By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, JUL. 2017
House paint. Out of all the different pigmented materials Ayn Choi uses to fill out her abstract paintings, layering sometimes time-consuming techniques over drawings sketched out on unprimed canvas, her use of house paint seems the keynote consolidating her freewheeling artistry into a unified theme. And the more I reflect on the qualities and provenance of house paint, the more I think of it as a metaphor for Choi herself—or at least that part of her revealed in her paintings.
Self-identifying as an “outsider,” Choi’s artistry preserves the outsider’s virtue of not reminding you of anything else. To be sure, she paints within a mode readily identifiable as “abstraction,” and the range of her techniques—including the application of water to canvases thickly layered with paint, which translates their cool greens, purples, and blues into a cascade of twilight hues—are not all that original in themselves. But Choi doesn’t seem to be gunning for originality. What's possibly best about her outsider stance is not what she has taken over from avant-gardes of yore, but her commitment to emotional honesty within the circumscribed genre of abstraction.
As revealed in the exhibition currently showing in the lobby of 635 W 42nd Street, Choi is a devotee of a certain painterly minimalism. A confident restraint pervades her best works: a restraint that seems to strip the white, untouched canvas of its glacial emptiness, as though the splashes of paint hardened to its surface were openings that exposed what was latently concealed within it the whole time.
Which leads us back to house paint—a material that, as Choi uses it, manifests a bold density of coloration and mass. Yet house paint is also disposed to flake off of Choi’s canvases, becoming floating, stringy reliefs, arbitrarily distancing themselves from the segments of a picture they formerly covered. Pictorial purists might question the indeterminacy of such a maneuver. Why create a composition that is only going to undermine itself? But by translating the opacity of house paint into something that feels tentative, on-the-wing, a certain sense of relief, in the sculptural sense, is breathed into Choi's canvases. The use of house paint adds an additional density, a kind of solidity (not unlike a swath of acrylic) that can be imposed on an otherwise uncertain order. Conversely, house paint can also destabilize an existing pictorial arrangement.
While embracing flux and evanescence can be considered a strength, there are some who might claim that this is merely weakness. After all, the structuring of Choi's compositions is not so unique that elements can become unraveled or detached without the whole feeling somewhat lazy. On the other hand, the brittleness of Choi's materials—especially in the way house paint tends to desquamate from unprimed canvas—is what imbues her paintings with their emotional complexity. "Orange You Glad to See Me" (2016), for instance, feels decidedly confident in its brushwork; two different pigments of house paint seem to create two figures opposing each other. But where the paint has flaked off the figures have become porous, semi-transparent. While the artist did not anticipate exactly how the paint would come off, what could be a better vehicle for commentary on the fragility of human relationships than a material that comes apart on its own accord?
Abstract paintings are generally hard to title, and Choi's are no exception. Indeed, compounded with the friability of her media, another thing that makes Choi's paintings difficult to discuss is their lack of titles: a nominative lack which seems to echo the non-figurative interlacing of colors and shapes occupying her canvases. Permit me, then, to describe what I feel is a stand-out work of the exhibition.*
Primarily composed of blue, white, and gold, the painting has a Lee Krasner-like sinuosity about it, while radiating a much quieter energy that is uniquely Choi's own. What might draw viewers to this particular composition is the way it conceals as much as it reveals. The white in the picture is actually painted over little sexualized figures, penises and vaginas, which are still discernable in outline. The overall effect of this form of whitewashing doesn't feel modest so much as symptomatic of the place sexuality occupies in the collective psychology of the West: something at once ever-present, iconic, and subdued.
Although Choi doesn’t consider herself much of a colorist, the painting I’m referring to fits into what she calls her “bruised” series, and, in this instance at least, the title is apt. The painting’s coloration somehow feels vulnerable, pathétique. As for the other works in the show, they similarly demonstrate the power weakness can wield over strength; each exudes an aura of flux and frailty re-discovering themselves as forms of emotional depth, even pathways to resistance. WM
*Since writing this, Ayn Choi has come to title the painting “Mojo not rising” (2016).
Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer & artist currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems & reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, Louffa Press, Drag City Books, & other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading & discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street (NY).view all articles from this author