Oh Chi Gyun

In 1989, Oh Chi Gyun was painting his naked body in the dim light of a television set in his dark Brooklyn apartment. Although he had just finished his MFA studies at Brooklyn College, New York, the previous year, the resulting nudes should not be dismissed as simple figure studies by a postgraduate student; their psychological density makes it clear they are anything but technical exercises. In them, we see the lean body of an Asian man in his early thirties—tense, perhaps desperate, yet resilient; he assumes poses like that of the crouching Discobolos or a coiled-up fetus, and often his figure seems caught in agony or some kind of spasm. In some of the earlier paintings from the gloomy series called “Human Body,” 1986–95, a leg, head, or torso is cut off by the edges of the pitch-dark canvas, leaving an incomplete body. Enclosed in an embryonic cell of delimited canvas, the prevailing darkness and isolation are almost as otherworldly as a Blakean vision.

Oh’s works from this period are also detached in another sense: Despite having been produced in proximity to the mecca of some of the most important streams of postwar art, Oh’s work had nothing to do with any of the preceding currents derived from Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual art, or even New Image painting. A recluse, he painted what remained the only subject available in an effort “to keep himself sane,” as the exhibition press release would have it. Burdened with a tremendous feeling of isolation as well as immediate financial hardships, Oh counted his years in New York from 1986 through 1991 as the most difficult time of his life. The eloquence of “art as idea” or the complacent optimism of mass consumption were not options; in this sense, despite the difference in medium, the artist was closer to the Vito Acconci or Chris Burden of the late 1970s in that his body became a singular site of psychological, perceptual, and sociological struggle.

This suffocating moment in Oh’s career slowly opens up with the appearance of his immediate family in his paintings; among forty-six works displayed at the exhibit were smaller portraits of his wife and newborn daughter from 1992 to 1994. In these, he captures new subjects with a broader palette but through an equally intense and somber confrontation. Some works depict their subjects in extreme close-up, yet the intimacy of the relationship is better conveyed by the numerous touches of thick impasto on the surface—Oh was experimenting with finger painting in this period. The Happiness of the Baby, 1994, is an iconic vertical double portrait of his wife holding the infant; the lowered eyes and firmly sealed lips of the mother disappear into the painterly matière, crying out in silence for the sacrifice she bears on behalf of the family.

Oh is known mainly for his heavily textured landscapes of New York, Santa Fe, and Korea, so this investigation of his early works supplied a missing piece of information about the artist’s development. The pessimism he finds embedded in the New York skyline or the brisk air of Albuquerque seems an innate part of his sensibility—once an isolating factor, now a quality welcomed by connoisseurs.

Shinyoung Chung