Mee Ok Paik : Paintings and Installations
Robert C. Morgan
Painting has many divergent methods and approaches, even in an era where electronic images has been made so abundant and prolific. Yet in spite of this abundance of media imagery, driven by advanced information technologies, one may still discover painters who continue to make remarkable work. There are formalist painters and conceptual painters, expressionists and realists, classicists and romanticists, modernists and postmodernists — all working in an era where virtually anything goes. Such freedom in painting has both advantages and limitations. While painters are able to explore many terrains of image-making, there is the continuing necessity to find a point of reference that offers the embodiment of an idea, an intention, or a sensibility. Even in the extreme eclecticism of a painter, such as Gerhard Richter, one may detect an approach and a method that is unique and singular unto itself.
When I study the paintings of the Korean artist Mee Ok Paik, I have a similar clarity of understanding. While she may function on a different level and with different concerns, more intrinsic to nature, process, and color, Ms. Paik reveals a remarkable sense of formal acuity as a painter. Her unique reductive aesthetic explores the use of color relationships on a large-scale surface or sometimes as a single monochromatic surface. In either case, her paintings are rich in texture and carefully considered in terms of their visual concept and proportion to scale. She intuitively measures the space of her paintings through color. Through color in relation to form, she goes in search of the work’s visual equivalence. Her large-scale ultramarine and white paintings offer a strong visual coherence between two unequal planes positioned in tandem to one another. In another related painting, the green surface dominates two-thirds of the space in relation to a vertical white plane.
When I talk about reductive painting in the work of Paik, I refer to the essential elements of painting — the color, the plane, the surface, and the scale. There is no superimposed image and no figure-to-ground relationship. Rather we are given the tangential placement of color that stretches radically across the surface as an “all-over” composition, a technique used by the American Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman. Yet in contrast to Newman, Ms. Paik is less involved with the heroic gesture and the iconography of the vertical line. Instead, she focuses our concentration entirely on the surface. Thus, we are given a kind of visual repose, a break from the intervening chaos of mind and body. We are allowed to enter into another kind of space, a fictive space — as painting always is — but one that declares its own sense of objecthood. In so doing, we may discover a tension between the fiction of the surface and the directness of the painting’s physical presence as a separate reality in our perceptual field.
Over the past year, Paik has moved outside the conventional pictorial surface so as to extend the painting, both visually and conceptually, outside the frame. In these new installation works, entitled “Installation 1” and “Installation 2” (both 2002), Mee Ok Paik addresses the connection between the space of the painting and the space outside the painting. This is shown in two distinct ways: “Installation 1” — painted with acrylic on cotton — moves horizontally across the space of the canvas in two directions. The upper plane, painted in white, moves from right to left and then finally drops off the edge where it tumbles on to the floor. The ultramarine plane beneath it moves horizontally from left to right where it finally tumbles to the floor on the opposite side.
In “Installation 2,” three vertical canvases hang side by side from ceiling to floor in the center of the gallery. Two ultramarine canvases flank a single white canvas on either side. The ultramarine bands rest on top of two flat black pedestals. The white band in the middle rests on top of a flat white pedestal. By seeing these installations together, two opposing spaces are perceptually delineated: In the first case, the horizontal painting goes from the wall to the exterior space of the floor. In the second case, the vertical painting is separated into three equal bands that descend from the ceiling to floor as discrete elements, yet unaffiliated with the wall.
In each work, Ms. Paik makes clear the position of painting not as an image, but as a spatial intervention, as a place, and as a connecting element that defines the meaning of space — in aesthetic terms — as a transfiguration of nature. In this sense, she retains the special status of painting as a sensory interlude amid the commercial chaos of our current information obsession.
Robert C. Morgan has a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture and a Ph.D. in art history. As an art critic, he has written and published over a thousand articles and reviews in a vast range of international magazines and professional journals. He writes for Art News (New York) and Art Press (Paris), and is Contributing Editor for Sculpture Magazine and Tema Celeste (Milan). He has authored catalogs, and monographs on numerous international artists. His books include Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Between Modernism and Conceptual Art (McFarland, 1997), The End of the Art World (Allworth Press, 1998), Gary Hill and Bruce Nauman (both Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000 and 2002), In 1999 he was given the first Arcale award in art criticism (Salamanca) and was selected as a juror for the UNESCO prize during the Venice Biennial. A frequent international traveler, poet, and artist himself, Robert Morgan lives and works in New York where he is Adjunct Professor of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute and a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts.