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Jo Sook Jin

Jo Sook Jin, Daesan Art Museum facebook


1960, Gwangju


Sculpture, Installation, Photography



Untitled, 2011

Wooden objects,fabric, oil, 200 x 110 x 90cm

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Sook Jin Jo: The Limits of Art, the Limits of Life

As one of Korea’s most interesting artists, Sook Jin Jo has fashioned a career that offers people many different kinds of art: sculpture, drawing, performance, installation, and public works. Intent on working at the interstices of categories, where sculptures subtly merge with installations, or drawings document performances, Jo has shown us it is still possible to find creative niches that feel both traditional and contemporary. Jo’s sculptures, perhaps the most prominent of her media, depend upon found materials usually wood or furniture taken from the streets early in the day, before being picked up by refuse collectors. Her dependence on the random appearance of appropriate materials gives her art a magical feeling; it is as if the lives of those who lived previously with the wood had somehow become present in the resonance of the objects found by the artist. Jo, whose art is characterized by presence and absence at the same time, employs used materials because their scarred surfaces suggest life before their use as art. But it Is also true that she is suggesting a world beyond that which we inhabit a world that inevitably reminds us of our own death. By combining presence and absence, Jo clearly seeks the expression not of religious dogma so much as the spiritual awareness of the life events responsible for such doctrines.
It happens, then, that the spiritual life Jo posits seen, for example, in 'Color of Life', a 1999 performance at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, where participants in open, stacked barrels considered their own death involves the close study of mortality. Yet Jo, who is sharply cognizant of the limits of her life and those of others, documents her recognitions as filled with a belief that may best be described as holy. The unconventional nature of her attitude, what we might call a concerted meeting with death, results in insights that take on a deep seriousness without becoming somber or morbid. This is, given Jo’s choice of subject, exceedingly hard to do, and one of the genuine pleasures of her art is seeing her work as catholic and ecumenical in other words, free of rigid doctrine in the face of death’s awareness. Some of Jo’s most successful pieces have to do with meditation spaces in the woods, where someone can contemplate basic ideas and feeling within the solace of nature. In one instance, a meditation space built in the year 2000 in upstate New York, her arrangement of four open walls of branches do not protect the participant from the vicissitudes of the weather; instead, it suggests that nature can offset but not do away with the primal questions of our existence. In Jo’s setting, meaningfulness derives from our contemplation of such questions, even as we know that we cannot transform the limitations of life.
Jo’s emotional depth, faced with the psychic complications of impermanence, infuses all of her art with a seriousness of purpose. This does not mean that she is hopelessly grim and lacks humor; indeed, one of the pleasures of knowing her is that she possesses a humorous candor that lightens her essentially earnest nature. For me, Jo is a sculptor first and foremost, and we must remember that sculpture’s original function was to furnish a memorial for the dead. All there markable developments in this field cannot take away sculpture’s primary purpose, the memento mori. In a magical way, Jo seeks to translate the particulars of memory into a profound, worldwide understanding of its space asa center for the healing of loss. She knows that loss is central to everyone’s experience of life, but she also proposes that art can both sanction and ameliorate its experience in terms that reflect a positive, indeed a nearly sanctified transformation of mind. She sees the Big Picture, then, but she does not allow it to dominate her lively, finely honed imagination. Part of her truth stems, as we have seen above, from her inspired use of materials, but there is also the presence of the spirit animating these materials in spiritual ways.
How else does the spiritual manifest itself in Jo’s work? Well, for one, she has worked with poor school children in Bahia, Brazil, close to a studio where shehad a residency fellowship to make art. Jo and the students decorated an outside wall of the school together, in a common effort that expressed itself as much as a performance as the group’s production of art. This small project became a statement of pride and ignited the children’s interest in art; such communal activities reflect Jo’s concern with the world beyond the sometimes close confines of the art scene, where posturing and vanity can get in the way of making good work. Indeed, on a profound level, the project shows us the depth of Jo’s commitment to an esthetic that relies on shared materials and effort, which lend an ambient energy to the combined work and its realization. Her point Is not only to create, but also to help young people understand the potential of their own creativity, which animates absence or emptiness. Something is done to work out a strategy ennobling our limited lives, whose purpose remains beyond our comprehension. Art can lend dignity to anyone’s circumstances, no matter how straitened they may be.
We can see Jo’s determination in a public work completed in 2009, entitled, 'Wishing Bells: To Protect and To Serve', done in an outside site in Los Angeles, next to the newly built detention center for the Los Angeles police. Here, Jo, who despite her Korean background has been careful to address her audience in non-Asian terms, uses a Buddhist approach to her project. For the outdoor installation, cedar columns were introduced as supports for a metal matrix from which 108 bronze bells are hung; the number of bells corresponds to the number of desires recognized in Buddhist thought. Hanging from each bell’s clapper is a positive tag, marked with words such as “Kindness” and meant to offer hope to those who pass through the installation. For Jo, the point of the project has been to extend solace in situations where it is badly needed. The native decency of Jo’s sensibility may be read as part of her creativity in general, in which a sense of conviction is mirrored by an original intention. In fact, Jo is uncommon in that her intentions become as important as her expressiveness. But then this is part of her general directness of purpose.
'To The Unknown God(2007)', perhaps Jo’s most original installation to date, consists of beams, branches, and trunks of wood arranged seemingly haphazardly across a wide expanse. The work is too crowded with material for the audience to walk through; it is much like a crowded thicket from which individual pieces of wood rise, as if to acknowledge the unknown god above. An extraordinary piece of work, 'To The Unknown God' shows us that Jo is capable of making a spiritual statement in purely existential terms, in the sense that hope and loss hang in the balance of what none of us know. Far from discouraging us, the installation’s bleakness turns back on itself, and in doing so deliberately accommodates wonder and, for the thoughtful viewer, even awe in the face of the unknown. In some ways, Jo remains outside the pale of contemporary art, with its insistence on theory, politics, and lack of skill (as a rejoinder to the market’s extreme commercialism). Instead, she does what spiritual artists have always done: present a glimpse of what lies on the other side of our perception. Her work is intelligent, sensuous, and focused, informing us of our possibilities, as well as her own.

Jonathan Goodman. art critic


Sook Jin Jo by Donald Kuspit

Sook Jin Jo has a way with wood: she takes tired, old, abandoned pieces of it, often fragments of demolished buildings?old doors and shutters, and plywood panels and assembles them in eloquent constructions, full of melancholy serenity. A fragment is emotionally uncanny, and Jo uses her fragments to great emotional effect. She is extraordinarily sensitive to irregularity: the grain in wood, the erratic shapes of fragments. In her hands, they become a kind of gestural nuance, full of unexpected grace and poignancy a felicitous found “automatism.” At the same time, Jo's constructions are ingeniously self-contained and regular?geometrically clear. Overall, they are carefully balanced harmonies. Inwardly asymmetrical, outwardly symmetrical, they show the occult in action. She has made, out of fragments, symbols of incompleteness and ruin, works of art that are complete and whole and absolute. She uses her primitive materials with great refinement. Art is a way of reclamation and renewal for Jo, even of redemptive transformation: she shows there is still esthetic life in dead things. She does not deny disintegration, but shows that it can lead, unexpectedly, to a new integrity.
Her work is not “junk sculpture” in the ordinary sense. She is not just accumulating detritus to ironic effect, as though to mock society with its own waste. Rather, she is a formalist, using “deviant” materials. The play simultaneity of two and three dimensions in her pieces counts for more than the particularity of any material. The tension between line and painterly surface axiomatic geometry and spontaneous gesture matters more than the fact that her materials were found in the street. She is a modernist, overcoming ordinary esthetic differences, and always true to her medium, apart from its social meaning. She is “street smart,” but, more than that, art smart. Thus the various of 1993 have more to do with music they are an intimate chamber music than the street. They belong to the grand modernist tradition it began with Kandinsky that insists that visual art must model itself on music, which is simultaneously logical and expressive, abstract and emotional, and above all with not the slightest hint of mimetic purpose. That same tradition argues that art is enigmatic, in that it articulates what is inherently enigmatic in existence. It regards wood grain as a sign of the enigmatic force of nature, and the fragment as an enigmatic form. Jo makes enigmatic music out of grainy fragments of natural material that has in effect been returned to a state of nature, for it is no longer useful to society. The street, for Jo, is a weird abandoned space of nature, full of its irrational remains like an area of forest that has been ruthlessly cut down rather than part of a rational city plan.
There is nothing arbitrary and vulgar about Jo's abstract compositions, as there is about the crude materials found on the street. Andre Breton once said that the dialectic of street and museum haunts modernist art: the point is to look at the street with a museum eye, that is, to see its transient things from the viewpoint of eternity to see the potential eternity in them. While an artist like Alan Kaprow chose to emphasize the street at the expense of the museum for him Forty Second Street was more vital than any museum Jo strikes a judicious balance between them, recognizing that the museum is not so much a mausoleum and morgue, as Kaprow thought, but a symbol of transcendence. And to achieve transcendence is to heal a wound: the fragments she finds in the streets are like injured birds, who are given new artistic wings in her works. For Jo, art is not just a faded repetition of life in her case an echo of materials that are themselves echoes of life but an esthetic transformation of it that points to a meaning beyond yet latent in it, and that makes it more meaningful than it ordinarily seems to be. Jo’s works are thus both memento mori of the street and symbols of a higher consciousness that transcends it.
T. W. Adorno has argued that in modernity art oscillates between the poles of Constructivism and Expressionism, and that each is at its best when it has nothing to do with its opposite. But part of the point of post modernity is that such purity has become empty; only the fusion of the traditional modernist opposites a subtle, synergistic hybridism can create a sense of esthetic resonance, that is, rich affect and symbolic pregnance, as Clement Greenberg called it. This is what Jo gives us: expressionistic constructions. Even more, she has used her wooden fragments to construct a kind of expressionistic still life. This seems especially true of her paper works; each part seems autonomous, and has its own flair and intensity. But the synergism between them is truly expressionistic: they seem about to erupt beyond their borders, even as the work as a whole remains stable. The paper works, as well as the ongoing series entitled, are ostensibly static yet intensely fluid even violently disrupted inside. It is as though Jo has trapped the dynamic latent in the fragments in the form of the works.
At the same time, her works have an inherent, brooding grandeur, enhanced no doubt by their tableau format, that invites meditation and self-communion. Indeed, the monumental horizontal works, such as, are altarpieces in all but name. The free-standing pieces of wood that flank the giant central panel are like guardian saints at the entry to a sanctuary the holy of holies. Works such as and, both 1994, and the especially marvelous, 1995, make the religious dimension of Jo's work clear. Jo remembers the Little Prince's statement that “The reason the desert is beautiful is because a well is hidden somewhere.” In this piece, the window is simultaneously desert and life-giving well debris from the desert of the street, and a window onto the wonder of heaven. The smaller works are like shrines one might come upon in the obscure alcoves of an ancient cathedral. They seem to at once veil and invoke an interior space, in which unnamable spirit lurks. Thus Jo has taken profane materials and created a sacred art, conveying a sense indeed, affording an experience of the numinous, as Rudolph Otto called it. She indeed takes us “over there,” which in her case means into the depths of her interior life, where alone transcendence of the conditions of outer life the street is possible.

Donald Kuspit, art critic