Woolga Choi: Chaos in Context - By Richard Vine

Born in Seoul and educated in the decorative arts in Paris, Woolga Choi participates in one of the most significant developments in global postwar culture—the integration of cartoons and other vernacular graphic forms into mainstream art. The painter, known for his lexicon of wry figures and cryptic emblems, brings a sense of informed playfulness to a practice that often addresses serious issues, despite its compositional quirkiness and jokes.

Certainly, there is a long Asian tradition of caricature, in which both social "types" and specific individuals are rendered quickly and loosely on paper—a technique with European parallels in artists such as William Hogarth, Honoré-Victorin Daumier, and Thomas Nast. When combined with the flat, high-color patterning of Japanese prints, filtered through Impressionism and post-Impressionism (especially the work of van Gogh, Gauguin, and the Fauves), this cartoonish style had a profound impact on the early modernist figuration of radical innovators like Matisse and Picasso. In America, satiric nineteenth-century newspaper illustration—most notably through Richard F. Outcault's “Hogan’s Alley” character the Yellow Kid—evolved into comic strips and, eventually, the comic books carried abroad by American GIs, feeding another cycle of cross-cultural influence.

In his 1939 essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch," Clement Greenberg famously declared an absolute divorce between popular forms (including comics, movies, and Tin Pan Alley tunes) and high, intellectually refined art. But it was a distinction that soon began to crumble, an aesthetic battle that the apodictic critic resoundingly lost. By the 1960s, artists like Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselmann, and Roy Lichtenstein were fervently exploiting the visual energy of ads, commercial logos, product packaging, and comics. To this endeavor the Chicago Imagists (prompted in part by French artist/critic Jean Dubuffet's embrace of Art Brut) added a deep appreciation of Outsider art—the rudimentary figures and compulsively decorative patterns of untrained and/or mentally afflicted artists.

For Choi, there were also influences closer to home. During Korea's decades of postwar dictatorship, especially following the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, vernacular protest work—minjung art—often took the form of crude drawings reproduced on cheap materials for maximum psychological and social impact. Then the country's economic boom of the 1980s and ’90s tapped into a happier visual vocabulary related to advertising, design, and global pop culture—not least Japanese anime and manga. Meanwhile, Nam June Paik—who left Korea in 1950 for university studies and a subsequent life of international bohemianism—offered successive generations of young Korean artists a model of absolute aesthetic freedom, linked to a fearless embrace of contemporary materials and themes. Though he is known primarily for his TV installations, Paik produced myriad colorful, childlike drawings whose underlying theme is self-liberation. Echoes of that attitude can be found in the formally refined work of Japan's Takashi Murakami as well as the deceptively crude, highly energetic paintings—rife with scrawls and scribblings—of America's self-styled wild child, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Such is the imagistic milieu in which Woolga Choi nurtured his art. He came of age in the heyday of graffiti, when vandalism became art, when vibrant tags moved from city walls and subway trains to oversized canvases hung on white-cube gallery walls. The monumental, symbol-laden, intensely chromatic precedents of the Mexican muralists (Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros et al.) was transformed into a more telegraphic style through the guerrilla antics of artists like Keith Haring or, later, Banksy. In Asia, and soon the world at large, a first generation of post-Mao artists, rejecting the putative naturalism of the country's long dominant Socialist Realist propaganda art, opted for the stylized, pop-influenced figuration of artists such as Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, and Zeng Fanzhi. Here the perspectival flatness and uniform shadow-less illumination of traditional Asian art melded with the graphic immediacy of billboards and comic books, to dually satiric effect.

Choi's painterly reaction to all this has been to strew tokens of everyday life and pop culture against monochrome backgrounds of the sort once—in the mid to late twentieth-century—identified with formalism and spiritual striving. Clocks, dogs, helicopters, fish, trees, birds, rulers, eyeballs, alligators, watermelon slices, stars, flowers, light bulbs, spirals, Picassoid heads—all these and more recur in a vast pictorial frenzy. The jammed compositions suggest an Instagram sensibility avant la letter—except that many of Choi's doodles are inwardly rather than outwardly oriented, more psychologically charged than optically reportorial. They bear no obvious relationship to one another, apart from their simultaneous coexistence in the artist's mind. Viewing the works, we search for repetitions of image types, for patterns of association—a gestalt. This, or course, is also how we deal daily with objects, incidents, and people, each individual a "black box" whose consciousness we can only infer from external actions and signs.

There are, then, both historical and philosophical ramifications to Choi's project. His work reflects a long-term cultural reaction that began, a century ago, with a post-World War One rejection of traditional forms and strictures. How could sensitive artists react with anything but skepticism or disdain to sociopolitical norms (and attendant artistic modes) that had culminated in global catastrophe? This pointed questioning was strongly reinforced, a generation later, by the horrors of World War Two, a conflict further extended by the Korean War in Choi's homeland. Prompted by these disasters of civilization, many artists developed a Rousseau-like fascination with the supposedly more authentic, closer-to-the-source productions of "primitive" societies, children, and the insane. These inward-looking artists—Jackson Pollock is the supreme example—were driven by a Freudian belief in primal impulses, subconscious motives and symbols, and psychic energies only imperfectly sublimated into conscious purposes and cultural artifacts.

The alternative to facing and rechanneling these drives was thought to be neurotic denial, often in the guise of a conventional bourgeois lifestyle—against which the counterculture of the 1960s launched a multi-pronged assault. Something of that revolutionary élan is evident in Choi's explosions of imagery against monochrome fields. One might, accordingly, expect only sheer fragmentation and chaos. Yet these disparate images somehow cohere, a paradox explored most comprehensively in the modern stream-of-conscious novel.

In works like James Joyce's Ulysses or Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the protagonist is continuously awash in sights, sounds, smells, and—equally important—remembrances. Street signs and snatches of conversation compete with recollections of poems and plays, daily business jostles with jealous imaginings, world historical events share momentary attention with an ingrown toenail. Yet out of this relentless flux, the characters manage to create at least the illusion of a single continuous self, a life-story with beginning, middle, and end. Even when the perceptions and the events, both personal and public, are most random, multivalent, and rapidly sequential, an omniscient narrator or, lacking that, the tale's reader manages to extract an overview, a redeeming experience of form.

Choi's work plunges us into that sensual and cognitive complexity, without any recourse to a narrative through-line, a way out. Denied authorial transcendence, we remain, as the American experimental writer John Barth once put it, "lost in the fun house," caught in Choi’s chamber of visual echoes and distortions—isolated, disoriented, troubled, but not unamused. Indeed, we cannot escape the impression that the Choi, the Great Oz behind the curtain, created this chaos with a sense of glee. The cost of entry may be perpetual confusion, perpetual mystery, but the artist seems to take—and to share with us—a fierce joy in the world's mad abundance, its overwhelming array of stimulations synonymous with life.