are trained, and may in fact have pre-selected themselves, for this way of behaving: to respond from the head. We may wonder what a painter so opposed to planning or attempting to visually create meaning would think of a response like that of 15 Bytes celebrated intellectual critic, the late and much-missed Ehren Clark, whose review reads today like a page of academic philosophy.
Just as mainstream artists were presumed to draw from, and simultaneously to react against, the generations that preceded them, thereby hoping to take their place in the continuum of art history, so Clark set out, in a review published in 15 Bytes in March of 2014, to align his reply to Chun with the daunting, late Modernist criticism of Clement Greenberg, Yve-Alain Bois, and Rosalind Krauss. These three are exemplars of the theoretical-explanation school of art appreciation. For example, Greenberg believed that paintings are flat objects that will achieve their purpose if ever they become truly flat: not just as flat as stretched canvas, but as images containing no illusion of depth or roundness. What, we may ask, would he have made of paintings done on skateboard decks: paintings that not only are not flat, but invite the viewer to imagine them being propelled at asphalt level through the streets of the city?
Chun studied with Douglas Snow, Paul Davis and Sam Wilson, but paints nothing like them. In fact, it’s unlikely any artists currently on view in Utah are seriously trying to attach their reputations to the coattails of an earlier generation of their peers. It wasn’t painting that died in the twentieth century; it was predictive art criticism. Among the many things they failed to anticipate were, first, the rise of multi-media art: art that cannot uniquely fulfill its destiny as a painting any more than as a sculpture, a ceramic, a textile, or any other medium limited by its unique qualities. And second, they couldn’t even imagine the determination of artists to see their work fulfill a social function. Every artist belongs to several communities: cultural, ethnic, spiritual, political, and so on. The same goes for arts media: murals, graffiti, stickers, buttons, clothing, and so many more move freely back and forth between the gallery and the street. This freedom is spoken of highly by Chun, as a product of her studio practice even as other artists also seek a success not limited to their individual benefit.
It may be that Oonju Chun benefitted from having grown up immersed in Korean culture, which was jump-started after the war that split her country and liberated the South to grow into an industrial and creative giant. In recent decades Korean movies, television, music, technology, and cuisine hit this country like a giant breath of fresh air: just the sort of new approaches that can shake up a fraying nation caught in cultural stagflation. Utah has been particularly favored in the number of Korean artist emigres who have chosen to live and work here, but of course it’s their successful integration into an already rich and diverse artistic community that allows them to cross-fertilize in such a seamless fashion.
Oonju Chun, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 13