Since humans first began translating their thoughts, feelings, and observations into images scratched onto cave walls, art has been filled with depictions of the body. Women’s bodies, especially, have served as the subject of innumerable works in all media, variously objectified and manipulated; honored and celebrated; and, beginning in the modern era, reclaimed, often forcefully, by feminist-minded artists aiming to wrest control of the female form. Enter South Korean contemporary artist Seung Ah Paik into this mix, and her intentionally off-kilter paintings of the nude female body—specifically, her own. She bares not quite all in compositions that subtly recall Egon Schiele’s, not to feed voyeuristic tendencies, but, rather, to proffer different ways of regarding the human body—as a ranging landscape; a collection of abstract volumes and forms; a continually shape-shifting, physical embodiment and expression of the self.
Paik begins with black ink, a brush, a camera, and herself. After tracing the lines of her flesh and the network of veins running beneath it with the ink, she photographs herself from various angles, holding a range of poses. Her resulting paintings are based on these photographs. We start with her feet in Reflected (2008). Right foot on top of left, the fleshy, dark pink padding of her toes are foregrounded. The eye follows the feet to the ankles, then up the bent legs, the right one positioned to block prurient views, as well as the rest of the body, save for a hint of hip, an elbow, and a section of arm. In Body (the texture) (2008), the artist focuses on what the work’s title describes: the closely observed texture of the skin of her hand against that of her torso; while in Hurt (2009), we see her from above, curled into a tight ball and appearing as a misshapen circle interrupted by clasped hands. In these, as in all of her compositions, Paik describes her skin in unflinching detail with layered washes of translucent pigment, a technique based upon the traditional Korean ink-and-brush painting that inspires her. At once abstract and naturalistic, foreshortened and flattened, her body fills the shallow space of the picture plane, pressing up against the surface of the canvas, intimate and alien.