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Sungmo Cho: “The Last Pencil on Earth” at Riverside Gallery

Sungmo Cho: The Last Pencil on Earth. Courtesy of the artist and Riverside Gallery.

Sungmo Cho: The Last Pencil on Earth

Riverside Gallery 

June 13 through 30, 2022 

By ROBERT C. MORGAN, July 2022

There is a story often told by the Korean artist Sungmo Cho in recent years. While working one day in his studio, Cho became engaged in the process of sawing wood that required a pencil to mark off the various sections on which he was working. He searched everywhere, but to no avail. He could not find one. 

Later that afternoon, it occurred to Cho that pencils were no longer related to everyday work. Whether it was carpentry or simply writing a note, they had suddenly become obsolete, only to be replaced by the virtual medium of the computer. By sublimating the conflict between the two, Cho chose to pose the question: Why not create a work of art devoted to “the last pencil on Earth”?  From that time on, he has been ironically determined to transform HB2 pencils into a global art form. 

Over the past three years, Cho has produced more than thirty pencil works that include paintings and sculptures. While his project has continued to gather momentum, it has also become somewhat repetitive. Even so, there are unique individual works that remain interesting.  The more elusive, domineering works in this series are the enlarged, majestic three-dimensional pencils, carved from pine trees and covered in graphite. The elongated sculptural elements are then placed inside the carved bark of maple trees. 

Sungmo Cho: The Last Pencil on Earth. Courtesy of the artist and Riverside Gallery.

In addition, Cho has created works in other mediums including detailed “still life” paintings in which the images of pencils are scattered indeterminately in a spatial field. 

Structurally related to the all-over paintings of color-field painting, these works add the dimension of objectivity in contrast to non-objectivity. In other works, the artist by-passes the formal medium of painting and moves in the direction of conceptual art whereupon the artist has discreetly arranged groups of pencils placed inside Lucite cubes. While less openly pronounced than the paintings and sculptures, the cubes continue to resonate on their own terms by introducing the content of HB2 pencils. 

Herein the artist’s exaggerated notion of pencils begins to take hold. Whether mounted inside Lucite cubes or viewed as large-scale majestic sculptures, the pencils engender forms that signify both aesthetic and philosophical complexity. There is little doubt that a conceptual presence lingers inside these pencils no matter how they are constructed or painted. Even so, there is the presence of language – the word “love” –within the context of the absurd. 

Sungmo Cho: The Last Pencil on Earth. Courtesy of the artist and Riverside Gallery.

The relative conflict in these paintings is difficult to absorb, but nonetheless curious (within the context of the absurd). To lend majesty to the absurd opens another perspective on advanced art that gives Cho’s common fare, i.e., pencils, a certain rough-hewn intensity. It moves (displaces) his subject matter in a stealthily phantasmagorical direction that opens alternative possibilities as to the way we absorb art into our senses.

Cho’s fascination with pencils has resulted in a type of art that is placed in opposition to informational technology. There is no doubt. In addition to the artist’s formal certainty, the pencils dispel what Cho might understand as limitations of the virtual. But the question remains as to how these pencils resolve their importance in relation to the computer?  

Within this context, there is the further question as to how the conflict between the virtual and the tactile will ultimately play themselves out?  Does one replace the other over the course of time, or will they ultimately exist together, each on their own terms?  More than likely, Cho’s project might continue for some time, specifically within what we understand at present as being somewhere in the realm of art. WM

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


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