The Opulence of the Painterly
by Peter Lodermeyer, art historian
The artist Ahn Hyun-Ju, who was born in the South-Korean capital of Seoul in 1969, has been living in Germany for the past 15 years. Perhaps it is because of her biography, i.e., the change between two very different cultures, languages, and ways of thinking, that in her painting it is so self-evident and natural for her to deal with formal oppositions. In her works, Ahn repeatedly stages oppositional pairs: material and color, sheen and matte, surface and space, monochromy and gesture, ornament and concept, minimalism and exuberance. Sometimes she brings these opposites into mutual harmony, sometimes she allows them to stand next to each other in sharp contrast. Ahn’s interest in tension-filled combinations reveals itself already at the fundamental level of her choice of material: Since 2001 she has been using almost exclusively sheets of aluminum as her picture carrier. The materiality of this aluminum, its dull sheen, and its reflective characteristics which optically break up the mirror image are essential to the way her work looks. The coolness and material hardness of the metal are pitted against the changeability, the sensuality and the vivid colorfulness of her painting. Ahn prefers vibrant, vigorous colors, repeatedly using a deep blue, various shades of yellow, a red that goes into orange, a sober green. The paints (mostly acrylics, sometimes also oil paints, varnish, etc.) assume a completely different expression on the metal than they would, say, on canvas, which would either become invisible under the paint, or else it would absorb it. Paint and aluminum do not combine with each other, however, and thus remain visible as two clashing materials. In its repellent smoothness, the aluminum itself remains visually present, even beneath many layers of paint application. For this reason, in Ahn’s works the color does not open up any illusionist spaces of depth. Rather, backed up by the metallic sheen of the aluminum, it stays recognizable as a color substance that has been unmistakably applied, i.e. as a material.
Ahn’s works on aluminum, always unframed, are not paintings in the traditional sense, but emphasize their three-dimensional character. We might rather call them picture objects, the material evidence of what are sometimes arduous working processes. In accordance with the object character of her works, the artist, who had also worked for a long time with video art and room installations, has repeatedly created works which bear reference to the room. Thus, for example, two-part works came about, which were placed at an angle in such a way that, depending on where you view it from, the one picture object can be mirrored in the other one. This has the effect that the otherwise “dead” space between two pictures becomes activated for the viewer since he needs to consciously take, or change, his viewing position in order to do justice to the complexity of the works. Ahn’s preference for tension-filled moments is also shown by the way she applies the paint. On some of her works, whose large formats may be up to three meters in width, narrow stripes of paint shoot horizontally across the picture surface like laser beams. Next to this stand monochrome, unaltered areas of paint, in which the color may unfold more broadly and “more slowly”. Segments that have been left entirely or partially unpainted, in which the material characteristics of the aluminum come into their own, reflect the viewer as well as the exhibition room, including them in the picture. The mirror images are transposed into shadowy blurs, since the metal has been brushed and not polished to a high sheen, and thus optically compressed into the surface. In contrast to the smooth metal or paint areas, there are forceful strokes of the brush or broad stripes of paint that have been applied with a palette knife scraped across the picture carrier, in which the paint has been distributed in varying density and brightness. In elegant curves, the paint substance is staged as a lively and animated form, a “wave” that can dam itself up or trickle out in gentle progression.
The, for the most part, square works in small and medium formats reveal themselves less dynamically, but for this, they have more parts and seem more complex. Although the square is per se a challenging form that emphasizes the object nature, Ahn Hyun-Ju manages to add to it a densely wrought painting filled with tension even in her works that measure only 30 by 30 centimeters. By applying a glaze, willful patterns and color mixtures come about. Rigid and geometric grids compete with free and seemingly spontaneous brush strokes and fluid application of paint that condenses into trickles in parts. On one and the same picture, the brush stroke changes between a masterful extension across the geometric network of lines in the one place and an abrupt halt at border lines, forcing it into the structural system, in the other. Emerging from this play between freedom and order is a complicated rhythm, which keeps the eye of the viewer in motion, making him or her read the layers of paint applied on top of each other in temporal sequence. The weave of colors, surfaces, and lines becomes even more complicated in several of the medium-format works (100 x 100 cm), from which the artist cuts out a square from the interior of the picture after it has been painted, and then, after turning it 180 degrees, inserts it into the picture complex again. This intervention the viewer tends to register rather more unconsciously than recognize it in all clarity. But from this formal concept there arise tension-filled correspondences of color and form that lend a rhythm to the entire picture area. These works, done in 2006, seem like a friendly reference to Peter Halley’s neo-minimalist pictures, which Ahn Hyun-Ju admires, as well as the stripe paintings of Bridget Riley and the paintings of David Reed that vacillate between simplicity and baroque sumptuousness. What these highly different models have in common, and what you find again in Ahn’s painting, is the productive opposition between stringent form and the exuberant intensity of the color. Ahn Hyun-Ju’s concern is to bring the opposition and cooperation of form and color – not only the color but the very paint itself as a material – into a compelling rhythm. Where she manages this, a phenomenon is revealed, which the artist herself refers to as “the opulence of the painterly”.
Rhythm is anyway an important catchword for approaching Ahn Hyun-Ju’s art. Her works may not be grasped by means of identifiable contents. The artist is not concerned with conveying ideas, because her painting is not based on aesthetic theories or philosophical issues. For her, painting rather functions as “a mirror of life which has been filtered”. This means that she tries to find certain formalizations for even her most varied notions, memories, and experiences, which she then attempts to simplify as much as possible. Ahn manages to “filter out” her notions, as she herself says, divide them up into formal units, and then combine them in a manner that brings about a harmonious visual rhythm. It is not lastly due to this rhythm that her experiences which are fundamental to her painting are emotionally conveyed. A good example for this working method is Ahn’s stay in Northern Israel in October 2005 and the changes in her painting that resulted from this. Ahn Hyun-Ju says that she was overwhelmed by the vitality of the people, by the light, and the colors of the landscape. She experienced the “colorful flowers like fireworks before a cobalt-blue sky”. In the pictures she painted after her return to Germany, this experience is recorded in the form of freely painted balls of color in red, blue, and green. Ahn Hyun-Ju did not paint the flowers, she brought her paintings into bloom. And allowing this exuberance of color freed her for a series of later works, which are densely covered with “informal” smears and trickles of colors. These have emancipated themselves to a surprising degree from the material features of the aluminum and gained a colorist life of their own heretofore unknown in her works. Color in these most recent works becomes a fluid, flowing substrate of rare sensuality.
Translation: Elisabeth Volk