Hyun-Sook Song, and her painting

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We spend hours looking for art on the Internet. We see and look at a lot of well polished, clean creations, and, most of the time, we ask ourselves: What does it say? And we get the answer quite quickly, or we remain puzzled, because we can’t understand everything. One often notices the concern to do well, to please, to seduce; it often looks like design; one can learn to make “as if”-art, one learns the guise, even the pomp. And then, and this is the purpose of the eyed-manœuvre, one “stumbles” upon something that stops the thinking, like the train stamp. The ArtReview website tells us that Hyun-Sook Song was born in 1952, in the remote agrarian farming village in the Chŏlla province of South Korea. Unusually for a woman of her generation and background, she attended high school in Gwangju, and emigrated to West Germany at the age of twenty to work as an auxiliary nurse. In the mid-1970s she was diagnosed with a serious lung disease that forced her to leave her job, which led her to enrol at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. There she began experimenting with egg tempera on canvas, combining a medium that is commonly associated with Western medieval art with an East Asian calligraphic immediacy and brevity of form.Life is good, sometimes, despite misfortune: Would Song had became a painter if she hadn’t contracted this disease?

Let’s start with something easy.  

Hyun-Sook Song, “3 Brushstrokes”, 2019, Tempera on canvas, 160 × 250 cm, © Hyun-Sook Song, Sprüth Magers Gallery, Berlin

We love these “things” that seem simple, but require so much craft. “3 brushstrokes”; as if the three elements — background, vertical “bar”, horizontal lines — had been “drawn” in three distinct and successive gestures. A deliberate paradox, dare we say typical, between the urge of the desired effect (the overall view), and the patience of realization; because it takes some to do this. We could be satisfied with saying nothing else. And yet, we need to add some lemmas. For example: At first glance, we have a stick stuck and a ribbon tied to it, floating. Does the ribbon fray, in the material, or in the supposed real? But, the stick also frays. I ask myself a question. Why isn’t the background plain like a good old flat shade? I don’t know. Probably something Song means by this… that I don’t get.

It will be for later, or never. It must be a question of aesthetics, of personal rhythm. Alright. Let’s go back to the overall picture. There are painters who always know how to play with illusionism, which we must love in painting, we must admit. Because, once again, we have the impression of a ribbon stuck on a stick; and yet, all this is only painting. Where we see, by the way, that there is no need to play it hyperrealist to produce this type of impressions, effects, reality, and so forth.

After a pause, let me try a hypothesis. The background remains partly processual, because the whole painting, and Song’s practice in general it seems to me, revolves around this way of recalling that painting, after all, is only a matter of covering. What do I (as a painter) cover; what do I dis-cover? What does appear?, what does remain?, what does disappear? This is one of the fundamental questions of painting. In the one above, Song answers it in an almost modest way, sotto voce. It’s not demonstrative, it’s not boastful, it’s not loud; it’s elegant, very. Let’s move on to something less “simple”. 

Hyun-Sook Song, “12 Brushstrokes”, 2021, Tempera on canvas, 160 × 200 cm, © Hyun-Sook Song, Sprüth Magers Gallery, Berlin

Once again, this looks simple; almost primitive, in the age of contemporary art; art that Newman or Reinhardt still called, in their own way and Time, “modern”, in such a way that the term meant for them a new way of making art; new in relation to what has been done, in Europe. One could probably speak, with these two artists, and of course with others, of “modern abstract art”, whereas Kandinsky’s, for example, became at this moment, “classic”, and thus obsolete (especially in the eyes of Newman, who judged his “abstract” art as too pareidolic, mimetic). If I mentioned Newman and Reinhardt, it is because Hyun-Sook Song’s art makes me think of them; not as a return to, but as a possible filiation, and especially with the latter: As we look, we wonder: What is “above”? What is « below »? Because, especially with Reinhardt (the “Black Paitings”), one cannot help but see crossings; but what is above or below, that’s another story… As with Song.

And then there is this overall view, which we would naturally be inclined to take as the representation of a kind of veil. But, what if it was only painting? Of course it’s just paint, but that’s not the thinking we do when we are certain that what is painted necessarily represents something identifiable. It is as if Song wanted us to play the game of mimesis while discreetly indicating to us that it is perhaps a question here of nothing other than painting before anything else, therefore of covering and discovering, thus installing a sort of principle of uncertainty in the choice of his drawing (the painted forms): it is impossible to decide whether we are dealing with a mimetic or non-mimetic representation, and it is there that we touch the sensitive heart of Song’s painting.


The ArtReview paper also reads:  “despite having lived in Germany for the past 50 years, Song continues to paint objects remembered from her childhood. The wooden posts, earthenware pots and delicate strips of fabric that sparsely occupy her canvases, as Song phrased it, are “inscribed with meanings” that are not only particular to herself and her family, but to the “entire village community” in which she was born and raised; vestiges of a slower way of life and work before the advent of electricity, industrial production and modern communication technologies.” Further on, she says: ““My recent illness and the pandemic made me reflect on life and death. As with many others, I feel the impact of social isolation from friends and family. As my emotional state is connected to my practice, I am certain it does influence my work. How exactly, I cannot say.”

There is the emotional, memorial state, and there is the artistic production. I am always very wary of psychologizing exegesis, even from the artists themselves. It’s not that I would question their saying, but often, between the intention, the psychological state, and the iconic “outcome”, there is a transformation, that we can always call a hypostasis, for the passage here between what is psychological, psychic, towards the plastic. They are indeed two “gapped” domains, that is to say expressed between them by a void that it is a question of filling by the exteriority; the expression, and it is in this “emptiness” that can be played what I would call the plastic difference. Now, for my part, I do see a plastic difference expressed in Song’s paintings, and it is this that interests me much more. (Not that my heart is made of stone, but who, on this earth, does not know his share of sufferings?) I mean that I see nothing suffering or melancholic in these images, I see nothing but painting + some aesthetic dimension non transcribable in words, and its deployment in a parsimony of high quality (not synonymous with decorative) and meditative; certainly, on the exposed condition of the painted. In the end (for my part here), it is all meditatively enigmatic.


Léon Mychkine, art-critic, philosopher

contact : mychkine@orange.fr


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