Choi Wool-Ga's New York Studio Inscribing the Images of Image
- Shin Ji-Ung : Art Adviser
I had already known about the artist Choi Wool-Ga, while having seen some of his works at several small art fairs in New York. With no reason, I firmly believed that he was a Korean artist from Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. I happened to meet him at the opening of his exhibition and sat with him at a table. As soon as we exchanged civilities, we talked quite unexpectedly about such issues as the Russian history and the former Soviet Union's Asian policies. As our talks progressed, I felt it puzzled that he was commanding a more perfect(?) Kyongsang dialect than I. Hence, I asked him about his personal profile evasively because I could not suppress my curiosity. After all, I could know that he had long been active in Paris, Seoul, Tokyo and New York, and that he had been from not Kazakhstan but Busan, Korea. It was a ridiculous misunderstanding caused by a wrong preconception. He explained that I might have misunderstood his background because 'Wool-Ga' sounded 'Olga' due to his dialect. Although I agreed to his explanation, I was awakened once again how much the wrong preconception would blind us.
For the last two decades, Choi Wool-Ga has worked in Europe. being based in Paris, and in Asia, being based in Tokyo and Seoul, and in the North America, being based in New York. If his nomadic life and work had formed one axis of his art, the liquidity between overlapped images and texts would have formed the other axis of his art. Like the life itself, art is essentially a flowing movement, but in his art works, the liquidity itself is fixed in a uniquely sensuous way to be formed and thus, captured, understood and represented as an image having a specific shape. Flowing and fixing are intertwined and interwoven into a frame called 'a form' to be a more comprehensive and abstract image. And the repetitive expansion of such contents and forms are woven ultimately into huge contents and forms of life and art. Thus, life is art, and art is life after all. Of course, this story may sound ideal and woozy like a dream.
However, such dreamy story is about Choi Wool-Ga's dream of art, desire and journey of art. Because of such dream, he left the space of life he had barely been accustomed to for a decade to live alone in New York, isolating himself from his surroundings. The reason why he has been based in New York where he has had no affinities and where language and drinking water are different and where he should prepare meals for himself distressfully is because he has wanted to separate himself from the world familiar and apparent to him and thereby, input himself into an unfamiliar and heterogeneous space. In other words, he has attempted to meditate on and question the new world to reorganize his ego into an object. Namely, he has wanted to turn himself into 'the other' to make his inside world a heterogeneous world, while homogenizing the external world with himself, and thereby, give some order to the unfamiliar and heterogeneous world to turn it again into a homogeneous space. And such real space would be represented via his body into a painting space. Thus, although his works do not seem to be changed, they are actually changed along with his experiences of the unfamiliar world or the new place.
It was when summer was ending that I visited Choi Wool-Ga's studio. The studio was located on the border between Washington Heights or the northwestern end of the island Manhattan and Inwood region. It is very rare that the Korean artist's living and working space is located in the region where there are not much art activities and where Dominicans and Irishes are concentrated. The street on the northwestern end of Manhattan has been occupied much by Irishes and middle-class Jews. Since the people have immigrated to this region from various countries of the world for the last several decades, English is no longer a common language in its eastern part where the Spanishes live. In a word, his community is a little clamorous. Even some decades ago, the community was panic-stricken at night because it was dominated by a Dominican heroin cartel. Here, a Korean legend is melted down; some Koreans immigrated to the place like an urban battle-field with little money but they would survive well or even succeed in their businesses such as small stores or vending laundries. But now, it is a by-gone story. As the Manhattan region has been gentrified, the living cost is higher on the entire island, while the public security has been reinforced. So, most parts of the island have been safe. The block where Choi Wool-Ga's studio is located is a peaceful part of Manhattan which seems to have been separated from the wild world before. It is like an isolated island. Solid apartment buildings like the old castles stand in rows on one side of the street with no store. They were built before the World War II. Several blocks away to the north, there is a very beautiful and dense forest called 'Fort Tryon Park.' To the northern end of the park, a metropolitan museum branch named 'Cloister' sprawls. You can appreciate its collection consisting of the medieval European art works and architecture.
Choi Wool-Ga who was settled in such an old community launched his studio in the living room of an one-bedroom apartment house, which seems to be considerably wide in terms of Manhattan standard. Since the apartment building was constructed before the World War II, its wall is thick with high ceiling, compared to the apartment buildings constructed recently. Although the studio is not much wide, it looks wider due to the high ceiling, and it is very tidy. Some art works that had been produced for the last several months stood against the wall. He said that they were Black XP series.
The forms colored luxuriously were depicted closely on the canvas dark-colored like the sky at dawn. They looked like being carved on the rock with a chisel. Because the images seemed to be carved, they looked like cave or rock paintings or African or South American native earthenware patterns which we can see at a natural history museum. So, many people say that Choi Wool-Ga's works seem to be affected by primitivism. However, the images of his painting could be no more refined and matured, to my eyes. They could not have been represented without the skilled hands and the refined eyes both trained rigorously for decades. It seemed to be quite absurd to attempt to confirm the influence of primitivism. Primitivism did not exist for the primitives, so the non-primitive uses the materials deemed primitive for the contemporary expressions. Primitivism is a counter-image created by the fine art itself in the history of the Western fine art, and therefore, it has been a tendency inseparable from the history of the Western fine art. Anyway, the argument that any fine art history like the Western one must not have existed in the non-Western society is too an autistic discourse to be a common sense.
Men with the faces which look like dog or wolf as well as fish and birds seem to have been painted loosely or roughly. Not only such objects but also the colorful background embracing them and the spiral diagrams and their layout do not exist in the real world. They grew up in artist's brain to be represented with his eyes and hands. Accordingly, what are important for him are not the forms to be depicted on the canvas but the images to be printed in his brain. He spends much more time for printing the images in his brain than for the canvas work. The paintings printed in his brain are the ideas about certain images rather than the real images. Such images are equal to the images of image, namely the meta-images rather than those real ones perceived by our senses. Hence, to Choi Wool-Ga, understanding an image as itself is one thing, and forming an idea about the essence of the ordinary image is quite another. Thus, most of the images represented by the artist are the images as ideas or conceptions dualized in his brains from the ordinary images to be constructed reflexively. As in the camera obscura, the objects which can hardly be sensed, thought, perceived or experienced in the real world cast their shadows onto artist's brain. In other words, Choi Wool-Ga has produced sort of 'spiritual paintings' projected in the darkness.
Nevertheless, the paintings inscribed into the spirit with senses and imagination are the passive images reversed optically according to the principle of camera. The images inscribed into the spirit are not automatically represented but reconstructed on the canvas in diverse ways through rubbing and drawing body or the cultural filters which have trained the body. The reversed images like those in the camera obscura are reinterpreted and recoordinated through practice of the body and the historical life course to be created as the works independent from the original ideas. The art works produced as such would be unique enough not to be reduced to their ideas. Due to such irreversibility or irreducibility, Choi Wool-Ga's works have their historic and social meaning, namely "a dimension of the Korean painting" irrelevant to his original intention.
Here, the adjective "Korean" does not imply that a Korean object is used or that the paintings are influenced by the Korean Five Colors or that a Korean material is used. It means that the methods of dualizing the images used by his contemporary artists are used. Namely, his paintings are in line with the pattern of depicting the painting work, imagining the imagination activities and forming the forming practice. He lays out the ideas in his brain neatly and strictly as if he were drawing a building, and thereupon, he fills them closely onto the canvas as if he were constructing a building according to its drawing. Since he paints the canvas laboriously with the highly dense colors, you may well feel choked when you face his works. Although they seem to be drawn roughly and their forms laid out loosely look like kid's scribbling, they are compact enough not to allow for any leakage of water drop. The compact world is a space where we are busy living. Choi Wool-Ga wants to depict such hard life of ours in a naive and loose way in an effort to open our windpipes. His world of art works filled with mischievous and playful acts are serious, depressive and sad enough to represent the world filled with such ironies oppressing us.
I walked around his studio several times, appreciating his warm paintings. We talked with each other over cups of coffee, and then, took a walk to Port Tryon Park. We took lunch belatedly at a restaurant in the park. We could hardly end our talk eating and drinking under a tree at the northen end of Manhattan in the afternoon of late summer before it rained heavily. We were trapped within the park, so we took supper earlier, exchanging gossips about the fine art community or the entertainment community, and waited for the rain to stop. The real world in late summer experienced for half a day with him started with the serious talks about life and art works to end up with gossips and vain jokes.