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A Process as Complex as Her Theme

Jonathan Goodman

Jahyun Seo, a mid-career artist from Korea, received a doctorate from Honk-Ik University for an essay on multi-layered two-dimensional structure in contemporary art. This came after studies in the Department of Creative Textiles at the École Supériere d’Art at Neufville Conte in Paris. Additionally, Seo studied solid cutting in Paris and received a degree in color from Marseille University. Her extensive education demonstrates a resolve to gain the technical skill for the elaboration of a complex and very abstract theme, namely, the portrayal of seeing and being seen within the context of the media. This interest issues from an earlier one: the study of people and the relations between people, as influenced by their interaction with the media. Earlier, Seo’s materials consisted of fiber, thread, and paintings. Now her work is made with painting and computer, so that a technological process is introduced into her image-making. Her current installation, evident where she works at the Nars Foundation, a non-profit space containing studios located in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, treats a subject matter close to being entirely abstract: images linked to the description and illustration of the media and its visual and also human consequences. 


The imagery of Seo’s room-size installation looks entirely abstract, with yellow, black, and brown panels connected by linear, often right-angled lines painted on the wall. At first glance, the installation might be seen as a diagram of electrical circuits, with the flat, square wafers joined by the lines. This imagery could easily be seen as a pictorial description of the kinds of connections made by people on electronic media. It is a remarkably good presentation, nonobjective in nature. The imagery addresses the distant, quite inhuman contact that results from the ties created by information originating not so much in relations among people, but among industrial webs whose connections are difficult to follow. Seo, who more studied design extensively, has condensed a system of contacts into a simplified plan. While the overall encounter with Seo’s environment is that of a design or plan whose coordinates and meaning are hard to discuss, her viewers nonetheless understand that the work entails a preference for representing abstract processes. These processes imply relations between people that are determined electronically. The key to understanding Seo’s painterly installation depends on finding a balance— between representing a huge, impersonal system like that of the Internet and the emotional ties that mightl result from the operations of such an imposing structure. As adumbrated by Seo’s project, these ties may not be easy to read, but they reflect her complex insight into the way media influences human relations.


At the same time, for New York viewers, many of them accustomed to a formalist reading of art, might well see Seo’s work existing in close resemblance to certain developments within the New York School, for example, the paintings of Peter Halley, whose abstractions use forms close to Seo’s. The comment is not meant as an attempt to characterize Seo’s art as part of image-making in New York, yet it does seem as though her orientation takes a lot from modernism. Its formal existence continues in hidden and not so hidden ways, and the hard-edge abstraction we know well in New York might easily be used as a meaningful reference regarding the overall presence of Seo’s project. Perhaps the real challenge facing us in Seo’s art is her determination to render an abstract theme in abstract terms. The design we come across, inherent to her intention, intimates more than a mere pattern; it is the recognition that techniques resulting in knowledge may at first be abstract, but which align with an implied humanity—what we might call the consequences of the hand. It is true that the conjectures derived from this work must remain more or less tied to the inhuman, the technological, but at the same time, flesh-and-blood implications of the environment are present, even if they are more than distant from what we actually see.


It is true that not only is the overall design in alignment with a nonobjective outlook, the processes used to create the forms, regularly right-angled in expression, are much more mechanical than human. Seo begins by shooting an image with a camera, feeding the image into a computer, which then sends it into a machine capable of taking the image and rendering it three-dimensionally. Seo than paints the finished object, which is now as much a relief sculpture as it is a two-dimensional plane, in abstract fashion. The results are always abstract; a yellow panel may have black spheres dotting the field of the canvas in a purely abstract manner. As I have indicated, straight black lines, often turning at right angles, exist both as imagery in their own right and as a means of joining the planar displays that are painted black, yellow and brown. One plane, occurring mostly in red, offers smaller pictures within it. The overall tenor of the installation presents pattern-oriented designs neutral if not cold in nature. These patterns can be said to exist as the consequences of an impersonal design and, also, a working system for the creation of that design.The closest Western affiliation we can mention in art is that of hard-edge geometric painting. If the work is regularly, even relentlessly, oriented toward a non-human view, it is because the processes creating the works occur more or less completely without the use of hands.


Likely the most pertinent formal question facing Seo is that if you are constructing a vision of abstract information by representing it in an abstract manner, how easily will your intentions, a human characteristic, be understood? It is not easy to develop insights into Seo’s motivations; her art evades any facile explanation of her focus. A severely reductive, close to minimalist manner occupies the installation, which seems more like an orientation toward impersonal arrangement rather than the expression of human interest. But that doesn’t matter in the presentation of Seo’s ideas, which are impartially abstract to begin with. The illustration of a system as large as the Internet will inevitably influence the way that illustration is carried out. Thus, abstract interests most often require abstract terms for elucidation. What is interesting about this installation is that its impersonal orientation does not diminish its anthropomorphic suggestiveness. How is this accomplished? By Seo’s willingness to tie her imagination to historical legacies of nonobjective art, formally speaking. The connection to an earlier cultural history provides the artist, and us, to see this project as part of a humanly considered effort, as much as an impersonal and mechanical one. This happens even if our initial experience of Seo’s environment is understood as more or less abstract.


Still, the real question must be, What is Seo trying to describe and present? The transfer of information, the loss of human relations in the face of electronic media, the ongoing visual strength of a geometric style? Maybe she takes an interest in all three concerns. Computer-generated or -embellished art is hardly new. We are more comfortable than ever in a world of impersonal imagery highlighted on a monitor’s screen. On one level, however, we could criticize such imagery as the antithesis of the hand, that is, as a rejection of human creativity. Yet art has always been known for its ability to internalize new technology without the visual consequences becoming cold or barren. In Seo’s case, the closeness of her work to historical phenomena, such as early 20th century modern art, places her imagination in a continuum of artistic events that began in the early of the last century. This means that the abstract tradition, existent for slightly more than a century, frames Seo’s current efforts within a historical context. Such a context inevitably brings traditional weight and gravitas to contemporary efforts, whose effectiveness cannot be entirely independent of the past. In a way, Seo’s environment of two-dimensional imagery points the way both to the past and to the future—by beginning with a known understanding of nonobjective art, which incorporates, at the same time, and however indirectly, the current shape of media relations and their effect on people.


Yet the content of the installation remains opaque with regard to its reading of human interest. This is because the work gives no real indication of its original direction: the impartial portrayal of a body of organized information that only refers to itself. Abstract art, in general, is highly self-referential, being devoted to the elemental components of form without usually referring to anything external to the form. So we can only intuit the address of Seo’s work. Fine art of this sort usually eludes an extended analysis of content, relying instead on the strength of its compositional elements. If we were going to critique Seo’s composition, we would comment on its flatness, its lack of reference outside itself, its distance from any quick, readable analysis; thus, it would become a highly rational, if also modernist, wallpaper. But this is not truly the case. The emotional content, so hard to find in this piece, may well be there in the form of its historical associations, as well as our back knowledge of the artwork’s hidden origins: the presentation of the attachments among people that media both serves and damages. 


Yet the presentation of Seo’s art can be so distant from the content that sustains it, we no longer know if the image truly demonstrates the content it is supposed to describe. Often in contemporary art, it is necessary to come up with an explanation clarifying materials difficult to understand. This is one of the major problems in fine art; the background of the artist’s motive becomes as important as that of the work itself, and often more so. Problems result. Why do we require so much explanation, of a literary nature, to make sense of a pictorial display? It makes no sense to constrain the innate freedom of visual effort by reducing abstract art to a series of intellectual assertions. On the other hand, today’s artists often make work of deliberate obscurity, requiring the delivery of knowledge not found in the art itself. So writing that clarifies the art becomes a necessary accompaniment to the work. Abstraction in art likely requires a greater clarification, in the sense that it does not illustrate things that we can recognize. When an image turns to mostly hidden, internal laws, such as happens with Seo’s work, an explanation becomes needed. Not until we know the (hidden) background of what we see, will we become aware of the artist’s intentions. Whether we can justify such obliqueness, hiding our interpretations, is for another discussion.


So Seo’s undertaking references ideas meant to bridge the difference between ongoing references to an abstract system and a more sly, more hidden determination of how an abstract like media maintains its impact on human relations. Seo’s terms are pretty much intact, although the innate humanity of the artist’s efforts, which must include the very human process of making art, as well as the humanist intimations of the connectedness among people, despite a technological landscape, makes it clear Seo’s intentions are hardly cold or entirely mechanical. Instead, her position, thoroughly hidden if ultimately reachable, makes use of the mechanical to communicate something very reasonable, and, hopefully accessible, as a statement tying the human to an inhuman creative process.Time may well deepen the work, as it has tended to do with other visual genres. But, still, we must remember that the intentions of the environment usually cannot usually be seen as a close approximation of the visually known. Figurative attributes would lessen the unusual experience of Seo’s slightly hidden abstract goal: creating a bridge between what we wish to communicate and what we actually see.


It can be commented that the distance between the ideas implied in Seo’s undertaking and the processes that determine them is problematic. If Seo does not spell out her intentions, preferring to orchestrate the existence of her concepts behind the scenes, then something may well be lost. Ostensibly, the work is an abstract mural covering the wall of a room, no more. Yet, inevitably, in the long run, human concrns creep in. If this did not happen, the environment might be stifled by the limitations of its own terms. No art is entirely objective, but we can push our intentions toward something perhaps easier to read, as well as recognizing their forms’ elucidation as part of the human endeavor. This would occur no matter how abstract the compilations of the overall composition and its construction might be. In new art, the joining of forces between the abstract and figurative is easily recognized; it is part of an acceptable armamentarium determined by the appropriation of styles and periods in time. Seo may not consciously join in such influences, but such art shows pluralism and appropriation, incorporated in a fashion that emphasizes just how difficult it is to merge an idea with its explanation. We need to determine the concept that would explain what Seo means. It is not her fault that the gap between her own expressiveness and the generally neutral means she uses to create do not easily merge. They are separate issues demanding considerable effort to bring them together. Yet Seo’s projectt is is a start in the right direction.

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