RanHwang’s Art World
William Zimmer: The New York Times Arts Critic
Ran Hwang’s accelerated artistic growth came about though the shared tragedy of 9/11. Hwang realized the Buddha was the clear vehicle for and the expression of her feelings. Above all she wanted peace to prevail in the world and she communicates this strongly through imaginative and original art. Everything about Buddha, starting with his attitude his body in cross-legged seated repose, embodies it.
When an artist and the right subject matter find each other, the art can really take off. When Hwang was a child in Korea her father used to take her to Buddhist temples. No child is ever fully aware of the meaning of worship and ritual, but an affinity for the sacred is planted then, and is a seed that can flourish later. For Hwang it blossomed as art.
For a long time before 2001 Hwang had been making shallow boxes about the sizes and depth of Joseph Cornell’s. She would fill these boxes with buttons that are visible through a cut-out silhouette, often a fashionable and chic woman. Hwang boldly declares “I love fashion.” In these works buttons served as the found objects in that form of dada known as Neo-Dada. The found object isn’t used for satirical reasons but rather is almost venerated. Buttons are so common that they embody all of human existence. A beautiful aspect of Hwang’s art is that she could keep and extend what were her essential materials all along when she devoted herself to making Buddha images that manifest out of buttons.
The making of a Buddha is something of an art performance for Hwang, if a mostly private one. After projecting an image on the wall so she can trace its contours, she proceeds to fill it in with buttons on long straight pins, thousands of them until she achieves a rather plush coat. The procedure can take a month. The button application often deliberately trails off. This is slightly disturbing as if the image is decomposing but it is mostly an embodiment of the natural process of change as stray buttons fall from the mass; they are like blossoms falling from a tree thick with them. The constant repetitive action of applying the buttons becomes a humble ritual action whose benefits have been described by Hwang as a journey to find herself.
“Beyond Language” has a uniform surface of white buttons with all the connotations of purity this entails. Hwang’s white pieces are especially apparitional and spirit-like underscoring the important idea that Buddha was a man but he is also an ineffable idea or a philosophical concept that animates the world. Perhaps her most important public work is “Give in Charity.” In a former industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn that has been reclaimed by artists that now has a lively art scene, Hwang perched a white Buddha on a wide ledge on the outside of an industrial building. Naturally it attracted wide public attention even as it was being made. People wanted to be photographed with both the work and often with Hwang herself, fulfilling her hopes for meaningful communication between people. This figure sported one deer antler, and now in her studio, it has two. This appendage is surprising, but deer are especially quick and alert creatures and Buddha possesses those traits while seated in meditation.
With her constant subject, Hwang can be infinitely inventive. The Path is made with black buttons which fall away intensely from the figure. Yet she has grouped the peripheral buttons into tar constellations, also the realm of Buddha. The extensive “Emptiness” features webs of black thread around the Buddha in simple black silhouette and in profile this time. “Beyond Language II” is deliberately unfinished Buddha images with a heap of buttons beneath them on the floor like offerings. “Healing” is Buddha made on a wooden floor out of especially jewel-like buttons and resembling a puddle pierced by a wooden post.
Hwang’s sense of compassion shows up strongly in “Invisibility in Visibility” a title that sums up the condition of prisoners, who are often non-persons. The piece was made in an abandoned jail cell in Korea and the image is a huge eagle that courses around the room. Deities often take on appropriate images for particular circumstances and here the eagle stands for the potential of soaring and bravely transcending ones state. Having made these ambitious works Hwang has confidently resumed working with fashion, and in a dress shop across the street from her studio is a large dress outlined on the wall and filled out with buttons and anchored with thread. It might be reaching to call this Buddha in another guise, but Ran Hwang is brimming with ideas for future projects created around her subject of a lifetime.