For Ian Harvey and his wife Koo Kyung Sook, collaboration is about wresting order out of manufactured chaos. Harvey specializes in process-oriented abstract paintings that look like time-lapse images of geological events; Koo creates imprints of her body on emulsion-coated photo paper, along with sculptures made of organic matter that address gender issues specific to Korea, her birthplace. In their collaborative works, the artists fuse both sensibilities in wall-sized montages that are as much about virtuoso paint handling as they are about the human condition.
The artists’ largest collaborative works consist of more than 2,000 individual paintings executed on card stock, each unit the size of a standard business card. The cards are dipped, poured and sprayed with combinations of shellac, enamel, polyurethane, graphite, and various synthetic and organic pigments which are then allowed to interact and recombine according to their relative weights and viscosities. The resulting forms mimic cosmic, seismic and meteorological events: floods, volcanic eruptions, starbursts, firestorms and the like.
The first things you notice about these works are their colors. They include every neutral shade you can think of, along with reds, yellows, blues and pinks in hues so saturated they border on psychedelic. Textures roam from porous and ashen to high-gloss, and recall in their palest, roughest, most caustic spots, the shapes and surfaces of Jean Dubuffet’s Corps de Dame.
This is full-throttle painting at its maximally expressive. Harvey and Koo hold back nothing; they give full vent to the intrinsic properties of their materials and allow them to flow and congeal as they please. The artists regard the individual cards as brushstrokes, each akin to the pictorial elements in Chuck Close’s portraits. But where Close paints small, abstract “cells” to realistically simulate the tonal values of photographs, Harvey and Koo compose by arranging and rearranging the individual cards in what amounts to a carefully calibrated tug-o-war between extremes of value and texture. “More often than not,” the artists state, “it is in the uncomfortable moments when it is not possible to control the materials that we discover unexpected expressive possibilities and new layers of content.”
Each picture in these montages features a single, centrally located figure. Ragged, off-balance and shot-through, it appears to be fleeing (or engulfed) in some fiery, cataclysmic event. While not physically imprinted, the outlines of the human forms invoke the recent history of body art, from Carolee Schneemann to Tracy Emin; but unlike so much of that legacy (including Koo’s own works which echo the “anthropometries” of Yves Kline), these pictures aren’t about gender roles or sex; they are about everything else — things that are both smaller and larger. In Figure 4, for example, the yolk-like orbs and ovoid shapes that surround the subject reference the movement and dissolution of body fluids, as well as all microscopic things, like the division of cells.
Harvey and Koo, I believe, have crossed into the same territory that Anselm Kiefer staked out in his scorched Earth paintings of the mid and late 1980s, the ones in which charred fields and Nazi ruins stand in for all that went wrong in the last century (and may well go wrong again if dire predictions come to pass.) How else can we view pictures like Figure 5 and Figure 6? With their green-black cast, frenzied lines sliced into cubist rectangles and fugitive, blackened shadow-figures, they seem to be the very picture of human calamity.
The only thing that might undercut this interpretation is the artists’ occasional slip into over-the-top coloration. In Figure 7, for example, where Harvey and Koo use a swath of hot pink to define the figure, the result is borderline kitsch. Still, such missteps can be instructive: they give us an inside look into the high-wire act that makes this kind of painting so risky — and so powerful when it succeeds, which, it mostly does in the seven collaborative works on view here.
The balance of the show includes solo works. Koo’s life-sized photogram, Markings No. 7-6 (2007), along with two recent smaller works, Markings 9-1 and Markings 9-2 (both 2009), are knock-outs. Frenzied, fierce, monochromatic and densely packed with organic imagery (leaves, twigs, branches and brambles that appear wind-lashed and waterlogged), they carry the force of nature, as do two pieces from the earlier Secret Garden (2002) series which mix the feel of Asian brushwork and photography, whispering their erotic intentions.
Harvey’s recent paintings on wood panels show an expanded vocabulary. Where he previously leaned almost exclusively on paint pouring to give us hyper-stylized visions of geological processes operating within imaginary landscapes, he’s now tossed a monkey wrench into the formula by inserting into his pictures L-shaped geometric forms that feel like excerpts from Mondrian’s grids. This device anchors the amorphous, liquid quality of the work and helps make room for the superimposition of multiple perspectives including objective features, like the cherry blossoms that swoon across the surface of No. 138 and the swimming sperm that hover, parachute-like, above the landscape in No. 139.
Together + Alone demonstrates a substantial leap forward for both artists, both of whom exhibited their collaborative and solo work in 2007 at Sac State. If, per chance, you wondered if that show was a one-hit wonder, lay those doubts to rest. Koo and Harvey, together and alone, are making monumentally important, materially inventive work that will soon, I predict, reach the large audience they so richly deserve.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Cover image: Ian Harvey and Koo Kyung Sook, Figure # 2 (studio), 2006-07, enamel and shellac on paper mounted on paper panels, each panel 22 x 28 inches.