I had to approach the concept of painting the other way round. So I had to push the paint from the back of the woven burlap canvas against common sense. I had to make my canvas with burlap that used to be used to transport relief goods across war-stricken Korea as well as oil paint of the right viscosity in order to push the paint from behind. It all led to an unprecedented style.
Materiality and Abstraction
Enigmatic and contemplative, Conjunction 74-24 and Conjunction 77-12 are highly exemplary archetypes of Ha Chonghyun’s iconic and acclaimed aesthetic – both works were selected to be illustrated in Joan Kee’s seminal publication Contemporary Korean Art: Dansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method (2013), the first and most important academic survey on the Korean Dansaekhwa (monochrome painting) movement. A further testimony to the historical significance of Conjunction 74-24 is its participation in numerous major exhibitions on Dansaekhwa – most notably the 56th International Art Exhibition, a collateral event of the 2015 Venice Biennale. The latter work, Conjunction 77-12, was executed in the same year that Ha Chonghyun discussed his oeuvre in an essay titled “Fusing Materiality and Painting”; in the text, the artist explains his underlying desire to explore the possibility of painting to simply exist by account of its own materiality and intrinsic properties. In the words of critic Oh Kwangsu, in Ha Chonghyun’s unique art, “material does not function as a means to an end but is content to be itself”.
Dansaekhwa began in Korea in the 1960s, prompted by the turbulent period of political upheaval and deprivation under the military dictatorship of Park Chunghee. From this socio-political context emerged a pioneering group of avant-garde artists including Park Seobo, Chung Sanghwa, Lee Ufan and Ha Chonghyun himself, to name but a few. Unbound by a single ideology or methodology, these artists collectively challenged the normative aesthetic that their country was accustomed to, replacing figuration with varying modes of abstraction loosely linked by common themes of labour, repetition, material and nature, and the use of muted monochrome tones. A leading and prominent member of Dansaekhwa, Ha Chonghyun is best known for his use of hemp burlap, a coarse multi-purpose material used by US military bases and aid organizations operating in South Korea at the time; and also for his unique modus operandi bae-ap-bub, translating literally to ‘back-pressure method’ – a labour-intensive process that involves the artist applying thick paint on hemp-woven canvas from its verso and applying pressure, forcing it slowly and painstakingly through the weave. As a result of this distinctive method, the paint bleeds through to the front side of the canvas, and is then further scraped into stunning abstract matrices that preserve and emphasize the materiality of both hemp and pigment.
Since the 1970s, Ha Chonghyun titled his works Conjunction, referring to the conjoining of pigment and support without the mediation of painting tools. By minimizing his own intervention, Ha Chonghyun allows the seeping paint and its aqueous nature to affect the outcome of the painting; at the same time, his repeated actions of pushing and scraping explores the monochrome as a vehicle of alternative concealment and exposure. By scraping or incising strategic patterns that counteract sublimely with the burlap’s raw organic textures, Ha Chonghyun achieves surfaces that are simultaneously minimalist and primitive, resembling parchment, tree bark, or light scrapes made on cement and snow. Joan Kee, the first Western scholar to study and promote Korean Dansaekhwa academically, described Ha as one of the few artists able to "link monochrome and all its connotations of purity and autonomy with its opposite, in this case the feral, or even fecal, viscera from which the monochrome is allegedly immune”.
It is interesting to note that the technique of applying paint from the back of the canvas was in fact practiced in portraiture as early as the Joseon Dynasty in the 17th century. In contrast to his ancestors, who sought effects of refinement, Ha Chonghyun mobilized the traditional technique with a modern twist, deliberately pursuing a raw coarseness that accentuates the deeply materialist nature of his artistic commitments as well as the merging of medium with his own physicality. Working from behind, instead of in front of, his canvases, Ha Chonghyun’s works also allude to the idea of the absence of the painter, such that the visceral tactile materiality of his canvases conjures up disorienting notions of presence and absence. In his exhibitions in the 1990s, Ha's paintings were often misread as responses to Western minimalism. The apparently minimalist exterior of Ha's paintings, however, is the result of arduous accretion rather than reduction, of layering rather than paring down. While Western monochrome art reached the apex of formalism, Ha meditated unrelentingly on the properties, sensibilities and limitations of materials, achieving a sublime harmony between nature and control, the inner and outer and the body and mind. The contemplative energy that pervades the current works is the result of simultaneous self-awareness and self-negation in the face of the silent beauty of the organic and the infinite.