Jung Yeon Min: Theaters of Thought
“I want my work to be disturbing.” So says Jung-Yeon Min, a young artist educated in Korea and France and now living in Paris. Her paintings enact a theater, in which almost anything that can be imagined can happen. Deeply interested in the painter Hieronymous Bosch, an early Netherlandish painter famous for his apocalyptic fantasies, Min denies any easy affiliation with the more recent influence of Surrealism, although she admits, “Bosch… put so much imagination in his works, it became a kind of pre-Surrealism.” An end-of-the-world flair is available in Min’s paintings, which describe imaginary sites that signal an unrest with the human condition, which is often seen as continuing on in a world that is harsh and visually distant from the one we know. The gothic, nearly medieval stance Min takes in regard to contemporary experience allows her to build worlds bordering on the mythical; Min exults in depicting the real as imagined and the imagined as real, skewing the balance between the two, so that what most of us would juxtapose in fact becomes merged within the fantastic boundaries of her art. Such a merger implies special benefits for the imagined, which idiosyncratically betrays the life of the artist’s mind. Min effects a genuine continuum between what is seen and what is thought, while the Boschian influence makes certain that her intelligence is poised to trouble or, as she puts it, to disturb.
So it happens that Min prefers to question rather than to appreciate the more sinister of culture, which I think she sees as caging the imagination. Min comments, “I consider that we live nowadays in a constant exchange between the real and the virtual.” Indeed, she goes on to say, “For me it is a kind of modern Surrealism, so if my works look like ‘traditional’ Surrealism, the idea behind it [my Surrealism] is somehow different.” Min’s affiliation with subconscious imagery results in what may be best described as a dream vision that owes its force to historical Surrealist influences, which enable her to free her awareness from its conscious boundaries. As a result, Min’s brilliant tableaus of the dreamlike include the chaos of an earlier period, as well as the isolated sensuality of our own. Her inner landscapes often are expressed in bizarre and distorted patterns, which construct a stage whereby the mind is called upon to leave the restrictions of reason, its false sleep and alarming vacuity. Min’s refusal to be closely tied to Surrealism does not stem from an anxiety of influence so much as it echoes her belief that it is up to the artist to go her own way and create something new.
It can be said that Min’s independence represents the current time’s preoccupation with originality, which acts as the bottom line for our present obsession with being new. Min, who has a thorough art education, beginning with an arts high school in Korea, four years at Hong Ik University in Seoul, and then three years at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, clearly has mastered the technical means with which she creates her imagery. From high school through the first two years of Korean university, she worked “only on real things: landscapes, models, still lifes.” In her third and fourth year, Min began painting “spontaneously” from her imagination, “without wondering why I was painting this or that.” Despite the biomorphic incongruity, to the point of weirdness, of Min’s tableaus, the specificity with which they are completed denies a purely imaginative realm – even if her environments have no comparable existence on earth. One of the great strengths, then, of Min’s imagination is her ability to take the strange and make it almost seem commonplace. Her art encompasses the bizarre as if it were entirely convincing – a paradox she makes good on.
This is not to say that Min’s mind constructs worlds that in fact exist to be seen and experienced; her environs are simply too strange to be accepted out of hand. Yet Min’s idiosyncrasies remain complex, combining the seen with the unknown. The latter is made reasonable by the rigorous technical studies Min subjected herself to while in school in Korea; her Asian training is supplemented by what she calls “the open mind of the European way.” According to Min, “It helped me to understand that what Koreans consider separately can be mixed together in a very harmonious way, and that it was possible to put together things that were supposed to be separate.” Typically, Min yokes together different styles into a seamless content. Nature plays an important role in her esthetic, most likely because she spent her childhood in the countryside; Min comments, “I used to look at botanical books; if I hadn’t become a painter, I would probably be a botanist. Nature in my paintings is a kind of created space expressing where I would like to be.” In Min’s art the hoped-for synthesis of Western and Asian painting doesn’t seem to have quite the weight felt in the work of other artists; clearly, Min works within the imagistic boundaries of Western art. Yet that recognition doesn’t take away her achievement so much as it allows her to develop without conscious reference to both traditions.
Indeed, with the passage of time, contemporary reference to Asian or Western legacies in someone’s art seems increasingly inaccurate, in the sense that what the artist does with her influences is more important than realizing what these backgrounds mean. Like any good artist, Min remains larger, and more enigmatic than the sum of her cultural choices. She is attempting to erect a personal mythology, one that breaks free of the past. Of course the danger is that this independent route will become enigmatic, even indecipherable in the face of more readily known, more readily realized imageries. Her landscapes are inhabited by a camel or hunched-over individuals, both of which are dwarfed by their surroundings. Min’s odd shapes and cavelike environments emphasize strangeness, so that her enigmatically patterned stalactites and stalagmites threaten to overgrow the spaces in which they are exposed. But the artist is aware of cultural backgrounds: Min cites her attraction to the bear, often present in North Asian mythology: in one story, the bear became a woman who married with a god; their son then became the ancestor of the first Korean king. Min mentions that bears occur frequently in shamanism, a visionary religious practice in which shamans, or religious guides, act as mediators between the worldly and spiritual realms. As Min says, “I like to imagine myself becoming a bear, as a return to origins.”
Min also has a ready response to the disproportionately small figures that populate her landscapes: “The person in my paintings is often me. I use myself first for reasons of convenience, because I’m the only one who knows exactly the kind of posture to use in my art. But it’s also me because my paintings tell about my life.” The small size of her figures results from her desire to suggest a story as well as suggest scale within the composition. Min also declares, “I like the idea of the microscopic becoming enormous and the macroscopic becoming small.” Like Alice in Wonderland, Min revels in changes of proportion, in part because she doesn’t want her paintings to become portraits: “Persons in my paintings occur in spaces that reflect Western perspective.” This single point-of-view tends to convince her audience that the situation in her paintings is somehow reasonable, even if it is hard to read clearly. Even so, there are allusions to identifiable objects – Min as a girl was surrounded by primitive organisms because her father collected fossils, and she comments, “I often wonder about similarities organic and mineral entities, such as the intestines and caves, not only in a visual sense but also in terms of function.” What counts is the ability to interpret what is seen in light of one’s own imagination: “The common point between my paintings and abstraction is that people have the freedom to imagine their own story, as happens in the reading of abstract art.”
It is possible to see this esthetic working regularly in Min’s art – in, for example, what is usually an exotic landscape in which visual references to the stomach or esophagus are made in the background, while off to the right the viewer sees conventionally made houses. In the middle ground one finds a series of cell-like bodies that float in the air; covered with circular arrangements of dots, the cells highlight the generally puzzling arrangement of forms to which Min has committed herself. The houses are backed by dark, thin vertical stripes; the home nearest to the viewer is fronted by two white stripes, which are an extension of the background behind the houses. Part of the stomach creates a pattern in the far background; Min’s audience has the sense that she is constructing a brave new world – one that is realistic and science fiction-like at the same time. Her designs allow her, as she says, “to express feelings, atmosphere. It’s somehow theatrical.” Perhaps this is the key to Min’s subjectivity; she creates theaters of thought wherein outlandish surroundings reminiscent of caves and the digestive system act as sites in which her figures take on mythic importance – despite the smallness of their size. The contextualization of her sensibility is essentially dramatic in nature, proving Min to be a kind of director of her own imagination. Her self-reference therefore needs an audience that will provide her with a reason for being, without which her art would become technically deft but facile. That she aims to personalize her paintings results in a body of work that makes public her private interest in systems and self, no matter whether that self is represented by a human body or creature.
There is something as well of the whimsical in the range of Min’s imagery. The implications of her art do not necessarily suggest an end-of-the-world scenario, even when the elements of her art are as strange as can be. In another of Min’s paintings we come upon what looks like a snowy scene with a river cutting through the center of the composition. Light tan images reminiscent of the digestive system’s organs crowd both sides of the white banks of the river, whose surface takes on the black color of an abyss. On the left, in the middle of the painting, an inner earlike representation holds out just above the water’s edge; beneath it there is an object that looks like a dark brown platform, sitting directly on the river itself. The crowded nature of the work suggests a forest, yet the components of the painting remain at a considerable distance from a natural scene. Min’s great skill in making the absurd commonplace, that is, completely believable, makes her paintings striking in nonfigurative ways. She asserts that she works quickly, although she acknowledges that she can carry an idea in her mind for as long as a year before the details become clear. Like Bosch, Min’s realism occurs in the service of a corrective vision that borders on the unknown and the unreal. Her style remains convincing because the particulars of her sensibility naturally occupy a realm in which the imagination finds parallels in genuine systems of the body. As can be seen, her painting demonstrates the extraordinary as something utterly authentic. Min’s proposals don’t make fun of eccentricity so much as they symbolize what the mind can contain – without the references to Christianity taken up by an artist such as Bosch.
“My work,” Min comments, “often seems calm, but there is always the some disturbing point. Somehow the work is ironic; despite the soft colors and tranquil ambience, there is always something that breaks the harmony.” By troubling the waters – that is, by destroying the psychic unity of her paintings – Min makes use of the traditional in order to underscore the contemporary. Her art doesn’t quote her favorite earlier artists so much as incorporate them into the particulars of her style. Central to Min’s position as a current artist is her reliance on an absurdist reading of painting, which despite (or perhaps because of) its eccentricity nonetheless builds imaginary worlds of convincing power. In another vista whose components border on the bizarre, Min has rendered a kind of landscape with a dark, cavelike opening on the left, while clouds that are tan in color, or are the repository of numerous dots within their organic shapes, float over a light-colored ground with some patches of a darker tan. Here as elsewhere Min allows her meticulous style to speak for a believable tableau, even if that tableau is composed of forms found rarely, if at all, on earth. Min’s pictorial strength in this and other works derives from an extended perspective, whose point of view delineates a long sightline. The imaginative expansiveness of her paintings adds to their calm acceptance of absurdity, which she seeks to incorporate into the attributes of her imagination.
As viewers, it is up to us to decide just how coherent Min’s pictures are. The artist insists on calling aspects of her work “nonfigurative,” as opposed to abstract. She finds the term more accurate, in that the “nonfigurative is a figurative thing seen in a strange way.” Abstraction suggests imagery at a distance from what is found in nature, while nonfiguration intimates that Min’s style first encapsulates what can be seen and then renders it different from our expectations, so that the remove from the real is not so palpably different from its origins. In consequence, it is fair to say that Min’s blend of the real and the strange finally fits within a figurative concept, even if we do not easily recognize the origins of her allusion. By balancing her art on the line between the recognizable and the unexpected, Min can move nicely from one suggestion to the next, without straining her audience’s wish to have something to believe in. Min herself claims that her nonfigurative patterns enable her to express a broad range of feeling, without which her art would become sterile and small. Her speed of execution allows her to render complex forms relatively quickly; she says that once the image is clear in her mind, she can realize it on canvas within two weeks.
On the whole, then, Min delivers to us art that is understandable. Some of her shapes seem outlandish, but they never truly cut their ties to the actual system or object they are based on. Again and again the viewer sees Min produce an art that takes us to places that seem archetypal, composed as they are of primitive forms. In another painting that looks unreal, Min includes a highly developed image of a hand, which nearly takes center stage in the work’s arrangement. Biomorphic imagery predominates, again with suggestions of the human boy’s inner workings. Painted on light tan ground, with darker tan and brown patches as well, the painting’s midpoint is its darkest, off of which the hand and other forms rotate. It is hard to tell here just exactly what the artist means, but we know that the internal logic of the piece builds upon its audience’s acceptance of Min’s style as something realistically convincing. Rather than submit to a tried and true significance, Min looks to the edges of the imagination; at the same time, the boundaries of her mind are acknowledged as inherent limitations her dream forms do not exceed. Min produces a merger that invests her views with genuine power; her work struggles against any easy identification with the things we actually see or the things we visualize only in our mind.
In another of Min’s paintings, we face an environment crowded with what looks like overlapping skin cells, which form both a floor and a ceiling. Deep into the painting’s perspective, where the surroundings, backed by a green wall, are darker, a naked woman stands, her hands raised to the sides of her head. The diminutive figure registers as uncanny, a bit of human trouble in an otherwise quiet and peaceful, if strangely conceived, atmosphere. It would appear that she cannot, in the vulnerability of her nakedness, accept the situation she is in. I think that part of Min’s attractiveness as a painter has to do with her penchant for undermining the very values she accepts as true; just as there is a strain between the real and the unreal in her thought, so there is a stress between our casual acceptance of the painting and our acknowledgment that something somewhere is very wrong. Approaching this work, the viewer thinks of 1950s science fiction movies in which people are shrunk to tiny proportions; however, Min is not in the business of campily recalling popular culture from years ago. There is a genuine anxiety in a lot of her work, which is proposed, as she says, more or less dramatically for the benefit of the viewer. One never really accommodates the off note in Min’s art; instead, we learn to accept the discrepancy or trouble in her work as part of her sensibility.
The naked girl, or in another painting the tiny camel flanked by what seem to be parts of faces, most likely act as stand-ins for Min herself, who seems to watch over what she has made. Her avatars create an air of intrigue and also demand that we understand them as substitutes for the artist herself; their presence underscores Min’s understanding of her own work. Interestingly, their existence as personages or creatures in art give them their air of permanency – an eternal present exists in these paintings, which narrate allegories of the imaginative life. In fact, the dramatic element of Min’s paintings results in a stage where almost anything can (and does) take place. Creativity becomes a kind of performance, whereby the audience and the artist reflect upon the reality of what takes place. This element of looking in on a diorama that is more or less convincingly genuine, despite the oddity of the elements with which Min peoples her landscape, affords the viewer the chance to contemplate Min’s eccentric but affecting world. In the long run her murals undermine the very facts of their making, in the sense that she plants a visitor – a version of herself – to oversee the surroundings she has so assiduously constructed. Watching and being watched combine in her art, with the result that her spectators must submit a bit to disbelief, without which the implications of her paintings would not survive.
The camel painting takes place in the middle of a desertlike scene; to the left of the animal there is a complicated series of folds suggestive of limbs and overlapping skin – the implications seem pretty sexual. Closer to the camel Min’s signature cells appear: elongated ovals with dots surrounding a single-color center. The different images in this painting do not closely relate to each other; instead, they seem to function within spheres of their own influence. The disconnect is troubling because Min’s seamless style, and similar color scheme of tans and browns, argues for coherency rather than disorder. The conflict between these two kinds of effects communicates itself along subtle lines. The camel is the only easily recognizable creature in this tableau, although a worthy interpretation of its meaning comes only with difficulty. Min’s essentially flat surface intensifies the suggestion that the act of painting is not quite as important as the concomitant existence of images within differing planes of meaning. Min’s technical aptitude is considerable without being facile; her text is mysterious, however. This is where her critics might well cite the influence of surrealism, which presupposes an atmosphere of imagistic discrepancy to make its points. Min realizes that she is building a world of her own, albeit not one so far from coherency that the paintings lose their sense of purpose. Consequently, she may be thought of an independent, someone who forgoes any easy affiliation with other schools.
In another compelling work, Min sets up an image of a naked woman in the foreground; it seems inevitable that we read the woman as the artist herself. On the far left is a wall that extends to the background of the painting; it is covered with the organic shapes and patterns we have become accustomed to. Behind the female figure is an unsettling construction of treelike tubules, which move horizontally in both directions; the green-brown branches move above her, while those on the floor are just behind her, threatening to swallow her up. Another organic structure, light tan in color, also occupies the center of the painting, but its branches move in the opposite direction, toward the right of the composition. The nude woman, stretched out upon the floor, holds up her head with her right hand; it is as if she is imprisoned by the dark forces of her imagination, which supply a context that both defines and restricts her. As viewers, we are not meant to become entirely comfortable with what we see, which approximates a bad dream in its combination of readability and chaos. It is true, as Min says, that she is dramatizing her inclination toward a world that demonstrates discomfort with the way things are. While she offers little solace and no advice on escaping the paradoxes of her art, there is something positive – or at least not negative – in her determination to reify a general feeling of disorder, which has been subtly set up to communicate psychic disruption. The chaotic structure of her paintings can in fact feel liberating.
Min is most exceptional and most moving when she takes it upon herself to incorporate into her paintings the vulnerability of the human as it faces overpowering circumstances. In a strong work that has fairy tale or mythic overtones, two female figures bend over in what looks like a snowy landscape overtaken by three large circular holes. This time the organic shapes are more or less entirely vertical, with darkness in the background, so that it looks as if the two women are surrounded by a forest. It is hard not to see this as an allegory involving a dangerous loss of direction, with psychological implications that echo the forest Min has rendered. What exactly are the figures doing? Their posture implies discomfort, as if they had been forced to walk bent over while searching for something. The three holes, with encircling stripes of white, look ominous and unfathomable. Part of the painting’s strength derives from Min’s ability to leave its denotative aspect mysterious, so that we can no longer say with certainty what the composition refers to. It is not that Min is deliberately obscure; rather, the ambiguity of her art stems from her willingness to allow the theater of her intentions simply to be. Her viewers follow her into a labyrinth of their own making, cognizant but not certain of the ramifications with which they are faced.
In summary, Min effectively explores the role of the magician, who conveys an air of anonymous secrecy in the dictates of her art. Her flair for the theatrical does not lessen her desire to keep alive opposing ideas active in the same situation. Maintaining a conflict’s integrity in the world of painting strikes me as a very hard thing to do; it makes sense only if the artist appreciates yoking the contrasting examples of thought together by placing them in a singular landscape. Although no one travels easily within the confines of her scenario, her audience recognizes the spell she puts on us as a world of magic realism, in which anything that might happen does indeed occur. Min’s symbolism is private, but not so personal that nothing can be gained by a symbolic interpretation of what she does. These paintings feel nearly like they have been lost in time, echoing without precedents the enduring truths of the imagination. Symbolism may be difficult in the sense that the meaning of Min’s icons, while plausible to her, often remains unknown to her audience; however, the purposeful context of her art encourages her viewers to contemplate as well as admire her art. That we consider at length, over time, Min’s intentions intimates that we are convinced of her fundamental seriousness. The feeling of incongruity, so central to her art, never leaves us, with the result that we find ourselves believing her disjointed imagery and counsel, without which Min would be less persuasive as a painter. Her magic thus belongs above all to the contemporary, its penchant for loss and anxious intuition.
Jonathan Goodman is a writer specializing in contemporary Asian art. He has written on the subject for Art in America, Art Asia Pacific, and Yishu. Based in New York, he currently teaches at Pratt Institute and the Parsons School of Design. This May he returns to China to lecture at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing.