Eugene Seong – Eternal Spirits and Timeless Landscapes
by Jeanne Brasile
Just north of New York City, in the New Jersey suburb of Tenafly, Gallery Yonhee has been luring visitors across the river - including a coterie of notable curators, critics, artists, and collectors. The gallery’s strong roster of exhibitions is adroitly curated by Paris Koh, Exhibitions Director and Curator with a decided preference for works on paper, especially those addressing spiritual and natural themes. Under her leadership, the venue is building a solid reputation, and Koh’s latest effort, Eugene Seong’s solo effort Longevity is yet another compelling show.
Eugene Seong’s mixed media works take traditional Korean religious symbology, Ship-Jang-Saeng, as a source of inspiration. These 10 symbols of a long and healthy life are ubiquitous in daily living and originated in folk art traditions, design and architecture - reflecting harmony and a spiritual connection to the natural world. The centerpiece of the show “The ten symbols of longevity No 4 – 6” dominates the gallery with its scale, bright colors and whirling, shimmering surface. The vertically oriented triptych is draped at each tier and appears like an outsized Roman shade. There is no particular entry point into this piece which is roiling with motifs of the everlasting. The viewer can dive in at any point and let their eyes wander throughout. As your eyes adjust, you begin to see forms of deer dissolve into leafy, fecund peach trees whose golden antlers terminate into thick foliage laden with ripe, colossal fruit. Cranes emerge from clouds and dense clusters of flowers. A turtle swims through what could be either sky or water, while upon his back rises a series of majestic mountain peaks under the light of just one of many painted moons. In the center panel, dual imagery shows a woman in profile whose face simultaneously reads as both visage and mountain range, while her hair dissolves into a crashing waterfall.
The painting is enhanced by the thick lines of relief Seong constructs by repeated applications of paint applied with a brush. The artist described her painstaking process to achieve this effect with layers of translucent gelled paint with rounded contours. Though she could take short cuts, it is this attention to detail and perhaps a meditative approach that makes the work stronger while fortifying its spiritual substance. The palpable line work is conflated with a variety of other techniques that make use of washy swaths and smaller areas of thicker, opaque paint resembling lacquer or enamel. This piece reads like an epic journey and is rightfully placed as a dramatic introduction to the exhibition.
Another standout is “Lust Stain” which is both a counterpoint to the energetic “The ten symbols of longevity No 4 – 6” as well as an extension of Seong’s spiritual beliefs. This large painting addresses feminine mysticism which is another foundation of the 10 symbols of longevity while incorporating the Korean traditions of Sagunja - traditional plants motifs - and minhwa- a folk art tradition emphasizing decorative patterns and populist themes. As in her triptych, Seong blends natural landscape elements with the female form, which here, is not subjugated to the landscape but co-exists independently and rises amidst biological forms. The importance of the female figure is established by her centrality and scale in relation to the whole.
The subject’s gaze is averted downward in modest ecstasy as she sniffs an orchid suspended across the bottom portion of her ghostlike visage. In contrast, the flower is a vibrant red, it is color spilling down her torso in a crimson stain that dissolves just above a knobby black trim limb encircling the woman’s waist. Her long, flowing hair falls past her shoulders to waist length and creates a busy rush of textured lines with alternating bands of orange, red, green, blue and red intermingled with raised dots that punctuate the linework. While reading like hair, her Technicolor tresses are also suggestive of cellular or microscopic forms. We get the sense that Seong is making a statement about the inter-relation of all life from the micro to the macro while positioning the divine not only in the natural world of trees, mountains and animals but also in the feminine which encompasses the minute biological structures of which we are comprised. The beauty of the woman and the orchid is contrasted against the dark, craggy tree, subtly reminding us of the foreboding caress of mortality that awaits us all.
Though rooted in Korean painting conventions and established spiritual dialogues, Seong’s work seems thoroughly modern. Indeed, the very appeal of her work is her deft ability to blend the new and the old, the Eastern and the Western, the landscape and the corporeal, the abstract and the figurative. Her work can be appreciated whether looking at the dominant forms from a distance, or the smaller scenes that upon closer inspection emerge from the larger forms that dissolve into a maelstrom of color, texture, shape, and line. Seong unifies her work through these multivalent formal elements and the conversations that co-exist much like the 10 symbols of longevity work together to auspiciously harmonize life.
What holds the work together and brings it further into the contemporary step is Seong’s overriding interest in structure – the way she breaks down hair, waves, water or clouds into fractals or components of their larger selves - is a thoroughly fresh take on her traditional inspiration. She has a firm understanding of the formal qualities and dialogues imbued in her practice, but Seong also addresses pertinent themes of natural structures and the confluence of the spiritual and the scientific. The work is both richly layered and intelligently presented. If you take time to look beyond the swirling textures, colors, and patterns– you can also see the structure of the cosmos and the microscopic world at play in these paintings that are both eternal and timeless.