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Ceremony. Dansaekwha by Hyunae Kang. 

Titled Ceremony, in recognition of her meditative yet procedural practice, painter Hyunae Kang’s first solo exhibition in Switzerland focuses on her longstanding exploration of Korean monochromatic abstraction through its central tenets of matière, surface, and performance.

Kang's unique style, which captures the dynamism and dazzling colors of nature, began with her sculptural work of the 1990s as a restrained expression of the ‘inner energy’ of materials by means of textural accumulation. Graduating from the Ewha Womans University Sculpture Department, this early work gained significant attention in the Korean art world, establishing Kang’s reputation as an artist at the forefront of a new organic abstraction.

After immigrating to the United States, Kang devoted herself to painting, with the majority of her canvases from 2000 on composed of finely drawn fields of vertical and horizontal lines, densely woven into tactile grids of color. Seen as a totality, these cumulative deposits form either abstract shapes (frequently circles and rectangles), or extend formlessly across the canvas to the bounds of the frame, creating both a movement and a rhythm of shimmering, optical effect. While some works draw their imagery from the infinitely varied motions of nature (such as ridges and waves), and place these in relation to distinctly abstract elements, most are dominated by ‘classical’ geometric shapes reminiscent of the larger celestial and philosophical realms of the sun, moon and void. At the same time, Kang’s calligraphic, curving lines and patterns scratched into the painted surface with her palette knife, which testify to a formidable technical ability, suggest the common thread in her mark-making is in fact the polar opposite of spiritual enormity; the more mundane, everyday undertaking of division and subdivision, slowly and persistently breaking down (but also building) her intended image into multiple units and facets, across numerous layers of material into structures reminiscent of fabric or cloth. In this way, Kang’s appreciation of pictorial space as part of an infinite expanse is also unavoidably a matter of human production and domestic toil, in which their distinct rhythms and repetitions are found to be fundamentally alike.

The fascination with surface evident in the history of Korean art is not simply a formal matter. In the discourse around Korean modernism and its current privileged position in contemporary art, texture has always played an important role, from those works compared to the tactility of stone pagodas, to the sand paintings of Park Soo-geun, or the smooth white porcelain of Kim Hwan-ki. These various artistic strategies all depend on an emotional immersion in materials whereby technique and painstaking effort are directed towards tactile expression rather than form. Such principles owe a debt to the philosophy of Ufan Lee, a leading figure of Mono-ha, who traveled between Japan and Korea in the 1970s and was influential in the Dansaekhwa movement, creating a new paradigm of material, performance, and painting. He and many other Dansaekhwa artists understand the canvas as a place of encounter and action where the painter is completely immersed in the repetitive process of applying and removing color material rather than depicting any form. The moment an artist loses awareness of their purpose and becomes one with the ‘infinite object’, painting becomes a place of mental awakening where the subject dissolves into nothingness through the ritual of practice.

Hyunae Kang's work is clearly deeply rooted in the principles of Dansaekwha: painting not as the realization of ideas, but as process and spiritual enlightenment through the act of repetition. However, unlike traditional Korean monochromatic painting, the illusion of space is an important feature in Kang's works - both the impression of infinite depth and the tingling, flickering movement created by the tonal contrasts in her textured surfaces are key to the tension that gives these paintings their force. Whether immersed in the restrained and skillful labor of her mark making, or the rhythms at work in their coloring, any viewer of Kang’s art is drawn into the mystery and intensely spiritual landscape of her ceremony. 

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