What does ‘success’ mean in terms of art? What should a successful artist be like? What is the difference between artwork and good artwork? What is the definition of a good ending in art and how is it considered as an important factor of painting?
From ancient times, artists have been treated as either a genius or a madman trapped in his or her own space, which is probably why people wonder how unsociable artists make their living. However, artists are admired because they can express ideas and emotions while escaping to their own space, like a sacred mirage that we all long for.
We think that artists should not be restricted when creating a work of art because they express themselves through what they make. However, under the premise that an artwork is to be shown, inevitably, reflecting universal features of the world that we live in, it has meaning that is beyond any means of expressing how the artist feels. An artist, Eunji An has turned her direction of art-making recently, blurring the boundaries between the art of abstraction and that of realism. The world of her artwork has evolved naturally and steadily, however, her recent works are about spontaneity and chance factors, which are important in most abstract paintings. However, in her previous works, she focused more on expressing her emotions and creating narratives to evoke empathy. Her recent work, that features deft brushstrokes and strong colors, is very intriguing because it seems to tell us about ‘Homo aestheticus’, through which an American scholar, Ellen Dissanayake argues that art was central to human evolutionary adaptation and that the aesthetic faculty is a basic psychological component of every human being. In her view, art is intimately linked to the origins of religious practices and to ceremonies of birth, death, transition and transcendence.
Eunji An was born in Daegu, South Korea, and studied in Yeungnam University and Academy of Fine Arts, Nuremberg, Germany. Currently, she lives in Korea, working rigorously on her art projects. She makes quick drawings and paintings of portrait, still life, and landscape in her own style, using various mediums, such as pencil, oil, and watercolor, etc. She conveys various expressions and gestures in her work, creating interesting chance effects. Her artworks, even a tiny paper work, attract the viewer because they seem to be light and dark; sad and satirical at the same time—especially, the series of her recent works, which resulted from applying various colors spontaneously for chance effects while she avoided making representational expressions.
The transition in her artwork can be interpreted differently in many aspects, thus, it shouldn’t matter how her past work and new work are related to each other. An artwork has its own meaning. However, we often judge a person by analyzing his or her background with criteria that we believe are reliable and universal. Although they are not 100% true and we don’t know what kind of art she really likes and why she decided to study in Germany, how long of a period she stayed in Germany or how the common features of German people might have affected her a lot permeate in her artwork naturally like how we get certain common features of our nationality reflected in our personality. Judging from what we see in her painting that has strong influences of German Expressionism, she might have wanted to get rid of her emptiness and comfort herself through making her artwork like a lot of German Expressionist painters did. Therefore, to understand her artwork better, it is good to know about how German Expressionism started, what it shares with the form of abstract art, why art is about emotion, and, especially, why a lot of artists say, “Art is my religion.”
Whether it is abstract art or Expressionism or fear of nature and of the world that changes continuously can be a source, from which artists create their artworks. As we know from the Cave walls from the Stone Age and geometric forms from the Neolithic Age, abstract forms tended to be made when a civilization started to progress. With their urge to abstraction, the ancient Egyptian people might have been able to overcome the fear of the limitless desert. John Dewey pointed out in ‘Art as Experience’ that expression is a means to escape from reality.
“Industry has been mechanized and an artist cannot work mechanically for mass production… Artists find it incumbent… to betake themselves to their work as an isolated means of ‘self-expression.’ In order not to cater to the trend of economic forces, they often feel obliged to exaggerate their separateness to the point of eccentricity.”
In Expressionism, art was meant to come forth within the artist, rather than from a depiction of the external world. Expressionists tried to convey a variety of yearnings and anxieties caused from the fear of the modern world, employing swirling, swaying, and exaggeratedly executed brushstrokes. However, viewed from the aspect of the form, the abstract, unrealistic style and other features of primitive art, through which ancient people might have expressed their fear of nature are somewhat similar to those of Expressionism, which tell us that we all share universal emotions that appear in forms that have similar features. By creating purely abstract works, a Russian painter and art theorist, Wassily Kandinsky also tried to present his own spiritual desire, ‘inner necessity’, which was a central aspect of his art that might have saved his soul not to sink to the bottom of the pyramid that he compared to the spiritual life of humanity. After all, artists elicit empathy through their artworks transcending the time and space. Like we all fear for our life and death, and find a refuge in religion or an imaginary place like in the city of Mujin where the main character, of Korean writer Seung Ok Kim’s short story called ‘A travelogue of Mujin’, finds peace, artists create their own small universe in their artworks to relieve their fear. Surely, there are mystical, religious forces in the form of the art that is the result of an artist’s attempt to build his or her own refuge that the viewers feel empathy with. Even an American photographer, Andres Serrano’s photograph, ‘Piss Christ’ that was made using his own urine, and has ‘piss’ in its title, looks glorious, mocking established religion and making the viewer reconsider what a religion really is. Although a lot of people feel disgusted when they hear its title and claim that the artist just wants to attract public attention with sensational work, these same people might applaud the old great master, Francisco Goya, who made beautiful, but violent images of tumultuous political events, emphasizing human nature in moments of extreme crisis. Goya even made the very savage image in his painting, ‘Saturn devouring his son’, making many viewers disturbed. A leading figure in pop art that was a challenge to ‘high’ art, Andy Warhol, also made a series of paintings, ‘The last supper’, a late 15th-century mural painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, mixing Christ and commercialism and unveiling his religious life.
A lot of people still advocate theory of art as primitive ritual even though, as a German philosopher, Walter Benjamin says, we now live in the age of mechanical reproduction and of the loss of aura, a missing quality of an original art piece. Ordinary objects or acts get symbolic meaning through incorporation into a shared belief system. Art has a lot of roles, but, certainly, people want to grow up and get comforted by making and appreciating art. A Brazilian novelist, Paulo Coelho writes this in his novel, ‘The witch of Portobello’, about ritual:
“If theater is ritual, then dance is too… It’s as if the threads connecting us to the rest of the world were washed clean of preconceptions and fears. When you dance, you can enjoy the luxury of being you.”
Eunji An may have wanted to overcome her fear of reality and the uncertainty of the world by having a ritual of applying bold colors on her canvas spontaneously. Through the act of rubbing, scratching, and scraping paints, she could have enjoyed the luxury of being herself.
Everyone has his or her own opinion of the success of art, however, we all agree that every artist enjoys making art even though he or she may struggle a lot. No matter what he or she works on, every artist is led to his or her own small universe through the act of making a work of art. No one really knows what the source of the urge to reach the small universe, but a lot of artists have an experience of realizing that they lock themselves unconsciously in their studio for a long time, being lost in their artwork. They often say that they feel empty after finishing a work or having an exhibition. I think it is because they exhaust their feelings while making their artwork that they have faith of. Making an artwork is like having a miraculous journey in the passage of the artist’s mind. It elicits empathy from the viewer. Paintings that show us the power of the artist’s living brushstrokes and the dribble of thick paints make an echo in the viewers’ mind. An artist, Tara Donovan says, “Certainly the scale of my work is always in relation to the human body. I also think about the experience of my work as being theatrical in a sense. The placement of the work in a space, how it is lit, and the amount of surrounding space are all very calculated. There is a sense I get of wanting to choreograph someone’s experience of my work. Because the surfaces of my work do often shift and follow the perspective of the viewer, there is a perceptual movement that coincides with a person’s physical movement within the gallery space.” Also, for painters of Korean Dansaekhwa who might have applied a lot of undercoat paints, kneeling down as if cultivating themselves spiritually, making a painting must have been like a ritual, through which they let all their feelings out. Regardless of religion and taste, the viewers certainly experience what artists feel, why they feel like walking out of their painting like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly after shedding its skin.
As an artist, I understand how much she struggles to make her artwork. I admire her a lot for the movement of various colors that she applies on her canvas that makes me sad and thrilled at the same time. It is hard to describe exactly how her work enraptures me even though I have a lot to empathize with her. Besides, the title of her work, ‘Good ending’ makes me sadder because I know that she wants to escape from reality and stay in the moment of making her artwork. I’d like to end my critic with a famous quote by Sister Wendy on Mark Rothko.
“I’m not afraid you won’t think this Mark Rothko beautiful, but what I am afraid, a little, somebody might think it’s just beautiful. Lovely colors. No meaning. But meaning is what he was all about, and he would have been furiously angry if anyone thought that, and told you so in suitably salty language. It was subject matter that mattered most to him. And the subject matter was the emotions. Not small, personal emotions up today, down tomorrow, but the great timeless emotions. How we feel about death, and courage, and ecstasy. He was convinced that if you would just encounter his paintings, that emotion would be communicated to you with absolute clarity. So to achieve this he painted very large. Because in a small painting – big you, little painting – you can control it. But with a large painting, it controls you. You’re taken into it… If you can think of a religious painting without religion, this is what you experience here. It’s so timeless, that when I’ve had this encounter, I feel to return to the world of time, I have to shake my head and bring myself down to earth again.”
- Artist, Yoonkyung Kim