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Ian Harvey & Koo Kyung Sook @ JAYJAY

Ian Harvey and Koo Kyung Sook Figure 13, 2012, 63 x 64"

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. 

Neither artist set out to create an apocalyptic vision; it’s a byproduct of their respective strengths, first realized collaboratively during a 2006 residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha.  Koo’s expertise was in body-oriented sculpture and photo-chemically imprinted body images – explorations of what it meant to be female in her native Korea, a decidedly patriarchal society.  Harvey’s was in pushing paint to extremes in works that were (and still are) putative landscapes: a kind of biomorphic Pointillism slash Symbolism supported by geometric grids.
Koo Kung Sook: Markings 12-5, 2012;  Markings 13-4, 2013, digital prints on mulberry paper mounted on aluminum panel, both 56 x 30"
For anyone trying to discern how these divergent aesthetics combine, this show offers a perfect opportunity, since, in addition to the collaborative works, it includes superlative examples of each artist’s solo efforts.  What’s revealed is that the shot-through figures and faces that appear in Koo’s scroll-like photograms are the source material for the collages. The shimmering, luminous paint puddles that roam from eye-popping reds, yellows and blues to glossy/ crusty blacks and neutrals — those are Harvey’s innovations.  Chuck Close long ago provided a template for this kind of activity, but where Close uses repeating ovoids to make photorealistic paintings, Harvey and Koo use abstraction to push representation to the edge of incoherence.  Like Close, they render distinctions between the two modes null and void. 
Ian Harvey, No 145, 2012, mixed media on panel, 30 x 30"

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.

Meanwhile, their solo works continue to evolve, constantly feeding back fresh information into their collaborations.   Koo, for her part, appears to have been inspired by Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries,” and has
long made imprints of her own body; but for this series, she used a wig soaked in photo chemicals to create marks on light-sensitive paper that look closer to things made by wave action than by human hands.  The results are flowing, bubbling, fractured marks that have a lacerating, slashing quality. They’re achieved by strong gestures, but also, in part, through digital cutting and pasting, the results of which are output on a printer. And while there’s less tactility in these works than in prior series where the artist made imprints of her body directly onto paper, the loss is more than compensated for by spatial ambiguities and disruptions where the artist electronically conjoins the pieces – a mirroring of what goes on in the collaborations. That said, these are still very raw, graphically intense works that, like those that preceded them, bring to mind Dubuffet’s Corps de Dame. Citing any of them as exemplary is impossible; each is a masterpiece with unique characteristics.
Harvey, No. 149, 2013, acrylic, gouache, enamel, oil, powdered pigment and shellac on  on panel, 30 x 90"
Harvey's work occupies the cutting edge of postmodern painting.  When I first encountered it in 2008 he was applying thick paint to panels, so much so that it was difficult to decide whether the results were brilliant or out-and-out train wrecks.  (They were sometimes both.)  That boldness has paid off.  His latest solo works, represent significant steps forward.  The qualities I mentioned above are still in force, but they’re supplemented by fresh imagery and more varied explorations of pictorial space, achieved with colliding colors, textures and shapes.  One of the best examples is a 30 x 90-inch triptych on panel called No. 149.  Here we see comic forms that resemble the Michelin man along with cellular shapes located inside of paint pours that have the look of photo transfers.  There are also monochromatic swaths of pigment that float on the surface; strings of eye-like shapes that stare back at you, like evil-spirit charms; and crudely painted geometric shapes that suggest architecture.  Like everything else Harvey does, this is pure process painting.  The only premeditated element is a horizontal blue line that he paints across the top of each work before he begins.  The rest is spontaneous invention.
Together or alone, Ian Harvey and Koo Kyung Sook consistently deliver.  This strong show is the equal of any they’ve done to date.
Together + Alone: Ian Harvey and Koo Kyung Sook @ JAYJAY through June 22, 2013. 

2 Responses to “Ian Harvey & Koo Kyung Sook @ JAYJAY”

  1. gohaxom says:

    Fairly derivative. “Cutting edge” is not replicating the works of more established and original artists.

  2. an amazing review, thank you! Hope to get up to Sacramento to view the exhibition, Kathryn


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