Jiwon Son: Aggregates

at Byron Roche, through February 20

The intricate patterns of Jiwon Son’s Aggregate 02L-B001 recall the silk brocade used to frame traditional Chinese, Japanese, and Korean paintings. A 37-inch-square white-on-white work–perhaps the most stunning of her 11 paintings or groups of paintings at Byron Roche–Aggregate 02L-B001 includes some 300 repetitions of the basic pattern, each painted by hand with great care. Even more impressive is the work’s delicate luminosity: the patterns, rendered in a somewhat darker white, seem to float above the intensely glowing background, their repeating geometries offering only a tenuous anchor in this world suffused with light.

An earlier piece at Byron Roche helps show the origin of these patterns, which Son has been painting only for the last two years. In An Importation of Six Persimmons (1995)–“translated” from a 13th-century Chinese painting in the sense that Son changed the persimmons into apples–she paints not only the central image but her version of the silk brocade that surrounded it. One effect is to emphasize the importance of the pattern–to suggest that it holds as much interest as the fruit since the artist not only went to the trouble of painting it but did so with such exactitude and subtlety.

Born in Korea in 1968, Son was raised in a village of only about ten families but within walking distance of the city of Kim Cheon. She grew up without TV or indoor plumbing. Though the family emigrated to the United States when she was seven, memories of her early childhood remain strong: “Our home was surrounded by mountains. Because we didn’t have a car, we walked everywhere. The mountains were very much affected by the seasons, white in winter, covered with flowers in springtime. My grandfather had a garden in the mountains, and my grandmother would seek out herbs and plants that grew naturally there.” She also recalls Buddhist temples whose interiors were covered with colorful patterns. Her father, a master carpenter, built several traditional homes in their village and remained a carpenter in this country.

The family settled in Jacksonville, Arkansas, where Son recalls that she and her brother were the only Korean students in school, and sometimes the targets of bigotry. Influenced by medical and scientific illustration–not only current work but also Leonardo’s–she began drawing plants “not just as representations but as systems,” labeling the different parts. To earn a living she studied medical illustration at Ohio State; she moved to Chicago in 1992, where she began doing drawings for lawyers to illustrate injuries due to accidents or medical malpractice. “Traumatized” by the representation of bodily injury, and leaning more toward fine art anyway, she ceased such work after a few years and began concentrating on painting. She mentions as influences Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Klimt and also Chinese, Japanese, and Korean ink paintings. Also important were the “meditative” paintings in the Rothko Chapel in Houston as well as the Japanese art of flower arrangement, ikebana, which she began to study as a “counterbalance” to scientific illustration–“trying to center myself.”

Part of what’s so striking about Son’s art is that she’s melded diverse influences into work that’s very different from the all-too-common undigested mix of art trends and pop culture. The seven panels of Peonies (1999) are roughly painted, with abstract areas of broad brushstrokes that resemble the strokes used to create the flowers, recalling the connection between calligraphic and painterly line in ancient Chinese art. Like many classical Chinese painters, Son aims to capture not the details of a subject but its essence–and her dynamic flowers do seem to grow less out of soil (which isn’t visible) than out of paint. The last panel is startling even in a group full of “abstract” spaces: the bottom half is solid yellow, with no brushstrokes. It’s actually a piece of newsprint Son collaged in, intending its disintegration to mirror the way flowers decay in real life. In the five years since, the newsprint has already grown “more yellow and more brittle,” she says. Son’s daring use of blank space here goes beyond the emptiness of traditional Eastern painting, directly juxtaposing presence and absence.

The exhibit’s most extraordinary works, however, are the five 37-inch-square paintings suggesting brocade. The eye becomes lost in Son’s hundreds of repetitions, traveling from one to the next and picking out tiny variations: one curlicue is in higher relief than another; one line of dots seems flatter than the next. The viewer’s process begins to induce the meditative effect that painting these works has on Son, as one focuses one’s attention on the profusion of seemingly insignificant detail.

But arguably there is a meaning behind Son’s luminous paintings, a meaning stemming in part from subtle gradations in the backgrounds. In Aggregate 02L-D501 (Son’s titles include codes for the year of completion as well as the pattern used), the background changes from dark reddish brown at the bottom to a much lighter tone at the top. A transitional band in the middle like the line of a horizon suggests that the whole background is an abstracted landscape. But if Son is referring to landscapes, what does the unchanging pattern signify?

One might ask the same of Aggregate 02L-B001, whose patterns grow fainter near its center, or of the even more mysterious Aggregate 01L-C101, whose yellow green patterns stand out from the lighter background in similar hues at the bottom but seem less distinguishable as the background grows darker at the top. Roaming over these seemingly vast fields, the viewer experiences both a sense of difference and of unity: to what extent are these human patterns, determined by culture and history, differentiable from the more continuous field in the background, which one might identify with nature? The luminosity of Son’s work helps give this contrast an emotional wallop: it seems we’re observing the ancient confrontation between human intentionality and the almost undifferentiated vastness that houses time and decay.

In some smaller paintings–such as the 20-by-20-inch Aggregate 03M-C403–the background changes but with less regularity, as if recording stains or spills or the blotchy light of a nebula. Like the blank newsprint, Son’s backgrounds evoke a state of unity that also includes the chaos of nature, and the fact that her patterns remain relatively constant seems a sign that the human struggle against the void for meaning has succeeded. However, the inevitable variations in her hand-painted patterns qualify this success: human effort is also subject to forces we can’t control.