View of “Chun Kook-kwang,” 2022. Photo: Eun Chun.

View of “Chun Kook-kwang,” 2022. Photo: Eun Chun.

Chun Kook-kwang

The beguiling abstract sculptures that Chun Kook-kwang made during his too-short career don’t quite fit that well-worn cliché of art writing: the historical work that “looks like it was made today.” Taking the form of eccentrically gridded objects or piles of a single material, they are unmistakably products of their era, the 1970s and ’80s. But their inventiveness, their candor, and their vast allusive range should nevertheless send competitive-minded sculptors rushing back to their studios.

Born in 1945, Chun was at the center of the art action in ’70s Seoul. He helped found a collective called Group Esprit, earned degrees at the hothouse Hongik University, and took the grand prize at the 1981 National Art Exhibition. Before his death from a heart attack in 1990 at the age of forty-four, he staged five solo shows (two in Japan, three in South Korea). At Wess—a one-room project space programmed by eleven curators with day jobs—Sunghui Lee charted Chun’s achievements in a concise survey of twenty-two pieces loaned by the artist’s family. Placing about half of them in chronological order around a large low table, Lee created a kind of platform of curiosities, a daring installation that showed Chun continuously honing his ideas in various mediums. Dryly titled “Chun Kook-kwang, a Modernist,” the show evinced a formal rigor linked to the rhythms and patterns of nature and capable of radiating psychic and political charges.

The earliest of the works was Q, 1974, a cast mound of plaster squares less than five inches tall that seemed to be hiding something—a breast, perhaps. On the floor next to it was a similar stack, Pagoda, 1975, this one three and a half feet of black fiber-reinforced plastic: alluring and menacing. (What could be underneath that?) The bronze Inner Mass, 1983, suggested a miniature nail bed perched on a topographic model of a mountain, while Amass—Formless, 1980; Amass—Square Mutation, 1982; and Amass, 1988—all made with plaster or aluminum—undulated like the ripples of a river or the folds of a body. They appeared to have absorbed tremendous physical energy. Two works from 1986 were particularly moving presences, since they showed Chun pushing his language near the end of his life, floating his plainspoken materials in the air, and gamely using empty space. One, Inner Mass, was a small grid of translucent acrylic strips hung from the ceiling, barely there. The other, Inner MassMagnetic Force0.027 m3 Space, was a tangle of black wooden blocks combined with bolts and, via two wires, placed in a corner, out of which it seemed to be growing.

A few small drawings, featuring thrumming organic forms, were also present, as were documentary images of Chun’s ambitious outdoor sculptures, resplendent in the open air. While whetting the appetite for a larger sequel to this exhibition, these inclusions emphasized that his resolutely abstract art was alive to the world—which is maybe why it feels so alive within it today. Chun’s is an art about how subtle details (an uncanny curve, a jagged edge) can sneak up on you and bowl you over. A penchant for nuance apparently runs in the family. In her recent show at Perigee Gallery in Seoul, Chun’s daughter, photographer Eun Chun, included two pictures of an elegant wooden pillow made by her father’s father, a carpenter. In the first one, hands held (and partially obscured) the piece: an X of two interlocking movable wood parts. In the second, the hands had gingerly shifted those components so that they were standing tall. With just the right presentation, it had come into its own, and it was glorious.