Inkie Whang, An Old Breeze—Grass Roof 1, 2008, silicon and acrylic paint on canvas,  71 5/8 x 71 5/8".

Inkie Whang, An Old Breeze—Grass Roof 1, 2008, silicon and acrylic paint on canvas, 71 5/8 x 71 5/8".

Inkie Whang

Arko Art Center

Inkie Whang, An Old Breeze—Grass Roof 1, 2008, silicon and acrylic paint on canvas,  71 5/8 x 71 5/8".

There are miraculous moments in contemporary Asian art when a reconciliation of Eastern tradition and the Western avant-garde really does seem possible; Inkie Whang’s discovery of Lego blocks around 1994 and his systematic application of similar units on flat vertical surfaces since 2000 offer a good example. Whang chose images from the masterpieces of Korean and Chinese ink landscapes and digitized them (usually enlarging them in the process) so that the subtle brushstrokes and the ink’s nuances and gradations turned into a binary code, according to which the tiny square plastic blocks were then arranged.

A typical example is Dream Journey-Childhood, 2007, in which Ahn Gyeon’s fifteenth-century Mongyudowondo (Dream Journey to the Land of Peach Blossoms)—a panorama of multipeaked mountains and a nested peach orchard as described by Prince Anpyeong as appearing in his dream—is reconstructed as a twenty-six-foot-wide wall piece made of more than a hundred thousand black blocks against a yellow background. Without flattening the masterpiece into a mere pictogram of diffuse pixilation, Whang consistently abstracts the exquisite composition, letting each block oscillate between the symbolic and the indexical. The wall of shiny plastic blocks is unmistakably materialist, yet it succeeds in transferring the sublimity of the original into a grandeur experienced only through the sheer excitement of beholding the massive quantity of repetitive units. Whang’s take on painting as a hard-edge, Minimal/Conceptual object is bound to have originated in his years as a graduate student in New York during the late 1970s, when he began finding himself as he sifted the trends of the day.

On a lighter note, the delicate line drawing of a humble hut, a fragment from a Ming landscape by Chen Jiru, is replicated in An Old Breeze—Grass Roof 1, 2008; taken from the dreamy scene of foggy mountains, the sfumato-like effect of its thin ink and simple yet masterly brushstrokes is comically mocked with uneven blotches made of tiny black silicon grains set on a painted canvas. The ironic metamorphosis of the refined touches of earlier art to bits of commodity objects occurs most dramatically when Whang uses Swarovsky crystals rather than silicon or Legos for pixels, as in An Old Breeze 1102, 2011, a daring piece reconfigured from a Qing landscape. The almost baroque strokes of the ostentatious original are rather befittingly interpreted in the Pop face-lift given it by the artist.

The theme of vanity and issues of the influx of Western influence come to the fore in the recent series “Today That Will Be Yesterday by Tomorrow,” 2010–, in which decomposing bean paste is smeared on canvas over dense fields of rusty rivets arranged in the shape of luxury brand logos and a Playboy nude. Aside from the twenty-one paintings spread throughout two galleries, a selection of sixty of Whang’s drawings from the late 1990s to the present was filed on a movable wall. In these works, the artist has often applied charcoal and ink with his fingers, tapping on the paper or making long and fading lines meant to form pine trees. Tactility is a consistent feature of his work, and it is typical that the finger traces are simultaneously real and illusionistic. Multiple forms of representation, both old and new, analogue and digital, spiritual and material, find their manifestation at Whang’s fingertips.

Shinyoung Chung