Viewing the Universe and Life:On Cho Sung-Hee's Work With Hanji
It was during the mid-1980's when the use of Asian Mulberry paper (hanji) emerged as a significant medium of expression by the Korean contemporary art community. Before this time, hanji was mainly used by classical oriental painters or merely used for ceremonial wrapping of paper currency. Many contemporary artists saw the abundant material potential of hand-made hanji as an integral part of their artistic vision and over time it became a medium of greater interest. In the 1970's, monochromatic artists such as Kwon Young-Sup, Han Gi-Ju, Park Chul, Yoo Jae-Gu, and others emerged to focus exclusively on the use of hanji as the medium for their work and became founding members of the hanji Artist Association.
As the traditional medium that is deemed best to express the unique characteristics of Korean culture, the ability of hanji to be formed into different shapes is often pointed as its prominent attribute. When immersed in water, hanji can be sculpted into any form. From this perspective, it can be said that it was destined that hanji would become the focus of attention for the talented Cho Sung-Hee, who has shown an exceptional sensibility towards sculptural form. Having started working with hanji in delicate representational work at the beginning of her artistic career, it was natural that she would come to focus on the expressive potential of hanji around the year 2000, as she had gradually moved into the area of abstract art.
Cho Sung-Hee's work can be viewed as a condensation of her existence as well as the epitome of life itself. It appears as if each of the small, round hanji sculptures which embroider her works reflect the artist's particular character, as seen in representations of the countless stars in a night sky; the lotus leaves that fill the surface of a pond; beautiful blossom petals that fall and become stacked by fluttering lightly in the wind; an overgrown field covered with clovers. When these approach us as one unified imagery, it is then when we begin to read the inner thoughts of the artist. The existence of a single artistic work is to act as a vehicle of communication between the artist and the audience. Through this perspective, we can have an extended conversation with the artist. And then we would come to ask, what is the source of the artist's incredible passion? As we observe the works which are the products of the artist's life we come to ask this question. From this perspective and through her works, we can detect her subtle inner feelings, as well as a strong will and passion she has toward her art.
Using the imagery of blossom petals, leaves, galaxies and mushrooms as metaphors for objects in nature, Cho Sung-Hee's works constantly remind us of nature. When viewing her work, what first comes to mind are images of nature based on our own individual experience. What is most important is that in the instance one sees her work, the strong impression received is as if there is a spark, and in that instance one understands the artist's life and further we come to ruminate upon our lives as well.
The mystery or power of a work of art comes from the amount of "artistic conviction" that is invested by the artist. Only once one looks at the long road that Cho Sung-Hee has traveled in the workd of art, can one begin to understand how she came to engage in a diverse monochromatic and polychromatic "peintures d'objets" [object painting], using hanji in her works today. The representation of the limitless universe we see in her work is a reflection of her life in a microcosm and equates to a life of an artist.
In the last several years, Cho has pioneered a new world of hanji through the combined use of hanji and oil based colors. It is a world that has garnered wondrous praise, but also one which involves a labor-intensive process. Through her polychromatic and monochromatic hanji work (which is recently characterized by a convergence toward monochromatism in recent years), she seeks to embed her thoughts into each fragment of paper. Through use of the abundant material properties oh hanji which results in diverse forms and shapes, Cho's works resemble more of a relief than a painting. Considering Cho's exceptional talents in sculpting, this convergence was inevitable. The superiority of Cho's work is not simply based on the aesthetical quality of her relief work; rather it is in the fact that her works also unveil an incredibly diverse array and ability at artistic expression.
The labor involved in forming and twisting countless hanji to make a rod on top of which a circularly cut hanji sculpture will be mounted must indeed be arduous. Nevertheless the result is a feast for the eye. As symbolized by a mushroom that grows surrounded by moss, Cho's work communicates to us the metaphor of the inseparability of nature and human existence.
Cho is not limited to working with cut and collaged hanji. In order to accentuate the materiality of her chosen medium, she uses a technique of shredding the hanji into small fragments and attaching each individual piece to the colage. Layers of blue, green, and red are used to created colors variations as well as to accentuate the irregularity of the hand-torn hanji. The result is an exhibition of the relationship between the conecpts of "many" and "one." Observing at a close distance, Cho's monochromatic works display multiple ("many") layers of visual communication, but when viewed from afar, they have the special characteristic of appearing as "one" color. One may begin to think that Cho's particular perspective on monochromatism is one that is characterized by a philosophy of repetition, action, and sense of touch.
The labor intensive hanji created by Cho radiates an aura unique to handmade objects which are the product of labarious work. The labor of the artist in creating this type of work represents the artist's struggle with oneself—perhaps even a test of perseverance—and displays an artistic characteristic connected to the accumulation of time or the passing of time. To highlight this point, we could even call such labor a "performance" by the artist.
At the heart of a new focus and understanding of Korean monochromatism, which has won recent international acclaim, is a special characteristic of Korean culture formed by the mixing of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. With the foregoing in mind, it can be said that focusing and understanding Cho's hanji work should also now take place with the foregoing cultural heritage as a term of reference.
—Yoon Jin Sup, Art Critic, Ph.