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Myungjin Song

Myungjin Song, Ilhyun Museum


1973, Busan





Objects 2, 2011

Acrylic on Canvas, 60 x 194cm

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A Narrative of Paintings within a Painting How Are Different Levels of Paintings’ Subject Matters Combined?

1. A Short Review  
Some may recall my critique that Song Myung-Jin was faithful to Greenbergian Formalism, but in the middle of attempting some new things as an emerging artist in the 2005 solo exhibit titled as “Surface of Landscape,” which was on view at the Geumho Art Museum. Briefly, though addressing flatness as an inherent characteristic of painting governed by Modernism, she suggested, as a sort of solution to the condition of painting, a reinforcement or intervention of a monotone surface through ambiguous forms that stir up the viewer’s thoughts instead of employing a high level of abstraction or an exploration into materiality. In Some Trace Ⅳ, there are surfaces that seem to be turned over toward the backside on the entirely green(‘opaque oxide of chromium’) canvas. Here, despite figurative depictions, her pictures were still conceptually conscious of flatness as an identity of painting. While flatness of painting played a primary role, figurative depiction served as a secondary motif and contributed to the entire composition by encompassing both levels of intellect and sensation. It is noticeable, however, that Song’s painting has taken a somewhat different direction since then.
   This may be simplifying things too much, but Song’s paintings between 2006 and 2007 apparently put first the depictions of forms or the delineation of events with images, while placing the conceptual level dealing with flatness on the back burner. This analysis of Song’s work is not intended to evaluate which is better or worse. Rather, it is necessary to distinguish what is the main component of an artist’s painting through each period of their career while considering that painting is composed of various elements. I assume that Song’s recent work emphasizes illustrations within painting, whereas the meta-concept of composing a painting has loosened its control. Ironically, it is intriguing that the lessened control of the latter is caused by the detailed description of events. In other words, the paintings from this period are full of attractions that can be amusing to viewers on a visual level, thus leading them to imagine a further narrative. From this point on, the virtual character serving as an agent in a visionary world must have played a role. ‘Finger humans’ as named by the artist, who seem to have the lower parts of a human body with only butts and legs, reveal various levels of living scenes, like a kaleidoscopic sphere full of allegory in a virtual world. From my point of view, this virtual world comes to gain much more detailed attractions with the help of these finger humans and yet some meta-issues and conceptual thinking have become less prevalent. 

2. Structure of the Double Screen, Details of the Meta-Narrative    
This doesn’t necessarily mean that Song’s consistent embrace of the structural conditions of painting is indispensable in order to establish her own art world. The primary reason why I mention this is related to my interest in her early stages, concerning a possible solution on the conceptual level along with representational aspects. On a secondary level, the newest work that will be on view at the Sungkok Art Museum addresses whether flatness and illustrational images can be combined. This shows that Song still sees this issue as a crucial one and therefore we need to give our attention to this agenda, with a new approach that is appropriate to her varying endeavors. 
For the critical assessment, we need to call our attention to ‘What role does the detailed illustration play? Is it for a simple visual attraction or for an allegorical message encompassing the conceptual level of her work that is hardly understandable?’ To make it short, flatness, as a physical condition of painting is involved with both internal narrative and external meta-concepts at the same time. That is to say, Song’s work seems to be an allegory in which finger humans appear, but in actuality the meaning signified by the allegory serves as an indicator of the ‘general condition of painting’ or in a narrower context, ‘painting governed by Modernism.’ As is known, painting refers to an act of drawing pictures with pigments and brushes (and other materials or tools) on a two-dimensional surface or the subsequent result. Here, auditory or tactile senses are taken as less important as the visual. In other words, painting has no sound, cannot be touched, and only exists as an image on a flat surface. How is it possible to think of a painting from the outside, while still maintaining these general conditions, without abandoning ‘representational form evoking illusions’ and ‘narratives’ that once were considered taboo in Greenbergian Modernism? To put it otherwise, is it possible to try a meta-criticism?
  Song’s answer to this is the ‘double screen,’ referring to paintings within a painting. In the structure of double screen, allegorical stories illustrated in pictures serve as a criticism to painting and the criticism is not done with words, but with images. Therefore, what I mean by the structure of double screen does not literally refer to paintings within a painting, but needs to be understood in terms of the content in relation to the theme of painting. This structure of work is a divisive line distinguishing her paintings done between 2006 and 2007 and her recent work. Furthermore, unlike the visual satisfaction offered by the earlier works, it operates as a factor to supply some possible intellectual entertainment through allegorical images. Now, it is time to take an investigative look at each work. 

3. Details of Allegory and Principles of Flat Painting
When taking a first glimpse at A Foolish Step 1, most people’s attention is probably riveted to the daringly painted greenish colors that occupy almost 80 percent of the entire canvas. The surface looks both two dimensional and three dimensional where green pieces of paper hang in the air like some type of nets. This is because the upper part, as in color field painting, is turning into a roughly netted green paper wall as a represented object. This means that with no specific divisive line, the actual physical space is turning into a virtual one with images. A Foolish Step 1 self-references a two dimensional space as a given condition and simultaneously shows a three dimensionally represented space. Besides, it is noticeable that several criticisms toward generic painting sporadically appear as allegory in the painting. For instance, among them is the insertion of traces of ‘drawing lines’ in the white zones of the canvas scattered among the pieces of green papers. In addition to this, allegorical figures in the lower part of the painting parody brushstrokes that were once revered by Modernistic artists as the presence of themselves as well as the self-referentiality of painting. Seemingly struggling to take card-sized papers off the net wall, the short brushstrokes project Song’s intention to reveal the naked canvas after removing the shallow skin of images. The structure of double screen implies how to combine images and concepts in which details of depicted forms serve as an act of creation revealing ‘identity of painting’ on a meta-level. This is the case as well in Two Persons, A Foolish Step 2, and Passing Through. The differences, if any, lie in the ratio of her emphasis on each part between allegorical narrative with the detailed depiction of objects and the intensity of modernistic painting rules. 
   Among paintings that address conditions of painting from a bit of a different perspective are the series of Soft Monument 1 to 5. What matters here is concerned not so much with the space in a painting, but the tactile sense that is usually unattended and considered less important in painting. Inspired by monuments displayed at a stone carving yard in ByeokJe in the middle of her commute from work to home, its main motif consists of varied weird shapes of stone sculptures. Although seemingly acting as sculptures due to their bases, they are far from any specific representational form and even exude a soft and cushiony feeling that the observer can notice. Resembling the crinkles of a brain or a crooked tongue tightly tied, the multiple heads and butts are linked directly as if they are unknown creepy creatures. Thus, these illustrations are involved with tactile senses in addition to their visual effects. As if suggesting that viewers can grope through each canvas with their eyes, or that it is waiting for their touch, the soft monuments challenge the fixed concept that art should be centered to only visual perceptions. 
   On the other hand, we can find the same structure of double screen in the work previously mentioned. As just mentioned, the condition of painting in which vision is associated with touch allows us to ‘think.’ The acts by the allegorical figures are expressed along with the tactile experience of vision. In other words, touches are metaphorically converted into visions. In particular, Soft Monument 3 shows finger humans unusually tying the monuments on pedestals with white thin threads, thus leading the beholder to perceive how soft and cushiony the represented monuments are. 
  When looking at her recent paintings, we find that Song takes a bit of a different path from her earlier methodology in relation to meta-narrative and anecdotal images. Seemingly, Song’s work can look too obvious, but in actuality she tries quite a complicated attempt of associating these two different levels and constructs her own artistry. In the process, it sometimes gets too bland by being tilted toward allegorical expressions and detailed images. Besides, some of them provide too much visual attraction and enjoyment allowing the viewer to be engrossed with the visual and auditory experiences. I admit that successful details definitely lead the viewer be amused with their eyes visually and can even move their minds. On that level, the statement from Sollers écrivain by Roland Barthes, ‘Wonders are a shy beginning of fantasy,’ is valid in visual art as well as literature. As seen in her recent work, however, the fantasy felt while appreciating painting will be fulfilled when the viewer willingly reads the multiple layers under the surface, understands the hidden significances, and recomposes them into a new structure. It is not unlike the experience of a new world enabled by imagination beyond the temporal and spatial limits of reading a literary work. 

Kang Su-mi (Aesthetician, Art critic)


Stage of Matters, Visual perception of the Surface - What I saw in Song Myung-Jin's Paintings

Even in the age of video, with its brilliantly moving mis-an-scene of all sorts, there is something that can be called the "delights of painting." Though different in nature, these "delights" can be shared both by the painter and the spectator of the painting done by the painter. One of such delights is experienced as the artist visualizes a world that could not be seen by anyone other than the artist him/herself on the flat, enabling me, you and us to see it together. In a Herakleitoic sense, the awake share their world. On the other hand, those asleep each have their own world. While the former is the world of reality, which can be visually shared by anyone can see and is aware, the latter is the world of dreams, which can only be known by the dreamer. If an artist can successfully paint his/her unique world of dreams (or fantasy or concept), the rest of us, who were unaware of that world, get to experience the delight of sharing that world through the painting.  
Though I have no intention to repeat the debate on the distinction between painting and photography, which seems to have been already resolved, and though it appears that the video image has transcended its duty to represent reality and is  carrying out the tasks of simulation perfectly, I want to stress the many paths of  possibility that painting has been paving in our world of visuality. Those paths branch out over flat canvas or paper to our visual senses, and on those paths, movement without motion takes pace and events occur endlessly regardless of time. Of course such definition is limited to successful paintings, and it is the painting of Song Myung-Jin that I bear in mind as I give this explanation.  

1. Methodology of the surface : from the limits of the flat to recomposition of the narrative
   Considering the fact that painting is an art that takes place on the surface of the flat, which has no movement or sound, there are times when feel skeptical about how colorful could the delights achieved from there possibly be. But from time to time, we encounter paintings that make us doubt those doubts. The paintings of P. Cézanne, Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon are in that category. The paintings of Song Myung-Jin is in the same case as well. They give us the pleasure that can only be experienced from paintings. Looking at P. Cézanne's Still Life with Apples and Oranges, with the table placed cater-cornered and apples that look like they are about to roll off, we marvel at the way the flat is translated into space, in Richter's Untitled, which represents an abstract realistically, we feel not only visual but also intellectual pleasure at the paradoxical homogeneity of the abstract and the figurative. Further, in Bacon's studies on portraits series, there is no need for words with regard to the movement involved in the perceived flat pictorial plane. In discussing the work of young artist Song Myung-Jin, who is about to unfold her world of art, the reason for mentioning the masters of Western contemporary painting is not to demoralize this artist or to place her painting among the ranks of the masters. It is to emphasize that though Song may not be their legitimate descendent, her paintings do succeed to their awareness of painting. In discussing Bacon's painting, G. Deleuze said "every artist summarizes the history of painting in his/her own way." If that is true, artist Song Myung-Jin is no exception. Though the motives and appearances differ, to give an example, Cézanne's pursuit to  realize 3-dimensional space on the 2-dimension is attempted in Song's painting as extreme emphasis of flatness in depicting the subject. The identity of abstraction, in question by Righter, is twisted once more in Song's painting, as she makes paintings with specific forms look like color field paintings. The aspect of movement in Bacon's work is dealt with by presenting frozen scenes of which spectators can anticipate the movement, rather than depicting a sequence of the moments of movement. For a spectator to anticipate movement is to imagine the movements before and after the given scene, even though there is no motion in the painting itself. This is because the artist did not represent the movement on the flat, but painted the traces of movement, or a state of fixed movement. Spectators get involved in this trace or state with their imaginations, and recompose the narrative of the painting. At Song's first solo exhibition, Image Capture, I said this was the "role of the spectators", which is essential in this exhibition as well. As a spectator myself, I also looked at the artist's work before others and made an imaginative intervention. I will put what I have seen into words.    
2. Contents of the surface : The flat is a stage of events        
   A single color is covering almost the entire surface of the canvas. It is an opaque green (opaque oxide of chromium). But in detail, I see not just an opaque green surface, but shapes. The shapes, which look like a gang of green little goblins overlapping without order, or a clump of green seaweed, are coagulated as if they were to take over the white canvas. In another painting, while the opaque green forms a homogeneous background, the forms of three people are painted, as if they just ripped through the surface of the green canvas. Though I said forms of people, it is only the outline that looks that way, and actually there is no face or gesture. In an other painting with two 2 meter-width canvases there is a gigantic green grid. On one side, the grids are melting and evaporating as they reveal their floors, while on the other side, a hard grid that looks like it was cut roughly with a saw is spread out on the floor. This is not all. All the paintings displayed by Song in this exhibition have green taking over as much as half of the entire picture, and certain shapes or events which cannot be clearly identified are depicted in the paintings.  
   That is why the paintings of Song Myung-Jin seem to inherit and betray the tradition of modernist color field painting at the same time. In the grammar of modernist painting, Malevich, Barnet Newman, and Mark Rothko defined the flatness of painting by phenomenologically revealing the relationship of colors and the surface in the pictorial plane. This was not transforming the visual world, which we all know, to an illusion of painting, but presenting the materialness of painting itself in a drastic way. Song emphasizes that the painting was dong on a flat surface by presenting the contents of the painting in opaque oxide of chromium and not imitating the forms realistically. If such aspect looks as if Song internalized the anti-illusion aspect and self identity of modernism painting into the characteristics of her own painting, nevertheless, by filling such color fields with certain shapes or transforming them to the stage of an event, the artist is able to create a new path, different from the existing modernist painting. Or, it seems that she is betraying the solemn canon of such grammar. As described in words above, her paintings present shapes of objects and events condensed in green which cannot be defined easily.  The shapes and events are done in different grades of tone as if they were tuned to the time-absent flat space, but nevertheless look 2-dimensional and motionless. The 2-dimensionalization of the 3-dimensional and movement of the immobile were what comprised the visual world studied and achieved in the paintings of Cézanne. Of course, such characteristics are not perfectly achieved in Song's painting. In a way, he method of treating objects flatly seems closer to an illustration technique, and the immobility seems to represent the frozen state itself, rather than the tension right before or after movement. But, such characteristics should be seen not as deficiencies compared to historical paintings, but as the unique features of her painting.  

3. Visual perception of the surface : From following with the eyes to imaginating, from stationary to movement
In the aspect of contents of the painting, which is revealed visually, the peculiarity of Song Myung-Jin's painting is also materialized through the above-mentioned illustration technique and depiction of the frozen state. Earlier, I wrote my views on several paintings, but in fact, the titles given to the paintings by the artist were indicating the shapes or events in the paintings as something different. What I saw as green men overlapping each other or multiplying green seaweed, according to the artist, were trees (Growing Tomb), and what I saw as human figures tearing through the canvas were actually people in a grass field (Into the Field). Though spectators are free to see anything they want in paintings, regardless of the artist's intention, what was the reason for seeing simple forms such as trees or people on the grass so differently? I give the analogy that it is because the artist sees the ordinary visual world differently and shapes it differently from us. As objects or human figures change into strange shapes and unexplainable events take place in the world of dreams or fantasy, Song Myung-Jin observes the landscapes of daily life strangely and visualizes what she has seen in her canvas. Thus, the world which only the artist could see is transferred to the shared world of visibility which we can all see. In that world, a bird, which looks like it was frozen in flight, flies over a landscape of a gigantic mountain embracing numerous small hills. It is somewhat surprising that the scene of a graveyard built where the mountain has been cut away, which can be easily witnessed out the window of an express bus, looks like that to the artist. Field of Landscape is a painting of the river banks in front of the artist's house. Without the explanation in the title, we would only see all the stylized plants, which could perhaps be found in fairy tales, and the variation of the flat green vegetation. By depicting objects or landscapes 2-dimensionally in a variation of just one hue, the artist makes us feel alienation. On the other hand, the events that take place in the paintings do not follow the rule of causality, but are presented like a scene of a stage, stirring our imaginations. Before Song's paintings, we do not just follow the images with our eyes, but also perform "imagination" using the painting as a motive. For example, as we look at In the Shadow, we try to imagine what kind of conspiracy the four people (if they are actually people), half buried in the green grass under the thick shadow of the bridge column, are up to. Not only do we imagine the events, but also the movement. "Whik" is a painting of the trace of something that zoomed across a grass lawn under a bridge, drawing a diagonal parabola. However, the subject of the movement and how such a trace was made is up to your imagination. Song's paintings consistently request this "(imaginative) intervention by spectators." The request can be interpreted as the hope of the artist for us to actively move our thoughts and visual perceptions as we face the surface of the painting, beyond contemplation, which is the traditional way of art appreciation. As dreams are short, the impressions we get from objects and events are also short. And as dreams originate from our imagination, the impressions we get from objects and events are based on our imagination as well. To paint is to extend such shortness of a dream or impression, or individuality into a picture. Some paintings go beyond tying such impressions on the flat, and share them with others and move them (the viewers and the impressions themselves). Song's paintings also belong to this category. 
Some readers may denounce me, saying what makes such characteristics the delight of painting, and even if it was delight, how could us ordinary spectators besides certain art appreciators well versed in art theory "share" such excessive intellectuality. Reasonable as it is, such criticism is valid only for pointing out the difficulty of this article, which interprets the artist's painting into words. So we must see the series of paintings painted by Song Myung-Jin. We must see how the personal visual world of the artist which was asleep, developed into a shared space of visibility, and enjoy it fully. Who knows? If that sort of appreciation is successful, perhaps this overly pedantic critique may be comprehended. 

Kang Su-mi (Aesthetician, Art critic)