Born in 1932 in South Korea, Chung received a B.F.A. from the College of Fine Arts in Seoul National University in 1956, before briefly moving to work in Paris in 1967. By then, abstraction had become a symbol of post-war art in the West, with the Art Informel group in Europe, and Abstract Expressionism in North America. Korea too underwent great artistic change after its own war in the fifties, and like his contemporaries such as Lee Ufan, Chung’s abstract works were a deft amalgamation of East-West ideals; as well as conscious elaborations on traditional Korean art. Some traditional concepts and aesthetics that were incorporated into the new language of the Korean abstractionists included ideas of “oneness”, which is in line with the Eastern calligraphic methodology of the “one stroke method”—stemming from training which many artists had previously received in their youth. An expansion of this “oneness”, Korean abstract works also went on to include Tansaekhwa, or Monochrome Painting, where a single colour becomes the starting point for meditative and repetitive pieces.
Embodying this philosophy, Chung’s works are also monochromatic, yet they are far from one-dimensional. Such as can be seen from the present Untitled , Chung employs two distinctive methods of painting: removing and repainting, where paint is applied layer upon layer, and where it is then peeled off. Chung covers his canvases with clay, scoring them with grids and excavating each small square, before filling them individually with paint. This “coat and peel” process creates the illusion that each square is framed by grooves, which is produced with an almost religious dexterity until the entire canvas is covered. This repetitive, almost sacred manner of creation, combined with the philosophies behind calligraphy injects a tiled, almost sculptural effect to Chung’s pieces.
The enthralling works by Chung also investigate the depths of colour. According to the artist, “Colour is very mysterious. Even [the] colour white has many different types. Whether Hanji (Traditional Korean paper) receives light, [is] shaded, or [gets] wet, they all show different colours. And sometimes [the] colour white [mixed] with some other colour…seems brighter than white by itself. Just like this, artists must seek for and make their own colour.”1 When considered along with his upbringing by the seaside, one can see in the present work contemplation on the movements of water and the way light refracts along waves. Thus in Untitled, the colour white is deeply explored, and is revealed to be multi-dimensional, rich, and profound.
Chung Sang-Hwa is an artist whose works are simple, yet deeply mesmeric. Their apparent simplicity gives way to a limitless meticulousness and precision, where laborious strokes give way to a labyrinth of details. Moreover, this unique method that Chung has created—poised between modernity and tradition; creating and recreating—stands side by side his philosophy of self-discovery and uniqueness, which are both, no doubt, important elements that help to solidify his position as one of the stars of Korean abstract art.
1 Lóránd Hegyi, “Chung Sang-Hwa: On Tiem and Labour”, Chung Sang-Hwa, 2012, p.85
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