Jeong Zik Seong, 201438, 2014, acrylic and oil on canvas, 76 3/8 × 102".

Jeong Zik Seong, 201438, 2014, acrylic and oil on canvas, 76 3/8 × 102".

Jeong Zik Seong

Gallery BK

Jeong Zik Seong, 201438, 2014, acrylic and oil on canvas, 76 3/8 × 102".

While an art student at Seoul National University more than twenty years ago, Jeong Zik Seong was a member of Photography Group Manifesto, which documented the protests of nearby residents who were forced to move when their dwellings were slated to be demolished to make way for urban-renewal projects. Now painting rather than taking photographs, she is still fascinated by the architectural transformations of the urban landscapes where she lives, and she remains just as concerned with the underprivileged. The thirty new paintings in her recent solo show “Constructive Abstract” transform the often politically charged redevelopment sites of Seoul into visually enticing quasi abstractions.

Around 2006, the artist—whose pseudonym is the Korean word for honesty—became known through her series “Semi-Detached Houses,” 2004–2009, a group of paintings that refer to the two- to three-story redbrick houses often leased by the floor or room to low-income tenants. Just as two thousand years ago, before the invention of linear perspective, the painters of the frescoes at Boscoreale near Pompeii depicted cityscapes with Roman villas seemingly piled on top of one another, Jeong Zik Seong covered her canvas all over with typological units of unattractive densely stacked red houses. The suffocating image actually captures a poignantly realistic view of the hilly Seoul neighborhood known as Dal-dong-ne (Moon Village), where clusters of these houses pile up, leaving little space for even pedestrian alleys.

In the following phase, around 2009–10, when Jeong Zik Seong began consciously rejecting literal representation, she sometimes fragmented the images of the houses or random structures even more; almost as in analytic Cubism, the closed structure of the houses evolved into spatial compositions of lines and planes with a subdued chiaroscuro between the bordering planes and facets, faintly retaining a referential quality. The breakdown of the image stands in for the image of what was being demolished—a commentary on the rushed, irresponsible development going on around Korea, undertaken by conglomerates in search of ever-greater profits. More recently, the works have become visually streamlined, and in one of most successful paintings in this show, 201431 (all works 2014), black and gray brushstrokes vertically traverse the left side of the canvas, on top of a receding lavender background whose airbrushed sfumato subtly hides what might be a staircase, hinted at with pale horizontal strokes; in 201412, thick and thin diagonal strokes of light yellow and gray read as a pile of timber or steel beams. As the brushstrokes accumulate, metaphoric structures are built within the painting. Self-determined and confident, the marks seem tensely conscious of their own double status as purely visual and referential; the overall effect is dreamy yet factual, with continuous push and pull between optical input and cerebral recognition.

In the wake of the Sewol ferry disaster in April, in which a chain of human and mechanical failures laid bare the authorities’ inability to protect the public, Jeong Zik Seong has cast a critical eye on the corrupt structures of Korean society at large. 201438 is a dynamic vision of an architectural site or a ruin where vertical and horizontal intersecting lines are severed abruptly, as if to suggest irresponsibly unsustainable foundations. Far from the medium-specific painterly abstractions of Mary Heilmann or Juan Uslé, which Jeong Zik Seong’s paintings might seem to resemble, her works indicate a stoic resistance to art for art’s sake and the formal manifestation of technique. Holding fast to her identity as a struggling social being, she achieves a new kind of abstract realism.

Shinyoung Chung