Illuminating Shade for Big Window
Jenny Cho Solo Exhibition
Part 1. Sick Prophet and Old Magician
Part 2. Patron Goddesses of Idle Fellows
Supported by Seoul Foundation of Culture and Arts
Co-organized by Gallery Kiche (Pt.1), Kimsechoong Museum (Pt. 2) Seoul, Korea
2F, 35 Bangbae-ro 42-gil, Seocho-gu, Seoul, Korea 06584
35, Hyochanwon-ro 70-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea 04312
Date 05.25. 2021 - 06.12. 2021
Texts by Soyeon Ahn, Chaeeun Lee
*Photo Cheolki Hong
“Painting is the future”: Jenny Cho’s painting through other means
The institution of painting
“Is painting valid today?” The meta-critical question about the medium of painting underlies Jenny Cho’s newest body of works, exhibited under the title Illuminating Shade for Big Window. The contexts in which she asks the question are manifold. On one hand, the post-medium condition sprung by art’s conceptual turn has undermined the search for meaning inherent in a medium. When the modus operandi of today’s art is to choose, adapt, and invent whichever medium that suits the intellectual project of the artist, is the category of painting something worth holding onto? On the other hand, painting has been the target of numerous critiques that debunked its idealist and elitist assumptions, which led critics like Douglas Crimp to diagnose the “end of painting” already underway since the 1960s. If the painting continues to live, then, what meaning is it capable of generating? Why and how does painting still matter?
In what is now a classical television series Ways of Seeing (1972), art critic John Berger illustrated the set of rules, habits, and assumptions that govern the European tradition of painting. His goal was to disabuse the audience of the painting’s myth—its claims of universality, objectivity, and autonomy—by demonstrating its technology of representation (e.g., the medium of oil on canvas and linear perspective), as well as its role in shoring up the interconnected ideologies of bourgeois capitalism, patriarchy, humanism, and colonialism. Berger’s critique is bracketed with the wave of critical endeavors in art since the 1960s, from conceptual art to institutional critique, which sought to deconstruct and demystify art as an establishment.
In 2021, the legacies of the tradition of painting and its ideological corollaries still remain relevant. The romantic humanist myths of the artist as an individual genius and of the painting as a singular object constitute the backbone of our ever-soaring art markets. The habit of objectification and sexualization of Others still permeates contemporary image production, particularly in advertisement and popular culture. Despite the expanding discourse of globalizing art and art history, the art world continues to grapple with deeply ingrained and internalized forms of coloniality.
Jenny Cho’s works are inspired by the uneasy relation that she, as a Korean female painter educated in the U.S., has with this Western tradition. Instead of utilizing the tools of painting to simply insert herself into that tradition, she tasks herself to question the language of painting and explore alternative ways in which painting as an institution—its laws, customs, and aims—can be reconfigured. This essay identifies appropriation, palimpsest, and relationality as the key tenets of her methodology, and unpacks how these provide the means of reclaiming painting after the “end” of painting.
Painting through other means: appropriation, palimpsest, and relationality
The exhibition currently on view at Gallery Kiche consists entirely of painting, many of which harken back to canonical figures in the history of Western art. For some, Jenny Cho’s engagement with the past may seem anachronistic—a romantic remembrance of painting’s glory. For others, it may recall the work of postmodernist artists like Sherrie Levine who, by divesting the original work of art of its inherent value, called attention to the socio-cultural contexts that confer such meaning. Upon close examination, however, Cho’s methods of appropriation do not seem driven by either nostalgia or irreverent playfulness. Instead, her paintings are conceptual experimentations with the temporality of painting, particularly with the possibility of painting as palimpsest, in which the originary moments of the cited images form but one layer.
A palimpsest retains the traces of earlier writing even after it has been reused. Unlike the modern conception of time and space as standardized, linear, and segmented, the palimpsest calls attention to, and folds unto itself multiple temporalities and perceptions of space. In Cho’s paintings, these temporalities and spatial perceptions are indexed by the paintings, films, and novels that she has encountered at unspecified moments in the past. For instance, the Untitled (after Hunter Gracchus) (2018-2020) appropriates Andrea Mantegna’s quintessential Renaissance painting Lamentation of Christ (1480) as it was mediated by another appropriation of the piece by Robert Morris in 1989. The Balcony (after Magritte) (2017-2020) and The Difficult Crossing (after Magritte) (2017-2020) take after the eponymous works of the twentieth-century Surrealist Rene Magritte but extract only partial elements from the original paintings (the balcony railing for the former, and the painting-within-a-painting of a stormy sea for the latter) and recompose them with indices of other times and places. The Still Life (after L’argent) (2017) depicts a scene from Robert Bresson’s 1983 film L’argent, which is itself based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1911 novella The Forged Coupon. In the Sunrise (after Turner) (2020), the Turner-esque synthesis of the sublime (timeless) and the atmospheric (transient) takes a Surrealist turn with the trompe-l’oeil lettering that marks the year 2020 when the painting was made.
Often, the elements the artist chooses to amplify, add, or otherwise manipulate work toward metaphorizing her sense of belonging across and in-between cultures, places, and times. The enlarged pattern of metal railing in the Balcony (after Magritte) is an ambivalent device that both separates and connects the world of the viewer and the unidentifiable space of floating flowers. In the Untitled (after Hunter Gracchus), Cho has substituted the deathbed of Jesus with the death boat of Gracchus from Franz Kafka’s Hunter Gracchus (1931), who is portrayed by Kafka as neither dead nor alive and is destined to eternally wander the seas. The Sick Prophet and Old Magician (after Jean Baptiste Oudry) (2020) rehashes the French academic painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s Wolf and Lamb, which depicts the moment of fatal encounter between the prey and the predator. At times, the reference is more literal. The Future Is Painting (2017-2020) is a still life that brings together the devotional artifacts and other miscellaneous items that the artist’s grandmother, who had converted from Buddhism to Catholicism, has collected from the U.S. and Korea. Here, the replicas of the various iconic representations of Christ and Virgin Mary, the statuette of Pope Francis, the snowman-shaped souvenir celebrating Christmas, and calendars and clocks indexing (probably) the time of the painting form a labyrinth of spatio-temporal connections at the same time as symbolizing the artist’s (and of course, her grandmother’s) mobility across cultures.
If Cho’s individual paintings allegorize the in-betweenness of the artist’s fluid and plural identity as well as the multiple forms of temporal and spatial relations, the artist has further designed the entire body of works to bring attention to the relationality between paintings. Despite their divergent motifs and styles, the paintings are organized in a way that conjures up various resonances between them. Consider, for example, the juxtaposition of the deathbed/death boat of the Untitled (after Hunter Gracchus) next to The Bedroom Painting (2017-2020), whose stripped-down interior adds an austere, modern resonance to the death of Christ/Gracchus. The Bedroom Painting’s hazy, lifeless mood is inspired by Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which is set in New York right before the terrorist attack on World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and tells a story of a post-collegiate woman who drugs herself to as much sleep as possible in order to opt out of the world. The two miniature-sized works Sick Prophet and Old Magician (after Jean Baptiste Oudry) and Sunrise (after Turner) echo one another in their semi-abstract rendition in gestural brushstrokes and monotonous or near-monotonous hues. Together, they invoke powerful emotional responses to the laws of nature—the earth’s rotation and the strong preying on the weak. Cho’s paintings thus form a network of meaning and affect that converge, dissipate, and transform as the viewer moves from one painting to another.
In the second part of exhibition on view at Kimsechoong Museum, one finds the principle of relationality extending to her works executed in other mediums. The Hinge Frame Set (2015-) and the Patron Goddesses for Idle Fellows is the Clouds (2020) transpose Cho’s conceptual experimentations in architectural and virtual terms, respectively.
The Hinge Frame Set is a modular structure consisting of aluminum bars that meet perpendicularly to one another, which can be arranged variously to serve as flexible frames for hanging canvases. To this structure, the artist has installed glass panels that bear printed images of the photographs she took of the exhibitions of other Korean artists like Park Seo-bo and Min Joung-Ki and of miscellaneous urban and natural sceneries from Seoul, New York, and Houston. The images are photoshopped and assembled in a way that blurs the boundary between them and are installed in a number of different positions and angles that undermine the conventions of displaying pictures in a white cube.
The Patron Goddesses for Idle Fellows is the Clouds is an Augmented Reality (AR)-based work that produces virtual images of clouds moving across the gallery space like contrails, revealing and masking randomly appearing images as they move. In the Greek comedy The Clouds by Aristophanes, the clouds are described tongue-in-cheek as the “patron goddesses of idle fellows,” by which the author ridicules idle thinkers like Socrates as sanctioned only by the clouds—full of pomp but without substance. While the reference on one level reads as a mockery of the status of painting or art in general, the artist has added a twist by transforming the clouds in the AR image into a mobile agent—just like her new concept of painting—that glides along un-predetermined trajectories in a dynamic relation with the space and images around them.
Painting is the future
In Cho’s works, the traditional notion of painting as singular and self-contained transforms into something more fluid, plural, and relational. This may be understood in part as a result of her ongoing dialog with recent discourses aimed at reconceptualizing painting. One primary example she cites is what art critic Jan Verwoert has theorized as the “adjacency” of painting, which refers to the possibility of painting to serve as a “portal” or “passageway” to the concepts, objects, and worlds that lie outside of painting such as other genres of art (e.g., literature and music) and the larger sociocultural contexts surrounding art. Verwoert aptly proposes that we think of painting as analogous to a cellophane curtain: it is neither a window onto the world in the traditional sense nor the modernist flat surface—a dead end—but a semi-transparent screen that provides an incomplete view of what lies behind, and ultimately, can be lifted to allow the viewer into the world beyond it. Analyzing a body of recent works by artists such as Jutta Koether and R. H. Quaytman, art historian David Joselit advanced similar ideas via his concept of “transitive painting.” In his essay “Painting Beside Itself,” Joselit has argued that the work of these artists embodies a new model of painting that visualizes the painting’s incessant circulation within a network of artistic and social relations, and its “infinite dislocations, fragmentations, and degradations” that follows.
But what I find most meaningful in Cho’s work is that she has arrived at painting’s fluidity and plurality via her self-identity on the margins of the history of painting. Historically, the dichotomies underlying dominant modes of aesthetic judgment—between the Self and the Other, between the avant-garde and the belated, and between the universal and the particular—have functioned to trap marginalized artists in a double bind. These artists would be denied from the hegemonic cultural sphere of white male artists masquerading as avant-garde and universal, at the same time that their works were insistently framed as gendered, racialized, late, and derivative, thus artistically inferior. It seems to me that Jenny Cho’s reconceptualization of the painting provides an opening for liberating the painting and the artist from this double bind. Her work refuses to perpetuate the logic of either/or, and sheds light on the various forms of entanglement that undergird our world and identity. In this sense, the painting is valid today; and perhaps still more, as one title of her paintings declares, painting might indeed be the future.
Chaeeun Lee is a Ph. D. candidate in Art History at CUNY Graduate Center in New York. She received a BA in Art History at Seoul National University and an MA in Modern Art at Columbia University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Asian American and Asian immigrant artists in the U.S. in the 1960s and the 1970s with a broad interest in the art that traverses the boundaries of culture, institution, and nation states. She has been a lecturer at Queens College and Brooklyn College since 2016.
A Supine Fork and the Body of Christ
[Jenny Cho: Illuminating Shade for Big Window]
Part 1. Sick Prophet and Old Magician
Gallery Kiche, April 29–June 12, 2021
Part 2. Patron Goddesses for Idle Fellows
Kimsechoong Museum, May 25 – June 12, 21021
Soyeon Ahn, art critic
1. Death’s Impossibility and Painting after Death
When I first saw the supine human form, two shapes came to mind. One was an ancient human image, and other was (that) fork placed in an ordinary, logical manner at the center of a table.
While the work Untitled (after Hunter Gracchus) (2018–2020) may be “untitled,” the reference to the Hunter Gracchus hints at a hidden narrative. Lying deeply in a shallow space, the person in the image clearly seems to be Gracchus, a figure who has died yet is unable to proceed into his death, proving the impossibility of his death as he climbs aboard a ferry. The boat drifts in the water, carrying someone who should have arrived at his death by now; it shows that the Hunter Gracchus has not died, and it also evokes the presence of the body (like the cross at Golgotha). The image of the Gracchus’s body lying in the boat in Untitled, covered with a thin cloth, immediately called to mind the body of Christ as painted by Andrea Mantegna. Jenny Cho’s painting (on the surface) is actually a re-appropriation of the appropriation of Mantegna’s (centuries-old) image of the human body by Robert Morris in his depiction of the body of Dutch Schultz. It refers to a complex set of events to show the presence of the “dead body.” The ferry is a metaphor for the coffin of the deceased, and Cho also seems to be recalling the open casket of Dana Schutz – placing a flat bed beneath a body confronted with the impossibility of death, while leaving room to reflect on the repetition of deferred moments in reality, with its allusion to a deep sense of abstract space.
In the paintings of Mantegna, Morris, and Schutz, the connotations of the “killed body?” concern the stigma associated with the flesh, the sacrifice assigned to the flesh, and salvation (of the stigmatized) through that redemption. Those images of death are now re-appropriated by Jenny Cho, re-contextualized as a death (and constraint) narrative as it pertains to painting. Just as Mantegna laid a bridge between the classical human form in painting (and the associated narrative) and the new use of perspective, Morris appropriated from Mantegna to juxtapose the mythical narrative of painting with a contemporary incident. Rewinding time from the literary narrative of Gracchus, Jenny Cho seems to be tracing a history of appropriations of the “dead body” in painting, which operate as a signifier for the impossibility of death. In other words, Cho’s juxtapositions in anachronistic series present us with a prophetic conclusion about death’s impossibility as alluded to by individual events: Mantegna and Morris, Schultz and Schutz, and Kafka and his character Gracchus, which run strangely in between them.
In terms of the fork, we should turn our attention briefly to another work by Cho from 2008, which if anything may feel somehow more distant than the histories that have been appropriated. As its title indicates, Still Life Photo-Relief (2008) uses the photo-relief form, falling in the category of what Cho herself has classified as her early work. Even among her early works from 2008 to 2015, which are examined chiefly in concept of the “in-between,” Still Life Photo-Relief is representative of her earliest work. As soon as I saw Untitled (the Hunter Gracchus), the memories that came to my mind were of the human form in Mantegna’s painting and the deeply set fork lying at the center of Cho’s flat canvas. Interesting, it is Cho’s earliest work that I immediately thought of when I saw her re-appropriating a reference taken directly from the work of Morris, who had appropriated from Mantegna’s painting to juxtapose it with the death of mobster Dutch Schultz. It may have been that with its sense of deep perspectival space shortened within the canvas, I remembered Cho’s fork (and its pose) as a seemingly real hovering low over the table – much like the presence of a “dead body” demonstrating the impossibility of death. If we also consider the “in-between” concept that Cho has discussed at length, it may be seen as reflecting a scenario in the history of painting, where a contemporary work that has already become part of the past (or will soon do so) references the painterly perspective appropriated by the photo-relief form. In that sense, Still Life Photo-Relief effectively prophesies the delusion that will follow its own demise.
2. Anachronistic “In-Between”
Jenny Cho’s solo exhibition Illuminating Shade for Big Window consists of two parts. The first, titled Sick Prophet and Old Magician, is taking place at Gallery Kiche, while the second, titled Patron Goddesses for Idle Fellows, began slightly later at Kimsechoong Museum. Sick Prophet includes 11 works by the artist, including Untitled (the Hunter Gracchus); Patron Goddesses centers chiefly on Hinge Frame Set, a work that the artist has been designing since 2016, announcing a break from (or expansion of) her early work. Illuminating Shade for Big Window reuses the title from Cho’s 2017 solo exhibition at Sindoh Art Space, and the titles of the exhibition parts are either borrowed directly or adapted from Cho’s previous work, including her painting appropriating the work of Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Making no attempt to conceal the appropriations and references, her process confounds classification of identity, revealing the intentions of someone seeking to embrace and implode the virtues of a linear lineage in order to manifest the (im)possibility of writing a non-linear history, much like the body of a hunter confronted with the impossibility of death. From what I saw, the orientation here is toward painting in anthropomorphized physical form.
With her methods of appropriation, Cho roams freely around the periphery of painting history as an anachronistic mediator/“in-between” presence. It may appear pointless to talk of “freedom” in such a case, but it seems like an appropriate word for refer to liberation from the history recalled by the body of the (dead) Hunter Gracchus, who roams endlessly over the surface of reality’s waters carrying his own casket. Seeing the enigmatic title The Future is Painting (2017–2020), we sense the clash between the innocent painting and the questions it raises: “What is the painting here, and what might the future look like?” What matters here is that the title connotes some very weighty questions. Seemingly forming a humorous contrast with the powerful rays of the sun in Sunrise (after Turner) (2020), the painting’s space – which is immediately specified in terms of locality – includes clearly defined shadows, generating meaning in terms of defining the relationships and narratives among the painting works in the exhibition as it effects a magical shift through the temporality of painting.
In Sunrise (after Turner), the concrete date of “2020” at the bottom evokes an as-yet unripened contemporary moment. But alongside the mutable time of that number, the space is filled completely by the light of the sun – most of it referred to as the “atmosphere” – and the time here, viewed as a phenomenon, engenders a dramatic relocation in Cho’s work between the sunlight of the 19th century and the sunlight at the heart of 21st century Seoul. In an experiential narrative where the bright and warm rays coming in through a large east-facing window penetrate each day until it seems like they might melt the indoor space, Jenny Cho references the historic painting achievements in the landscape art of J. M. W. Turner, and arrives at a sense of accord. In terms of the less explicable forms of visual perception in reality, she employs the painting format (albeit in the opposite way from what Turner envisioned, in a way that actually appropriates it) to approach a reflexivity with regard to the medium. To this end, she adheres to the role of the anachronistic “in-between.”
A faint overlap can also be observed between The Future is Painting and Cho’s other work The Balcony (after Magritte) (2017–2020). As in Still Life Photo-Relief, Future shows us a neat arrangement of items on a concisely rendered antique Western dresser: Catholic items of various sizes, exotic-seeming decorations, a digital clock, and a Christmas card. Cho has carefully established a perspectival space that extends outward from the new evidence of a religious conversion, placed atop a marker of her grandmother’s sophisticated, antique tastes – radiating from the tip of the Virgin Mary’s (shadowed) head to the two corners of the case’s top. In an explanation of the current exhibition, Cho referred to a “painterly exploration of (new) Baroque forms.” I find myself seeing an overlap between the forms of the body (bodies) representing the impossibility of death with the odd “(new) Baroque” transformation, where all of the dramatic contrasts in light and exaggeration have been exhausted.
In Balcony, transports a “balcony” onto the canvas, like (drooping) symbols of the religious items and decorations on the antique Western dresser placed in front of the bland wallpaper in a Seoul apartment. Both referencing and appropriating the work of René Magritte, the painting sees Cho applying an additional (also anachronistic) layer with the issue of “identity.” Magritte appropriated the balcony of Édouard Manet, who appropriated his in turn from Francisco Goya. Following in this history/lineage of appropriation, Cho once again appropriates from Magritte, filling her canvas with the balcony’s pattern. The objects represented by these historic painters within the balcony and the pictorial space beyond are condensed into a (classical) human form; by the time of Magritte, it had transformed into a cubic shape evoking the presence of human shape – a casket, which may be seen as representing the dead body’s manifestation. Existing at some distance from this lineage yet saved by a certain death, Jenny Cho appears to have made the decision to appropriate the heavy coffin – an inherently narrative human shape – but to depict it with flowers at its corners, decorated with a balcony pattern. Can her sense of humor here be viewed as an error or malfunctioning of appropriation? It may not matter.
In The Bedroom Painting (2017–2020), the body has disappeared. It appropriates nothing, and its placement in between Untitled (the Hunter Gracchus) and The Balcony (after Magritte) does not appear to be coincidental. Here, Cho has replicated a (cliché) painting space originally imagined in the work of writer Ottessa Moshfegh as an empty space for the body of her protagonist. Calling to mind a sense of human reflection on Cho’s painting – and her attempt to illustrate the anachronistic nature of the contemporary through the forms of appropriation in her 2014 work Running in Circle Backwards (After Malevich) – it has her continuing to change her delusions. The empty bed may be the painter’s space, where she must accept Sunrise (after Turner) fully and without rejection. It may be the space of a painting containing a prophecy in which the dead form manifests the impossibility of death. And it may be the painting’s dialectical space (toward death), much like the character in Moshfegh’s novel who suffers from depression and overdoses on drugs. The painting forms its own narrative.
3. Floating Clouds and Rising Spheres
Were my delusions getting the better of me when I looked at Spheres, Mirrors and Folded Papers (after Turner’s Perspective Chart) (2017–2020) and found myself thinking once again of Still Life Photo-Relief? If at some point in the past someone noticed the logical relationship between the mirror ball and truncated tablecloth that surround the supine form in a three-dimensional relationship and the distant shadow that falls beyond the canvas, then I hope people won’t think too much less of me for imagining that Spheres, Mirrors and Folded Papers (after Turner’s Perspective Chart) might have been discovered alongside the artist’s notes in a desk drawer of her studio where old artwork had been tucked away.
In Spheres, Mirrors and Folded Papers (after Turner’s Perspective Chart), Jenny Cho appropriates a drawing made by Turner for a lecture on perspective. With its proof of the logic of visual perception, Turner’s perspective chart is fascinating in the way it (perfectly) renders both what is visible to the eye and what is not. In her appropriation of it, Jenny Cho appears to have painted eight images, all filled with contradictions and impossibilities, after applying her imagination based on her beliefs about the orderly visual pyramids of perspective that came spilling out of (one point in) the retina on a piece of paper that had folded (because it was being carried around). In this series of square paintings, she finds a teacher in the deteriorated images of a sphere, mirror, and folded papers – illusions akin to the “dead flesh.” Bearing references on par with any contemporary painting, it raises serious questions that (attempt to) circle back to the history of painting. In her early work, Cho focused on experiments in which she explored and recreated the visual logic of perspective in Western painting history. Over the past few years, she has been appropriating concrete incidents from painting history that bear it out, pushing her own imperative in terms of painterly achievement (and the impossibility thereof) in an even more ambiguous direction.
Consider Hinge Frame Set_White and Black (2015), which stands like a monument in the gallery. The hollow aluminum frame structure is the result of Cho’s efforts since 2015 to design a painting frame that would be easy to transport and store, like a folded piece of paper that had been spread out. Effecting an experiment with the conditions of painting, Hinge Frame Set is like a series of magical stages proclaiming the efficacy of the result. Cho breaks through the limits of visual perception that have presented retinas with (masterly) painting images faded from their use as sun screens; she shows them with nothing concealed. For this exhibition, the gallery center is occupied by Hinge Frame Set, a mere support for those degraded painting images, and the artist appears to have intended to render a new perspective on the empty windows. Instead of a rising sphere, Jenny Cho has released a cloud into the void.
Everything points to that cloud. Using augmented reality (AR), Cho presents a cloud toward the large window. She had made it so that everything chases after this comical, even mundane-looking cloud. We no longer need to draw straight-line pyramids on flat surfaces. It suffices for us to believe that we are looking at a cloud within the (anticipated) pathway as it moves along, leaving behind irregular traces. In Patron Goddesses of Idle Fellows are the Clouds (2021), Cho references the ancient Greek comedy The Clouds by Aristophanes. Drawing on his humor and satire, she raises a question about the historical conditions of the painting medium: “Why does no one question this?” Contemplating the new stature of contemporary painting (as had been prophesied), she adds an element of “cute” delusion, playfully leading us to chase after a cloud that is like the dead body of the Hunter Gracchus, floating over the waves on his ferry. And into Hinge Frame Set, a deep abstract space that calls to mind a ferry or an open casket, Cho has placed her own perspective-based landscapes as a painter with a nomadic identity. She has Photoshopped and UV-printed non-hierarchical found images consist of paintings (by non-Western masters) seen in Seoul, landscapes of Seoul, New York and Houston, and drawings of Hinge Frame Set containing her own perspectival view of paintings. She has taken that shadow, glinting toward the large window, and placed it before our eyes.
Translation: Colin Mouat
Text by Soyeon Ahn, art critic based in Seoul , Korea