Yun-Kyung Jeong has recently taken a dramatic step toward the contemporary. In an effect that is the equivalent of television's switch from black and white to colour, her most recent work asks for a leap of faith - one with handsome rewards. We are introduced to a world full of new complexities, modern techniques and infinite intricacy. From monochrome beginnings, she takes us through landscapes splashed with colour and invented shapes. Her compositions have become more daring, even more ambitious, with each differing wildly from the next. To put it simply: in Jeong's most recent work, we are witnessing the shaping of what will soon become her artistic prime.
"I express my works using marks that I have obtained through my observations of, and aesthetic interest in nature. Each of the small marks [...] is a representation of the strong yearning energy that I have gained through my interactions with plants, an energy that wants to stretch out and blossom upward [...] these brush marks are now like a representation of myself, in the way I look at the world"
Jeong hails from Korea's Seoul, but moved to England to study in 2005. A graduate of the prestigious Slade School of Art, her ethereal landscapes offer a utopian retreat from the mundanity of modern existence by way of the Eastern concept of Gyeong (景). As one might expect, difficulties ensue when attempting to translate this into its Western equivalent, but at its core it engages with ideas shared by evolutionary theorist Gregory Bateson attempting to unify disparate entities. This is developed into a symbiotic co-existence of conflicting opposites, made starkly manifest as she clashes soft with hard, growth with gravity, and order with chaos. Rather than expressing these abstract ideas with an equally abstract style, Jeong instead imposes the order she feels is lacking by uniting these perceived conflicts in a single shape: a painted leaf-like motif that has become her artistic signature. According to the artist, the motif offers the resolution for "trying to find the way for unification", weaving the world via repeated organic shapes within geometric architectural forms which harmoniously "represent the energy of multitude and also the clash between East and West, nature and culture and the universal desire to confer a sense of dignity on both the manmade and the organic." Each delicate composition is quite literally built with thousands of these motifs - a shape whose connotations range from leaves and feathers to scales and chainmail, dependent on your cultural disposition. The shapes tower skywards, alluding to the surge of organic matter toward the sun but equally to the skyscraping silhouettes that adorn our cities. The shapes' progress across the canvas can never be anticipated, simply because each is uniquely painted, spontaneously applied at the moment, in the place, and with the movement as it "feels right" to do so. In so doing, Jeong's compositions have a tendency to dramatically forge across the negative space of the canvas, investing it with a life and energy the artist claims continues to grow increasingly personal, and reflects her "burning desire to create something new."
Aesthetically, Jeong's work is situated in the East. She has borrowed the atmosphere of traditional Korean painting in both its elegance and its preoccupation with the idea of 'being' in nature. Her early work saw her paint onto unprimed canvases, the texture rough, the palette monochrome; both features of the restrained technique of her homeland. Unpredictable Landscape, 2008 is both Jeong's largest painting to date, and the one that the artist describes as her inspiration. It is easy to see why: essentially a microcosm of her early art it is a fusion of refined and simple elegance with the bold ambition that has become so idiosyncratic. It borders on the overwhelming, showering the eye with a thousand different routes to pursue. You can both find your way and utterly lose yourself amongst its generous composition, and yet somehow Jeong manages to reassure us that we are safe within this haven. Flowing spirals give way to sharply-edged structures that are architectural in feel, and negative spaces take on a dual identity both as centre, and void. With the gift of hindsight we can observe how forms within hint at the direction in which her art will progress, with the dome-like structure at its top-right later to become the subject of a piece all its own. Ultimately, Unpredictable Landscape exists as Jeong's self-made muse, a constant source of inspiration and encouragement to which the artist returns again and again.
Some would observe that her works are almost topiary-like in their ordering or designing of nature. Jeong assents, and claims that the practice actually inspired her own artistic process. But more than this, by playing upon it, she has managed to expose an interesting quirk of ours; a love of the garden. We seek to grow, nourish, prune and perfect an array of flora and fauna in our private little havens. In what she describes as "experimental spaces", these gardens have become our own private mission to create a secret utopia. It is this idea of carving nature to our own end that fundamentally draws us to her work. We are each playing the same role, that of nurturer, life-giver and preserver - an intimate relationship that this young artist has managed to successfully tap into. It is because she has gone about it in such a subtle manner that we cannot feel aggrieved - quite the opposite, in fact: we welcome the nod to our mutual fascination with nature and are enticed to enter the sanctuary of her world all the more persuasively.
It is precisely because of this sensitive restraint and measured experimentation that Jeong's new work comes as such a shock. What was once monochrome on canvas becomes colour on Microfibre, and her traditional paint finds digital technology its new companion. You may wonder what triggered this seemingly sudden array of contemporary twists, and you would be right to: Jeong's early experiments were ambitiously testing the ice, dress rehearsals almost for what is yet to be seen. Having been received with great success, the artist has subsequently found herself not encouraged but eagerly expected to fulfil yet more of her creative potential. This has opened the floodgates to a veritable tide of newly welcomed influences and processes, and it is from this Jeong creates her most recent and exciting work to date. Whilst some might mistakenly consider this to signify an abandonment of her values, her progression is, in fact, a clever synthesis of tradition and technology. She does not merely retain the spirit so integral to her practice; if anything, by progressively combining it with the sensibilities of modern culture, she makes it so much more apparent.
To begin with, the introduction of a new base material acts as the foundation for Jeong's latest offerings. Vivid white, Microfibre is a Western fabric that exists as one of numerous references to her increasing fusion of her Korean background and her present life in London. Flawlessly matt in appearance, it is the ideal support for a further enterprise on which the artist has embarked: printing. With this, she employs 'work outside of the work'; separate, smaller pieces created independently of the canvas. In one example, a crumpled corrugated cardboard fan adorned with the motif makes an appearance in a number of works (it is a careful observer that notices the irony of painting such leaf-like figures onto cardboard, almost describing its origins in paint). The ensemble is then photographed (sometimes photoshopped, with patches erased) and then steam-printed onto the Microfibre to form a tiled background. For a lesser artist, this stage would herald the sum of their efforts, declared 'finished!' and thrust aside. For Jeong, it becomes an invitation to return to the piece, something it becomes a little daunting to think about when one considers the sheer size of some of her canvases. But this is all a part of Jeong's charm - she is one of a dying breed of artists unafraid to invest physical effort into their work; a feat increasingly rare in this age of easy answers facilitated by technology. And so once more she paints over every 'leaf', sharpening their points and more clearly defining their outlines. The sharper aesthetic acts as a metaphor for Jeong's progress as an artist; the same in spirit but more confidently and eloquently expressed, and visually much more striking.
In another development, Jeong returns to the traditions of Korean painting, and with the subtleness so inherent to her work, lends her origins a piquant touch of the contemporary. Korean practice dictates that one paints on a translucent fabric, using restrained movements and a carefully select palette. This delicate fabric is then affixed to a paper background which renders the image opaque. Jeong takes this restraint a step further by removing the final stage, and halting the process before the paper backing is introduced. Consequently, her work remains as this shimmering web, stretched such that its warm wooden frame skeleton glides in and out of focus. The effect of this subtle change to an historic process automatically updates it, curtailing the heaviness that would otherwise threaten to date the work before its time.
Process aside, however, it is the changes within Jeong's subject that does most to intrigue her audience. She retains the earthiness of her monochrome palette by infusing her black and white structures with umber, rich with connotations of life and fertile soil. From this she has become increasingly ambitious, as flourishes of red fan from unexpected corners, hints of green cry out amongst white structures, and cyan forces its way across the composition. This maturation of palette draws upon the vivacity of life in one of the world's most important cultural centres, and from this Jeong also draws new ideas for her multiples. Alongside her signature leaf-like motif are now tiles that cut new levels of complexity across her work, surprising collections of tumbling domes, and even fountains whose painstakingly-crafted droplets sear across the canvas. Each cluster of new shapes has appeared organically, and with the spontaneity of application that has remained the central thread to her work since day one.
It is this idea of what 'feels right' that makes Jeong so interesting and sets her apart from so many of her contemporaries. It is a phrase the artist regularly employs in conversation and whilst skeptics would accuse it of being a contrived expression among artists, in this case it is a genuine explanation of how Jeong's compositions unfold. There is no pretence to her work. She is honest in both inspiration and technique, and unafraid to admit her new-found alliance with technology because this part of the process does not define the work. It is when we question the idea of the multiple that Jeong's progress into this digital realm appears to have been inevitable; the replication of shapes is rather technological in itself, with Jeong's motif almost a distorted pixelation of nature. Rescued by the individuality of application and the independence of each shape from its neighbour, her work resists association with cold and static cloning. Jeong instead finds herself answering the call of digital art with a warmth and personality otherwise absent within the monotony of true digital duplication. The hand of the artist is detectable in every single aspect, and it is this most of all that places Jeong firmly on the right side of the line between the organic, and the empty.
Having held the attention of critics and dealers alike for several years, there is still the feeling that Jeong has some wild cards up her sleeve that she is yet to play. The role of the multiple could spill into more developed experiments with the idea of sequencing, or we could witness a drastic increase in palette or indeed a stark retraction. The innumerable directions hinted at in her new work offer an array of enticing paths to follow, but only time will tell which she chooses to pursue in what promises to be one of the most exciting progressions from early- to mid-career that Korean art has seen for quite some time.
Donna Marie Howard, Writer