Tenri Cultural Institute of New York
43A West 13th Street
New York, NY
May 4 – 14, 2016
by Jonathan Goodman
Chi-Gil Jang. Tongyeong’s Special Melody. 2015. 67.5x 48 in. Pigment, Korean Paper on Panel.
Chi-Gil Jang is a Korean painter based in Korea. He most often makes use of Korean themes or imagery in his art. It is not always easy for the Western viewer to understand the implications of an artist like Jang, whose skilled use of pigment on Korean paper results in pictures of unusual beauty and subtle form. Indeed, the compositions often might be characterized as decorative—a word not usually associated with extraordinary accomplishment in painting. But in the Korean classical tradition, as in the other East Asian traditions, the ornamental is part of a larger vision and system.
In the case of Jang, who is not alone in his current practice of deliberate beauty, we see an artist committed to a kind of painting that reflects Korean art history even as it makes its way toward contemporary life. Often his images are strengthened by both present-day design and even bits of formalist abstraction; and so we remember that current pictorial practice is now an international phenomenon, with artists borrowing from cultures and epochs not necessarily their own. The poetic beauty of Jang’s art may well owe its structure to the past, but the luxuriousness of its effect cannot be written off simply as historical. Instead, the melding of tradition with a contemporary voice anchors the latter, so that the perception of the painter becomes entirely new.
In much new Western art, there is an emphasis on the conceptual—the intellect shapes and forms the visual content of the work. There are of course many artists in Eastern Asia that make use of such a methodology; however, Jang is not one of them. He relies instead on an esthetic of lyric disclosure, albeit one in which the terms reveal unusual technical skill in the traditional Asian method, as well as an exquisite hand specifically in the painting of flowers. Often the background consists of a flower-like design, hand-painted and repeated as we might experience the design of Korean textile.
The real point facing Jang’s audience is whether or not to accept such historicism as valid so late in esthetic time. He might easily be criticized for a tunnel vision that bypasses modernity and makes its way into a legacy in which scholarship trumps any new insight. But this would be a facile judgment; in today’s world art culture, where most anything is acceptable most anywhere, Jang’s scholarly review of his culture’s painting practice can be seen as a new historical outlook, one in which the sharp break of modernism has not distanced the artist from painterly origins.
One can experience the dual impulse of Jang’s imagination in the diptych entitled, “Taste for the Arts: The Pear Blossom,” (2016) constructed of a red vertical panel—a scroll, really—on the left, and a blue panel of the same size on the right. In both scrolls, about two- thirds of the way down in the compositions, is a sharply, beautifully rendered pear blossom, with the petals in white and the leaves in green. The flowers are supported by red patterns on the left and blue patterns on the right; stippling the background of both scrolls are the designs of constellations rendered in dots connected to each other by lines.
The overall effect is that of a momentary apotheosis of nature, emblematic of the hidden models that govern the expressiveness of the natural world. As someone who has spent much time writing on Asian art, I take the unabashed embellishment of the painting (pigment on Korean paper on panel) for what it is: a homage to the past, but one which takes its learned impulse as a springboard for modern art. The isolation of the two pear blossoms is by itself an acknowledgment of a certain kind of loneliness, which cannot be assuaged by the attraction of the flowers alone.
Another remarkable painting is a diptych, a seascape with an island and a bay that mirror each other on each panel. Named “Tongyeong: Special Melody,” (2015) the work is a rendering of where Jang comes from. The upper two-thirds of both panels are covered with an abstract design done in two blues, while the lower third is composed of a green island and a bay that duplicate each other. What a mixture of formal design and lyric landscape!
The line separating the two paintings ends up accentuating the similarities between the two. One senses that Jang has fashioned a visual homage to his home, with an active awareness that culture, in the form of the textile-like patterns, and nature, produced in the curves of the island and bay, merge in the best examples of Asian fine art. The settings in Jang’s art bring about a structure that is as formal and analytic as it is inspired and intuitive, but the real achievement is found in the merger between established structure and quick insight. He has thus found his own, new path, even as he recognizes its support from his country’s great inheritance of classical painting.