Zuyoung Chung

Gallery 175

The Confucian emphasis on “pursuit of tradition” has laid a subconscious guilt trip on contemporary Korean art. Straying far from the tradition of ink painting on hanji (Korean paper), the country’s primary art form aside from ceramics until the early twentieth century, contemporary artists have been greatly influenced by Western modernism. By contrast, Zuyoung Chung’s mountain landscapes are masterful hybrids of native style and the adopted tradition of oil painting.

Chung has painted landscapes since her school days in Düsseldorf and Amsterdam, when she sketched abstracted pastoral scenes. When she first switched to Korean terrain, she took her cues from ink paintings by Kim Hong-do, the eighteenth-century landscape and folk painter, and by Chong Son, the seventeenth- to eighteenth-century master of mountain landscapes. In this early stage, she typically copied a section of one of their paintings onto her linen support, enlarging a portion of coast or a mountain peak. Whereas the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) originals measure no more than two feet in length and are characterized by sensitive touches of ink, Chung’s canvases are often up to fourteen feet wide and are filled with big, powerful, dry brushstrokes, their subjects simplified and flattened to a degree often verging on abstraction.

The recent show at Gallery 175 included ten works that highlight a new development in Chung’s approach to landscape. The images are no longer taken from existing paintings. Instead, she has used characteristic views of the mountains of Seoul—Bukak, Inwang, and Bulam. Stylistically, the new series, “Inwang Mountains,” 2005, and “Bulam Mountains,” 2006, retain the dry and wide brushstrokes characteristic of her previous work, but the results are more realistic; for example, a barren rock wall is skillfully expressed in toned gradations of umber brown and ash gray. The vision is both close and distant: The tight framing of the views suggests a certain proximity, while the apparent indifference of nature becomes a psychologically numbing facade. Chung’s unique yet in part traditional execution allows no immediate association with contemporaries, unless one were to imagine a hybrid in which Luc Tuymans’s color had been brushed in by Alex Katz before being subjected to Gerhard Richter’s blur.

Although she is observing these local mountains directly, Chung recognizes that she is looking at the same scenery the Joseon masters depicted. Thus, she creates a lineage that connects past and present. Shifting her source from paintings of mountains to actual mountains, Chung has expanded the scope of her reference from the simply art historical to the geographical as well, building a rich system of signs. After spending some time with Chung’s mountains, one comes to realize that it is not only the tradition of ink painting that is being re-examined but that of representation itself—the transformation of object into image by the artist.

Shinyoung Chung