THE GRACE OF THE EPHEMERALWhere do they belong, these pictures that so nimbly keep everything balanced in limbo – pictures in which a line is both the abstract marking of a brush in the picture and possibly the contour of a mountain chain, where a gestural color field can suddenly transform itself into a compact geometric form? The more you explore Jongsuk Yoon’s paintings, the more you realize that her pictures have grown larger and bolder over the years, while continuing to evade comprehension. Their dry, floating colors and their linear and painterly all-over structure transforms them into diaphanous phenomena that seem briefly to condense, only to dissolve in the next moment into individual markings, lines, fields, and subtle moods of color and form.
The strange, resonating inability to place these pictures can be partially explained by the artist’s biography. Jongsuk Yoon was born in Korea in 1965. Her father ran a gallery for traditional Asian ink painting. She left her home country in 1995, when she was almost 30 years old, to study in Germany, among other places at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf under Fritz Schwegler. For a long time, she has been at home in two worlds, never feeling entirely at home in either. After exploring conceptual ideas in complex knitted pictures at the beginning of her career, she began to focus entirely on drawing and painting. Since that time, her work has been located within a structural in-between space in which not only line and plane, colors and black and white, as well as abstraction and narrative elements, but more importantly also the traditions of Asian and European landscape painting encounter each other and mingle.
In a way, what we see in Yoon’s pictures is a Eurasian journey that has been transformed into painting; a shift and drift between horizonless views of close and far and of fragmented motifs vaguely evoking mountains, lakes, clouds, paths, buildings, birds, and flowers, among other things, while ultimately remaining ambiguous. These fragments are accompanied by cascading colors, meandering lines, and brushstrokes that may remind us of Art Informel and Abstract Expressionism at first, yet ultimately thwart this association.
All of these pictures are about landscape, but in an encompassing and introspective sense in which landscape is not understood primarily as representation, but rather as the expression of mental states and as imagination. Robert Fleck once expressed this beautifully when he said that landscape in Yoon’s pictures is not so much represented as it is constructed using painterly means1. For this, she relies on elementary principles of Asian landscape painting without copying them. In many of her works, she ignores the rules of perspective and plays with distances that are simultaneously high (looking up), low (looking down), and level (looking into the distance), allowing elements rather to overlap than to stagger to create the impression of spatial depth. The markings, weavings, and elements meandering and floating across the pictorial surface of her paintings also let us understand the idea of staying true to emotions, which Asian painting prefers over staying true to reality, which was the guiding principle of European landscape painting for a long time.
This having been said, Yoon also clearly strives to subjectively express herself and not to transpersonally transform landscape into a timeless, time-transcending essence, absent of all interest in a personal artistic style, as is the case in classic Asian landscape painting. In reality, these landscapes, which Yoon configures in a fragile and fleeting manner and which draw us in with their ephemeral presence, are essentially remembered images in which mental and real landscapes are permanently and inseparably intertwined.
In 2012, Yoon created several Landscapes of the Soul and Mind Landscapes. Not only do these represent an important step in her work; they also adequately sum up the mood and the often almost somnambulant character of her style of painting. Although these works are rather small or mid-sized, they still radiate a sense of monumentality and determination that exceeds her earlier works. Despite this, they are anything but cool, rationally organized experimental scenarios. Rather, what makes the composition coherent is its almost poetic ease and the grace of the ephemeral. This is also true for her most current works – for example, several works titled Kumgang (2020) in which she has created extremely masterful compositions on canvases that are almost three by four meters large and avoid all hints of definiteness or compact heaviness.
When looking closely at Yoon’s paintings, we can recognize from their surface that she has landed directly on the continent of the canvas, without a plan, without preliminary sketches, or other preparations – equipped only with the courage of a painter-adventurer. Once she has arrived, each new brushstroke and color form reacts to the kind of vibrations and sensations each painterly mark evokes in her and on the surface of the painting. According to Erich Franz, each painterly mark stands for itself in this linear painting style; each gesture is initially solitary and exists only for itself2.
Only the interplay between these marks and gestures, which cannot really be planned, can bring forth the polyphonic picture in which centripetal and centrifugal forces, fleetingness and duration, finality and temporality balance each other. Yoon has said about her odysseys on the sea of painting: “I do not have the finished picture in my head. In a way, it tells me what to do.” This clearly captures the inevitably unstable and fragile foundation on which these pictures are based. They are not allowed to know who or what they are beforehand if they want to reach their preliminary goal, which is only a stopover in the work’s continuous journey. A texture of woven biographical, emotional, and sensuous threads, equipped with shiny, immaterial linear ease and an opaque depth of color, manifests itself in the most remarkable way, creating pictorial moments in which painting speaks about what was and what is without ever attempting to fixate it.
1 Robert Fleck, “Eine Malerei der Zeit,” in Jongsuk Yoon, exhibition catalogue, Museum Kurhaus Kleve, Ludwig Museum Koblenz (Berlin: Distanz, 2017), p. 54
2 Erich Franz, in Jongsuk Yoon: sansui, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein Lippstadt et al. (Heidelberg: Kehrer, 2015), p. 39