If awards were given for the most labor-intensive art, Ian Harvey and Koo Kyung Sook would surely be contenders. During a residency at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha, the couple collaborated on two 9 x 11′ “paintings”, each composed of 2,112 individual abstract works executed on blank business cards. For five months they worked 15-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week to create the pictorial elements that are stitched together in these eye-grabbing, materially rich pictures.
Harvey, who joined the Sac State faculty in 2006, is a formalist. His art is all about paint and how it can be pushed, prodded, poured and mixed with other ingredients that, when applied to paper or canvas, look like snapshots of geological processes. Koo divides her time between Sacramento and her native South Korea where she is a professor at Chungnam National University. Her sculpture and installations focus on the body: specifically, the physical, biological and cultural essence of being female in Korea, one of the most patriarchal societies on Earth. While her work often begins as a social statement realized through organic, photographic and industrial processes, it almost always ends up addressing larger issues.
She’s built totemic structures out of bamboo and seaweed; rolled her body in photo chemicals to make life-sized, Yves Klein-inspired “bodygrams” (or “anthropometries” as Klein called them); poured molten iron into concrete molds to cast the shape of infants; and woven seaweed into clothing that’s been allowed to rot and sprout fungus. Harvey’s output is equally diverse. He’s roamed from thinly painted, abstract “narrative” works to highly controlled paint “spills” to quasi-representational pictures that mix African color sensibilities with a kind of surrealistic pointillism.
“Collaborations” fuses Koo’s bodygrams with Harvey’s paint pouring to achieve stark, corporeal forms with a texture that recalls Dubuffet’s Corps de Dame. As a team the artists find common ground improvising: figuring out at the moment of creation, what, exactly, their materials will do and how they will respond to what happens. (Prior to this, Harvey hadn’t done much figurative work, and Koo had never assembled anything from “readymade” parts.) The result of their collaboration is a kind of cut-and-paste Art Brut, an electrifying vision of human life as a turbulent cycle of regeneration and decay.
Figure 2 details the former. Its swirling, psychedelic colors look like they were poured onto the cards from a bucket of egg yolk mixed with various shades of enamel: red, blue and black. Each picture element appears to be in one of two conditions: molten and ready to slide off the wall, or else sun-baked and brittle. At the center they combine to form a figure, but not one you can easily bring into focus. Shard-like, fragmented and shot-through, it gyrates and pulses, sending the eye lurching back and forth across the picture. This deliberate creation of a central image with no visual center forces viewers to contemplate the messy, gluey essence of human life as a fluid transaction with all that surrounds it. Which is not at all unpleasant, as each component piece is a fully realized painting worthy of prolonged contemplation. And while this fact begs the question of whether the parts are more interesting than the whole, what really matters here – and what’s truly amazing – is that the artists have built a coherent picture from such seemingly inchoate pieces.
The same holds for the companion piece, Figure 1. Viewed from the edges inward, its orange-hued neutral colors gradually dissolve into a headless figure that appears to have been constructed from burnt cinders – a sort of frame-by-frame vision of a funeral pyre. But the picture (whose key ingredients are shellac and graphite) is highly nuanced. The areas surrounding the figure vibrate with ovoid forms that read as cellular structures in transition. This emphasis on atomization, on fracturing, injects a certain levity that speaks more about natural cycles than of the weight of history or its overarching mythologies. Yet there’s an epic quality, too, owing to the sheer scale of the enterprise.
Their effort has drawn comparisons to several artists, most notably Chuck Close. But where Close uses a repetitive, carefully calibrated series of interlocking marks to create riveting, photo-realistic portraits of individuals, Harvey and Koo use abstraction to build genderless composites that represent humanity’s carbon-and-water essence. Another obvious difference is that close-up, Close’s portraits don’t yield much pleasure; his squiggles, while supremely functional, are about as entertaining as coffee beans. The Harvey-Koo pictures work on both the micro and macro level.
Collaborations often entail self-cancelling compromises. But in this case, the compromises, whatever they were, showcased only strengths: Harvey’s as an alchemist and Koo’s as an explorer of biological destiny. However they choose to work in the future, together or apart, I eagerly await the sequel.
David M. Roth
Editor and Publisher, Squarecylinder, the online visual art magazine of Northern California
writing in Artweek, March 2008