Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

When Gesture Finds Its Power: Yona & JinMan Jo in Logan

Exhibition Review: Logan
When Gesture Finds Its Power: Yona & JinMan Jo in Logan
by Frank McEntire
Two artists, natives of Korea and now Assistant Professors at institutions in Utah are featured in this exhibition at the Nora Harrison Eccles Museum of Art through April 30.
chunji-changjo (heaven and earth):
The “Creation” Paintings of Yona (Hyunmee Lee)
“My approach to painting is without restraint. I use color, shape and gesture to express human identity with the absence of figures. The freedom I have in my work reflects the freedom I also feel in my own life.” – YonaWhat once was considered avant-garde, even radical, had become a conventional way of art making by the time Yona, formerly Hyunmee Lee, began to devise her approach as an abstract painter. The ambitious artist, born in Seoul, Korea, in 1961, received her undergraduate degree at the College of Fine Arts, Hong-Ik University in Seoul. She then studied for six years at the University of Sydney, completing two advanced degrees before returning to Korea in 1991 to teach at her alma mater. Yona moved to the United States in 1997 where she is an Assistant Professor of Art at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah.

Yona mentions the influence of Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract art, who wrote about “inner necessity,” meaning that a painting, particularly a nonobjective one, needs to express an artist’s profound, perhaps unconscious, emotional or spiritual experiences and generate similar responses (or “vibrations of the spirit”) in the viewer.

Although the early abstractionists based much of their work on an eclectic array of metaphysics and appropriated imagery from African, folk, and Oriental art, there was no need for Yona to invent a philosophical armature for the inner structure of her work. Her paintings are imbued with spiritual underpinnings derived from the traditions of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism and influences from ancient Korean calligraphy.

Zen Buddhism and its concept of “ch’i” (energy) is central to Yona’s work: “Thinking of formlessness, consider the idea that ‘the self in reality has no form.’ If we can do that, we are on the path to Zen . . . Ch’i, on the other hand, is about the spirit that animates and connects all things. Ch’i is the life force. Without ch’i I cannot breathe. Without ch’i, my painting cannot live.”

The dozens of paintings exhibited for the first time in “When Gesture Finds Its Power” at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art are the culmination of Yona’s Chunji-Changjo (Heaven and Earth): Creation Series. They combine early Asian teachings about the formless self and ch’i with the metaphysical intentions of early Western nonobjective art. This assimilation of East/West energy generates an enchantment seldom experienced in today’s market-driven art world.

Yona usually begins her work by drawing on the canvas, then putting down layers of paint and scumbling and marking the wet surface – but soon shifts to the spiritual explorations that cajole her work into existence. “The repetition of making and erasing form is how I deconstruct the existing order to make formless space,” she says. “I try to keep the rhythm continuous. This is where I find the creation mind,” or, as Kandinsky might say, encounter the “vibrations of the spirit.”

Color – muted and subdued – is the language of formlessness in Yona’s painting. She says the “tones are a mixture of earth and charcoal, which is too elusive to be a direct guide to the meaning of a painting. This makes the viewer think, to form a personal interpretation, and to know a deeper feeling.”

The works exhibited in “When Gesture Finds Its Power” are the latest result of a theme Yona has been working with since 1986. Her paintings seem to be one continuous visual poem with stanzas marked by different year cycles and titles: The Metaphysics of Being (1986- 88); First Face (1989-92); Objecthood-Intrinsic Space (1993-95); Seeing Through the Self (1997-98); Empathy Through the Window (1998-2001); and Mountain Armatures (2001-02).

Each cycle has been an exercise in personal exploration and sacrifice, and preparation for Chunji-Changjo, Yona’s magnificent Creation Series, a body of work that she says, relates “to the human’s inner mind.” Her work is a

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