Seongmin Ahn: Enchanted Reality
January 19 through April 14, 2023
By JONATHAN GOODMAN, March 2023
Seongmin Ahn was instructed in traditional painting at Seoul National University, and then received her MFA in America , at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She remained in the States, moving to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where she currently lives and works. Her art, influenced by Miniiwa, Korean folk painting, often consists of a central void surrounded by painterly effects. These effects could also serve as a frame for the interior space. Additionally, most likely because the artist has spent a long time in New York, her painting efforts can also suggest, in a small way, the influence of contemporary Western abstraction–or the intellectualism of a conceptual bias. But again, these influences are hardly direct. Ahn’s technique and sensibility remain highly measured, being restrained by her apparent need for an art of depth and emotional weight.
Hyperdimension Within 07 (2023) depicts an abstract object that looks like it should be recognizable, but which evades our ability to work out a readable meaning. It is a slightly angled, flat plane, divided into brown quadrants with horizontal lines cutting across their width. The panels surround a lime green rectangle with side extensions; the entire display is of an object of considerably rational form, albeit form from another world, as indicated by the work’s title.
Yet such restraint does not necessarily suggest emotional limitations. The aura that a Western audience might perceive could be linked nearly to a conceptual insight into the complexity of built things, or the beauty of limitless space. Korean artists would likely find it easier to see the historical background behind the painting. But no matter the different interpretations from viewers from different places, Ahn has very successfully envisioned an imagery that proceeds from the past, even as she makes work that keeps up with the present.
At first, the paintings appear relentlessly abstract. Ahn’s paintings are highly structural and come close to looking like patterns and designs. The work in this show does not address the emotional theatricality that so often accompanies American art. The marked structure of Ahn’s paintings is not only evidence of a personal preference, it is also a decision on the artist’s part to establish a visual structure, one that moves in the direction of architecture. Thus, Ahn’s highly regulated, beautiful compositions find ties with the real world, even if her work can seem hermetic, distanced from actuality. In sum, we can see how Ahn finds a way to construct rational structures whose mystery and lack of obvious functionality create a condition oblique but memorable structure. Thus, Hyperdimension Within 07 helps establish our awareness of a language that concentrates on balance and measured form, even as it offers the audience an indirect, oblique surface.
In Hyperdimension Within 04 (2022), Ahn creates a panel similar in its resistance to conventional understanding. It consists of four panels with slats. At the top of each panel, there is a black opening, as if to present a view of outer space. In the center, surrounded by the brown panels, there is a narrow rectangle of black, encompassed by an orange abstract pattern that also covers all sides of the panels. Like all the work in this challenging show, the pieces resemble highly structured elements that might belong to architecture–perhaps a facade but we simply don’t know. At the same time, many viewers might feel the aura of cosmic energies coming down into the image from great distances in space. Even so, the lack of identifiable form, along with highly abstract titles that add mystery in addition to understanding to the painting, result in sharply realistic presentations–albeit of the unknown. This adds to their suggestiveness, of course, but also to their visual attractiveness, however esoteric it may be.
With the dramatic hues of Inverted Frame (2023), which consist of a gold abstract filigree whose intricate inner edges act as boundaries for a large black space, once again we face a high abstraction, close to baroque in its complexity, competing with fathomless darkness. In conversation, Ahn suggested that the positions of vision in this work might be reversed–we may be more truly on the inside looking out. The delicate patterns seen in the gold frame are a tour de force, adding an elegance that lies at the heart of much of Ahn’s art. Clearly, Ahn is technically gifted, even should she labor at forms that defy categories.. And the black expanses, more than hard to comprehend, feel slightly malevolent. It presents a void from which one may not return.
The interpretations I am suggesting may miss specific references to Korean culture. This is troubling, but it is also true that the readings I offered tend to widen Ahn’s implications of an otherworldly theme to a broader scope, one nearly international–how can any culture claim references to the immensities of space as their own? Ahn’s work is highly challenging, given the abstract base of her efforts. But it is also true that her painting technique is rooted in Korean tradition. As a result, her art can be seen as moving back and forth between specific cultural forms and references to space, which is not culturally particular. Including both the traditional painting techniques she learned and references moving toward the infinite, Ahn starts from particulars and makes her way far beyond them. WM
Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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