Sunok Chun: Dissonant Abstraction
by Diana McClure
For abstract painter, Sunok Chun, the canvas represents a box, just as a body might be considered a container. Within the boundaries of that box a swirl of emotion, thought, and at times cognitive dissonance, are wrangled out of Chun’s inner world and transformed through painting, collage, and drawing.
In her recent work, since approximately 2007, expressions of fluctuating psychological states revealed through rebellious gestures, marks, and splashes, appear to be in conflict with quiet architectural lines drawn in pencil. A conversation between order and chaos seems to be at play, or paraphrased in Chun’s words, antithetical elements, such as geometry and spontaneous gesture.
In Chun’s recent work, negative spaces, in the form of areas of canvas left white and untouched by oil paint, her preferred medium, have become an increasingly important part of her syntax as a painter. Prior to 2007, much of her work involved covering the entire surface of her paintings, rendering color a primary conversational element in the work. Color fields, lines, gestures, and marks in earlier works, appear to function in a more integrated framework. Boundaries and forms woven into spontaneous applications of paint strike asymmetrical balance via Chun’s deft use of full color.
A native of Seoul, Korea, Chun was raised in a Catholic family, although it is not Catholicism that has remained a philosophical interest for her. Instead, the underlying presence of Eastern philosophy in daily life in Korea and in particular ideas around the concept of “emptiness”, have been continuous points of departure in much of her art practice.
The freedom associated with spontaneous movement in open space, alongside a sense of order found in architectural forms, is fundamental to Chun’s artistic inquiries. As a child artist, Chun’s first fascination with the larger world of art was found in genres of East Asian painting that explore the relationship between line and space and the inner workings of how opposites harmonize.
Now, having spent nearly half of her life in New York City, Chun has developed other sites of inspiration including Byzantine art, Russian iconography, and the work of Mark Rothko. In regard to Rothko the sensation of space is what resonates most with Chun, while the liveliness of Byzantine and Russian iconographic art continue to awe her on visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Of Chun’s shift to working within a more visible dialogue with empty/white space in her paintings, she hypothesizes that it may be a reflection of a wish to give her more space. The demands of a full time job in addition to maintaining a studio and an art practice, require negotiating deadlines, personalities, and finance. These very real factors in her daily life have played out in her work as well.
Over time Chun’s artistic agency opened up as she realized she did not have to express everything in her paintings. A selective approach to what thoughts and emotions are allowed access to her canvases now favors the creation of lighter spaces. However, Chun’s paintings still function on some levels as, in her words, a safe diary. A space where she can open up that other people can’t read. She also still feels that one element of her work is an attempt to escape a feeling of imprisonment; to be like water, able to adjust and flow in multiple forms.
Chun’s ongoing discourse with the self seems to follow a personal rhythm that undulates between self-imposed emotional restraint and liberation. Until recently, Chun’s preferential canvas size was large scale, however in a series created on the cusp of 2016 and 2017 she delved into 16”x20” work.
The pieces, currently untitled, reiterate the style of her post 2007 large-scale works, except for her recent intuitive focus on the colors red and blue. Familiar shapes from her larger work, vertical rectangles and slanted triangles that suggest and abstracted version of a house, underlay her spontaneous gestural painting technique.
Although Chun claims the smaller painting environment is a challenge to control, she also finds it quite comfortable. It is clear that the impulse for a high velocity brushstroke, on canvases larger than her short stature, might require a greater trust in her own spontaneity. Whereas, a smaller format, where Chun’s body looms larger than the canvas, may prioritize a more rational relationship to the boundaries of the canvas.
Another smaller than usual work, at 32”x40”, is, Like It Is, made in 2016. In this work Chun seems to have found a perfect balance between her old and new work. The entire canvas is covered in paint. Orange, navy blue and gold, brown, lime green hues abound, while plenty of painted white space collides with Chun’s explosion of color. Architectural lines are drawn in slices through thick white paint instead of pencil, and Chun’s signature rectangular and triangular shapes are laid out in locations different from their usual placement. The asymmetrical split between color and white space on the canvas also finds a pleasing union of opposites; perhaps, the harmony of line and space that has fueled Chun’s curiosity for nearly four decades.
Additional details of collage and random miniature text populate Chun’s paintings, and sculptural works made of boxes, pebbles, text and drawing are also part of her oeuvre. Despite the variety in her work, Chun feels as though she is ready for another shift in her practice, although she is not sure what it would look like. She is careful not to force change, allowing for a natural evolution to occur, a nod to her own affinity for the spontaneous gesture.
“I am interested in boxes – both the way that they contain things and the way that they set things free. For me, the freedom of open spaces means the embrace of space as an area that is philosophically full and empty at the same time”.
Welancora Gallery is pleased to present Sunok Chun’s first solo exhibition at our Herkimer Street location. This exhibition explores the way that we define freedom, particularly as it relates to enclosed and open spaces we inhabit; and, more generally, how we navigate the responsibilities and discipline required to acquire and maintain freedom in our lives.
Freedom seeks to challenge viewers to consider the relationship between they way that we choose to utilize space, and how these choices inform the way that we define and experience freedom. Instead of exploring right or wrong, Chun is interested in the relationship between enclosed space and the space beyond its boundaries. As such the works in this exhibition are comprised of antithetic elements that describe that relationship – such as geometry and the spontaneous gesture. Chun’s work establishes a dialogue between rational straight line and atmospheric areas of color with floating, gestural expression.
Sunok Chun was born in Seoul, Korea where she received a BFA from Sung-Shin Women’s University and a MFA in painting from Pratt Institute. Sunok’s works have been exhibited in Germany, Korea, Austria and Japan. Sunok currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
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