New York

Moon Beom

The paintings here were all from the series “slow, same, slow,” which has engaged Moon Beom, a Korean artist in midcareer, since 1998. Or rather they are from a kind of subset of the series: In Moon's large exhibition at the Kukje Gallery in Seoul in 1999, the title “slow, same, slow,” (complete with a final comma) referred to what seemed to be two distinct bodies of work, both versions of the monochrome. A somewhat earlier group, simply “slow, same,” 1996–99, comprised horizontal paintings—more or less double squares—primarily in oilstick on linen; with their matte surfaces and tracts of unpainted cloth, these works were compositionally highly active, with lots of tonal gradations. A smaller group consisted of square panels with the smooth, highly reflective finish and shiny colors of cars, colors that were uniform and uninflected but for a dark shadow at one edge. And finally, there were rectangular panels sprayed with dense, dully metallic pigment (again, automotive paint) in such a way that billowing irregularities appeared here and there on the otherwise homogeneous surface, rather like the marks a wave leaves in sand. Strangely, though these imprints look distinctly like reliefs, a glance across the painted surfaces shows no visible textural differences.

Moon's first solo show in New York was drawn from this last group. American viewers might see the work as a hybrid of two discrete and, one might have thought, irreconcilable strains of abstraction: on the one hand, a kind of Color Field lyricism reminiscent of Jules Olitski's '70s works, in which big areas of sprayed color were modulated mainly at the edges of the canvas; on the other, a more obdurate, conceptually motivated monochromy for which the opacity of the paint could both serve as a barrier to any “seeing in” of meaning and refer to industrial production and mass culture—think of Stephen Prina's works in automotive finishes or Richard Prince's late-'80s car-hood paintings. And yet one suspects Moon has never seen the work of any of those artists, none of whom is well known in Korea. But then, as the broader series suggests, his work's dialogue with Western painting is fundamentally also a dialogue within Korean culture—a struggle between past and present, in which it's not clear which side is ascendant. The space of traditional Asian scroll painting persists in Moon's work, which seems to give these paintings their impressive equanimity in the face of what might otherwise seem to be the evocation of a desolate reality (the artist himself speaks of “the landscape of a wasteland”). So the paintings are not cold but tough; not lyrical but affecting. They make the ordinary glow of metallic pigments into something singularly their own.

Barry Schwabsky