Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings of imagined architectural ruins reveal a manmade world slowly capitulating to nature. The works have long exerted a strong influence on the romantic and surrealist traditions that have sought out connections between human interiority and the exigencies of nature. If Modernism assumed control over the natural, then our contemporary condition seems marked by ecological anxieties aligned to Piranesi’s eighteenth-century visions. Min Jungyeon’s solo exhibition at Hada Contemporary, her first in the UK, is informed by these concerns.
The Korean-born, Paris-based artist presents a series of new paintings and works on paper made over the last few years. Typically, the paintings consist of poured acrylic paint that is augmented with painstaking detail. The artist revels in laborious process; one can imagine her consumed in work, studiously following her wandering brush. Each image hybridises intestinal and mushroomlike forms, architectural fragments and figures going about their daily chores. Details of modernist buildings float within nebulous clouds and multiple vanishing points.
Despite the rather grand claims made by the press release (the artist is tasked with making work that ‘explores the grandeur of the universe and the existence of being a human’), Jungyeon’s work is consistent with recent painting trends. Imagine a meeting between the magical realism of Neo Rauch and the biomorphism of Yayoi Kusama and we’re somewhere close to describing it. Travaux 2 (2010) is typical – it incorporates a group of male workers at a building site, the men going about their work seemingly oblivious to the ominous clouds encircling them. In a work by Piranesi we might find society succumbing to nature at a point of ruin; here we see the organic and artificial intertwined at birth – one growth is met by another. Often it can feel that Jungyeon misses the psychological disjuncture that she intends. The work can feel a little inhibited and too decorative to really compel.
In the rear gallery, the artist presents a series of smaller, framed ink-on-paper works. The stark graphic quality of the drawings feels more successful, better articulating the collision between the human, the animal and the architectural. Predominantly black-and-white, with small accents of colour, the drawings are obsessively rendered. The hatching recalls intaglio prints, lending the billowing forms a sculptural quality. Shells, fur, scaffolding, offal and organs (both human and animal) are recurring motifs.
Jungyeon’s work is best when she lays off the formal acrobatics and allows the enigmatic forms space to breathe. Maybe the exhibition is in need of a soundtrack; a metaphorical amplification, if you will. Perhaps something dark and loud to ratchet up the psychological portent. If you were about to be consumed by a giant mushroom, I doubt you would go quietly.
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue.