Hwaseong

Sung Chankyung, One Lonely Pine Branch, 1980, nut, bolt, wood, paper, ink, 7 7⁄8 × 4 × 4".

Sung Chankyung, One Lonely Pine Branch, 1980, nut, bolt, wood, paper, ink, 7 7⁄8 × 4 × 4".

Sung Chankyung

UmMuseum

Sung Chankyung was a rare bird. A lauded poet and professor in South Korea, he created hundreds of sculptures—most small enough to cradle in one hand—using cast-off and quotidian materials. They are wry, inventive, even heartbreaking. Though he spent decades pursuing his practice, he rarely shared his works other than with his friends and family. This judiciously curated exhibition of about fifty pieces allowed a wider public to join that lucky group.

Sung, who died in 2013 at eighty-two, once wrote that “rustling to make things” was his life’s greatest joy. His works radiate that pleasure, and they sometimes seem just as happily surprised as you are that he has conjured so much personality from such basic ingredients. Via a few precisely placed circular holes and thin slits, an upside-down metal kettle became a child’s head in 1983, its subject caught in a moment of awe or amazement. Sitting on a small wood pedestal, One Lonely Pine Branch, 1980, is a vertical bolt, bent near the top, holding a nut.

Those two humble items—nuts and bolts—are the core of Sung’s art, working as both medium and metaphor. Various types formed Don Quixote and his horse in a piece from 2002 (his lance of wire), and they simply lay ensconced in a jewelry box in Bolts and Nuts Family, 2000. A poem by the artist, printed on a gallery wall, was an apostrophe to “Dear bolt, / my piece of gold.” Promising to “revive you into an object,” he tells it to “sneer coldly / at the civilization that you built / and . . . that threw you away.”

Sung called his home studio the ​Eungam-dong Orphanage for Materials, referring to the Seoul neighborhood where it was located. It was a place where abandoned things began new lives, where they were recycled and redeemed—saved. One of the most intricate works here was a 1969 crucifix made of chopsticks, a perforated metal plate (a speaker cover), and a silver spoon the artist heated and fashioned into a Christ figure. In a moving essay in an accompanying catalogue, his (clearly very patient) wife, Myungwhan Lee, recounts heating the briquettes he used to transform the utensil, which she had bought him when they married. (His gifts to her included the elegant Love Letter Weighing Scale, 1963, a balance with a clip for measuring those notes.)

Such idiosyncrasy might come across as gimcrack eccentricity were it not for Sung’s astonishing range and his restraint, which lends his art a bracing candor. (Paul Klee, another master of minute gestures, was an enduring inspiration.) He removed the arm of a Singer sewing machine to leave a woman’s abstract profile and turned its flywheel into a magnifying-glass holder. A thick board for pounding rice cakes became a bench. Faucet handles, pipe joints, and other scraps formed the adorable creatures of Loving Beast Family, 1980.

The show’s curator, Miseongoa Shin, invited two artists to present work in tribute to Sung. Some of the poet’s wily little beings appeared in a video by Sungseok Ahn, who imagined them in a 3D-rendered park as supersize monuments, as charismatic as ever. Hyeran Choi contributed wall-painted portraits of Sung. In one, he was in the midst of action, a starlike white shape slung on his back; his sculpture A Magic Wand for Poetry Reading Performance, 2005, was affixed to the wall as if the painted figure was wielding it. The wand is about a yard long and ornamented with nuts, bolts, wires, and more. A sparkling light at its tip burned out at some point, but that was not a problem. Small miracles had already alighted all around him.