Choi Woolga: Many Thousands of Things

Choi Woolga is a mid-career artist who studied in France in the early to mid-1990s. He now lives and works mostly in Seoul, his city of origin, but he has a studio in America--which indicates that his interests are greater than mostly Asian. His work does not actively refer Korean culture at all; instead, he portrays a pan-urban culture, in which the multiplicity of objects and meaningful signs and seemingly useless marks merge in a collage crowded with symbols that actually have no ostensible meaning. The anarchy in his work is achieved by the juxtaposition of unrelated objects; this increases the visual interest, but also the alienated distance of his expression. Choi’s language is international-- but dysfunctional in the meaningfulness of his systems. In that sense, he is a poet of unorganized information, in which the many things we see operate in a vacuum, leading nowhere but to a catalogue of absurdity. Just as we find walking the city an experience of raw energy and information rushing in on us from all sides, so do we see Choi’s remarkable compilations of symbols and signs, both realist and abstract, a way of visiting the anarchic texture of culture today. Everything, and nothing, counts.

In working this way, Choi throws in his lot with an internationalist approach, one that conveys a stoic acceptance of the irrational nature of urban life. His two major bodies of work, the “White Series” and the “Black Series” are similar in their incorporation of random visual effects, although as the series names’ imply, the backgrounds are light and dark, respectively. Patterns start and then stop emerging; they consist of wavy lines, isolated numbers or letters, iconographies that make no common sense. Human figures do make their way into the texts of these paintings, but they are overwhelmed by the massive intrusion of meaningless symbols. In a way, one finds cause for dejection, mostly because nothing coheres. At the same time, the inclusiveness of these paintings is to be admired--so much stuff gets packed into the compositions, one has the sense that the scenes are meant to convey the crowded nature of contemporary life in ways that embody such life. It may be, that in spaces crowded by so many artifacts, Choi is searching for a key to meaning. It is melancholic, but inevitably contemporary, that he finds nothing offering solace. The accumulation of visual effects make it impossible to read the situation clearly, with the result that it is impossible for either the artist or his viewer to gain control over the frenzy of artifacts both are faced with. The paintings ask us, Where do we go from here? There is no answer to the question.

Animals--cats and dogs and, every once in a while, a sharp-toothed fish in a tight bottle--are present in these tableaus of urban emptiness, but they hardly act as guardians as all. Rather, they are simply there, being single, isolated entities in an army of large, but hopeless, numbers. Perhaps it is wrong to emphasize the nihilistic mood of what we see; there is a certain pleasure to be gotten from making one’s way through so much material. But contemporary life’s enormous capacity for empty transactions--both economic and emotional--seem to be underlined here by the repetition of the paintings themselves, which deliver crowds of diverse particulars without sewing them together. Sometimes, the mood of the work can be restrained, even lyric. But mostly we seem to be in a morass of our own making (this is, incidentally, about as far as we can imageine from Korea’s great classical culture, which presumed an etiquette and a moral decency we do not find in Choi’s art). This does not mean that the paintings are meaningless in their own right; instead, they illustrate the pointlessness of culture at a time when absolutely everything is for sale.

If it is true that culture today is a monolith animated by the lowest common denominator, how can art be made so that some sense of elevation occurs? Choi has little recourse but to repeat what he knows and sees: vast arrays of objects that cannot be joined to each other, with the result that art leads to a hard-eyed vision and version of realism. No attempt at transformation is made. This is, instead, a kind of excellent reporting--and Choi is consistently interesting, even inspired, in his reading of current life as a department store of disparate patterns, symbols, and things. It can also be argued that the media’s disconnectedness reads accurately in regard to the kind of emotional life many of us experience in any city--Seoul or New York alike. Choi is an important painter because he refuses to gild over the graphic dysphoria of urban life; and because he revels, rightly, in the sheer many-sidedness of visual textures as we know them now. We may not be able to piece the anarchy together, but we can appreciate it for what it is: a celebration of difference for its own sake. In the absence of a coherence that, today, usually eludes us, this is more than enough.

Jonathan Goodman September 2018