At a time when so much small-bore conceptual work dominates contemporary art, it’s heartening to see artists wrestling with the Big Questions. Ian Harvey and his partner Koo Kyung Sook do it with abstract paintings that locate our brief corporeal experience within the greater scheme of things. They create hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of business-card sized pictures and combine them into collages ranging in size from modest to monumental. Onto each unit they pour enamel, polyurethane, shellac, pigment and metallic paint and allow the ingredients to combine freely, oftentimes with graphite, which creates a textural tug-o-war between grit and gloss. At close range these mixtures resemble microscopic snapshots of cellular activity, their strong colors and dueling viscosities forming an approximation of biological activity. Macro views of full-scale composites show bodies and faces that appear to have survived a fiery holocaust. Twisted and disfigured they exhibit a fierce, life-affirming energy as if immortalized in congealed magma. Like the victims of Pompeii, Harvey’s and Koo’s figures appear both stricken and heroic. By using primordial forms as the building blocks of these abstract/figurative works, the artists communicate both the power of cataclysmic forces and the temporal nature of human existence.
The latest series, consisting of small and medium-sized works, shows the pair pushing these methods to extremes. Grounds, as in previous series, remain bright and relatively open, but the figures and the faces are so packed with visual information they are almost impenetrable. You can enter them anywhere and remain transfixed on individual units — each is a fully realized composition — but bringing whole pictures into focus is a challenge. By further destabilizing images that are inherently chaotic and by ratcheting up the level of abstraction, the artists may have reached the limits of recognition.