A Secret Code
Sunhee Kim Jung is known as a painter of lush landscapes that express provocative ideas, beliefs, and feelings about life and death, loss and rebirth. A Secret Code introduces major formal and material changes in this latest body of Jung’s work. Her new handi-crafted objects have abandoned paint, brushes, and representation, but Jung’s underlying themes remain the same. What is new in this work is that she has given us the opportunity to witness how the artist brings together theory, practical material concerns, and personal adversity to create meaningful, emotionally intelligent art.
Color theory plays a central role in Jung’s new work, but dies not become an end in itself. Joseph Albers has always been a major influence on artists. A member of the Bauhaus, and for sixteen years the head of Black Mountain College, Albers moved to Yale and began his Hommages to the Square series in 1950. His highly influential Interaction of Color was published in 1963, just in time for the great Washington painter Tom Green (1942 - 2012) to learn Albers’ ideas under artist and mentor Sidney Gross while a graduate student at the University of Maryland. When Green began teaching at the Corcoran School of Art, he passed this knowledge along and influenced another generation of artists, including Sunhee Kim Jung.
Many artists are seduced by systems of color or composition or technique, as if by mastering a method or following a recipe one could produce good art. Albers took the discoveries and observations of Goethe, Runge, Rood, and Munsell and worked them into a process for discovering, for seeing and feeling for artists:
What counts here—first and last—is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision—seeing. Seeing here implies Schauen (as in Weltanschuung) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination. (Albers 2006:2)
Sunhee Kim Jung acknowledges her debt to the color theory handed down from Albers through her mentor, Tom Green. A Secret Code displays her mastery of theory, which she now teaches to her students at Anne Arrundel Community College. But when she talks about this work, she links the phenomenon of color to the magic of light. Changing light brings these objects to life, and unites the process of seeing with the internal world of fantasy, feeling, and imagination.
It is hard to conceive of a more recalcitrant medium through which to communicate the magic of color and light, let alone ideas and feelings. Jung takes rock candy (it only comes in eight colors and black and white!), arranges it in different color combinations, and puts them in small cylindrical plastic containers she orders from Korea. Instead of the almost infinite colors made possible by the mixture of paint, these little rocks of color do not offer artists much in the way of subtlety or nuance.
Jung told me she had been taking care of her mother at home during a prolonged illness and found herself unable to paint. She sought escape from the emotional trauma of caring for a loved one in a downloadable game called Candy Crush Saga, “set in the magically tasty world of the Candy Kingdom”, according to its website. Always the artist, Jung was attracted to the clear and vibrant colors of the game and imagined that candy could be a medium. After many experiments, she arranged and attached her sweetened cylindrical containers to vertical canvases to create what she calls her secret coded messages.
The viewer is confronted with Jung’s deliberate arrangements of candy. We know that art can be both an attempt to communicate and a strategy for obfuscation. Artists, like the rest of us, can avoid difficult feelings through the obsessive arrangement, re-ordering, or counting of pieces of reality, or we can express our angst through the coded language of art or words. Jung has managed to do both at once.
A Secret Code communicates a message, but it is a metaphysical one. Jung contemplates the wonder of our physical existence, represented here by bright candy in clear plastic containers. She then arranges them in her own secret code. Like beads on a rosary, her arrangements offer us the opportunity to reflect upon a mystery. Jung communicates her central insight that meaning is to be found not in the arrangements themselves, but in the dematerializing light that enables us to see and feel and imagine.
Jack Rasmussen, PhD, Director and Curator
American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center Washington, DC
Albers, Joseph. Interaction of Color. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2006.