Korea has a surprisingly rich history of late-Modernist abstraction, that is, unfortunately, too little knownabroad. What's not always obvious is how deeply this abstraction is rooted in everyday life. Kim Whanki's great paintings of the 1970s-vast fields of reiterated cell-like quanta of color-can be interpreted as rice fields, a linkage that makes sense for an artist of Whanki's generation. Born early in the century, he would have made his art out of memories of a landscape he grew up with.
In many ways, an art like Whanki's still provides workable models for today's Korean artists, and yet one like Hong Seung-Hye, born in 1959, is part of a very different generation with vastly different memories - urban memories, for the most part. During Hong's lifetime, Seoul's population has grown more than 600 percent, and its area doubled. Urbanization is one of the primary experiences of postwar Korean life. Many of Hong's works are based on accumulations of identical or similar cell-like modules, just as Whanki's were, but they add up to a landscape that is domestic, architectural, and urban, never rustic, never offering open vistas. The units that make up this landscape can be completely abstract (a grid of squares, for instance), they may be perfectly poised between abstraction and representation (as when a square of four or nine smaller squares suggests a window), or they can be schematic representations (logo-like symbols for the concept "house").
Hong has long been interested in painting by nontraditional means. In the early and mid-1990s, her work was collages of painted paper, arranged to form images of highly distilled shapes - geometricized trees, flowers, houses, and so on. Though modest in scale, these works (which to an American viewer's eye bore some kinship to Jennifer Bartlett's imagery of the late 1970s) claimed the full weight of painting despite their deliberate evocation of a hobbyist's pastime. Since then, Hong has been working primarily at her computer, where she designs her paintings to be produced by industrial fabrication - as either silk-screened tiles or automobile paint on aluminum panels. Although the artist's hand is no longer in direct evidence, Hong's variations within the sequencing of the combined units lend a vivid sense of organic unpredictability and tactility to these otherwise clear, crisply graphic works.
Hong's "Organic Geometry" clearly emerges from everyday life, but also seems poised to return there. As Roe Jae-Ryung has remarked, these modular arrays seem to cry out for adoption in "architectural and public art projects." And yet what is poignant in this bright, shiny, innocent yet lucid work may be precisely the fact that it evokes a placeless domesticity, a homeless architecture, an absent dwelling. It touches a tender spot in the individual's relation to her objective environment. - Barry Schwabsky