Ha, Chong Hyun, born in 1935, is the most distinguished of contemporary Korean artists His paintings are created in a unique way. The support is coarsely woven hemp cloth, the oldest fabric known in Korea; the actual medium is oil paint, associated with western innovate innovation. The paint, rather than being applied to the surface from the front, in conventional fashion is pushed through the loose weave of the hemp from the back, then reworked using spatulas.
Ha, Chong Hyun arrived at this technique, which is special to himself, after a long series of experiments, that involved materials such as tangled wire, springs and pieces of wood. His work thus has something common with that of the so-called Post Painterly Abstractionists (that of Morris Louis in particular) in the United States. What Louis wanted to do was to integrate the surface of the painting completely with the support. His method of achieving this was, however, very different from that chosen by Ha, Chong Hyun. The support Louis used was unprimed cotton duck, and the paint itself was much-diluted acrylic. This was poured on to the unstretched fabric and maninulated by tilting and folding the duck itself so that the paint ran freely and at the same time soaked into the absorbent cotton. One reason for choosing this way of working was, as has often been explained by enthusiasts for Louis’s achievement, a desire to produce painting that had indisputable ’obiect quality, which existed in their own right as additions to the world of phenomena.
Without making reference to anything else. This also seems to be a large part of Ha’s aim in working as he does. The results are nevertheless very different from anything done by Louis and the other American painters who belonged to the same group.
In some cases - most of all in the paintings where a band of hemp fabric is left bare at the bottom, so as to create a kind ground line- the effect is to my eye very much like that produced by the monumental gold-ground screen paintings of the Momoyama and Edo period in Japan. In these a landscape composition is spatially flattened and dislocated rearranged to create a design contiguous with the actual painted surface.
This ‘landscape’ comparison is reinforced because many of Ha’s most typical markings seem to be references, not only to character forms, but to the shapes and textures of matted grasses, rough tree trunks and splintered rocks. That is, his work is linked to the way of thinking which sees man, not as a being seperatable from nature (which is the western viewpoint), but as an integral part of the natural world. It can be argued that this compositional principle, or something like it, was what the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock in particular, tried to establish in western art. Pollock’s drip paintings are not in fact without depth- offer an ambiguous, shallow space deriv from Cubism. Ha’s paintings will have nothing to do with ambiguity of this type. The eye is firmly directed to the surface itself. What does the artist want us to find when we look contemplatively at his work?
‘Contemplation’ is, I think, very much a key word in this context. Ha, Chong Hyun paintings disclose themselves slowly. In some earlier works he makes use of techniques more closely akin to those of western avant-garde artists- making installations with wood and rope, for instance, or adding wire or springs to the surface of his work. Now what the viewer is invited to look at is the painting itself, unyielding and mysterious, but also filled with human presence because of the subtle way in which it has been worked. Ha’s markings for these monochrome surfaces are of many kinds. Some suggest writing, half-effaced characters. Some suggest rain, falling aslant or vertically. Some suggest the irregularities of much repaired and repainted walls. -the kind of thing that fascinated Dubuffet, and which he sometimes imitate is the works he called ‘texturologies’. The main mote struck is now one of aristocratic restraint, of complete confidence in the suitability of means to ends.
Paintings by Louis are subtle, but frequently seem lightweight and evanescent Those by Ha, Chong Hyun have an unmistakably solid presence. His way of making them has been compared to the process of making primitive wattle-and-daub walling. A wattle-and daub wall consists of a woven support, contained by a wooden framework. This woven support is filled in with mud, and is then often finished with a layer of plaster. The fact that Ha’s paintings are solid and wall-like in this fashion offers and important clue both to the philosophy that informs them, and to their final effect.
He belongs to a generation of modern Korean artists who are well versed in western modernism, but have nevertheless wanted to create a specifically Korean identity for their art. Well aware of post-war American developments such as Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction, and equally well aware of what took place in Paris during the 1950s and 1960s, notably the career of Jean Dubuffet, they wanted to create a style that was unmistakably contemporary, but which also made specific references to their own situation.
Many of these Korean preferred to work in a way that was more or less monochromatic, possibly because the adoption of monochrome seemed to make subliminal references to traditional ‘scholar painting’-painting made with ink and the brush on absorbent paper or silk.
Another reference to Ha, Chong Hyun work is to painted screens. Indeed, there are a number of painting with a kind of ground-line at the bottom which makes the resemblance unmistakable. It is worth recalling the chief differences between the compositions used for large scale screen paintings and those commonly in use for figurative western paintings of the same size. In a Last Supper by the 16th century Venetian artist Tintoretto, for example, the aim is to use diagonals to pierce space, leading the spectator’s eye further and further into the picture. Screen composition does more or less the opposite. Rather than opening up space, it tends to mime the function of the screen itself, by shutting off any vista. The eye moves across the surfaces, from end to end, rather seeking to penetrate it.
A further aspect of his work, which needs to be considered in this context, is its insistent physicality. The American Abstract Expressionists often thought of the painted surface as an arena, within which something was enacted. The painted marks were a record of what had taken place. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings have been referred to as a form of dancing, related to American Indian rituals. Ha’s work, however, is not dancing, but a form of building.
His paintings, made as they are of pigments forced through a mesh then smoothed and worked further on the visible side, come into being through processes akin to some of those used in building a primitive house. Ha’s methods have aptly been compared to those used for making wattle-and daub walling. For this, mud is amalgamated with reeds or wicker, interwoven and supported by a framework. Like walls of this type, his paintings show clear traces of the actions of the body. They offer a clear record of the artist’s physical involvement with his materials.
The directness with which Ha, Chong Hyun’s work is made is a vital part of its effect on the spectator. In one branch of eastern art, that affected by Zen Buddhist philosophy, there is a striking combination of apparent rawness and subtlety. Simple, physical processes become pressing spiritual refinement.
I believe it is this approach which is the key to understanding Ha’s outwardly simple but in fact very complex work. The mood that they radiate is one of monumental calm.