SEOUL — Upon entering Sue Yon Hwang’s solo exhibition, Humming Head, at Doosan Gallery Seoul, there is a split second before one realizes that the 21 geometric, apparently stone totemic structures are, in fact, made of paper. On the white table are 10 heads of varying sizes, all with relatively flat backs and bottoms and one or more elongated pyramid-like protrusions on the front, top, and sides. The directionality suggests that each geometric object has a face, a reading the artist underscores with the names: the largest head, about twice the size of the others, is titled “Big Head,” while a piece with three pointy pyramids is called “Three Eyes,” and a pink, red, and dark magenta head is “Red Face.”
The crammed assortment of heads, and the artist’s identification of repeated geometric features as eyes, skin, face, or heads, direct the viewer’s perception of the other works. Most works have basic structure of a statue, with a head placed atop a larger form, which could be a geometric abstraction of a torso (“Soil”), a body (“Standing,” “A Lying Flower Man”), a vessel (“The Night”), or simply mass (“The Lake”).
Hwang’s works tend to be large. Most freestanding pieces slightly exceed human scale both in height and bulk, their height varying from six to over nine feet. They look like they are cut from stone, thus the illusion of heft, their surfaces resembling industrially produced materials such as polished granite. All the works are bilaterally symmetrical. At first glance, these statues look like misplaced monoliths: totemic, ritualistic, and ancient.
The giveaways come when one notices a crease on a sharp edge where two sides meet, and gentle, undulating wrinkles along the edge, characteristic of glued paper. What seemed at first like precise, multi-faceted jewel-cuts now appear awkward, oblong, bungling. Hwang uses a stiff, semi-glossy paper. Surfaces bear signs of slow warping from glue, moisture, and gravity, catching light in an uneven way. Seeing it as a skin, a membrane that only divides inside from outside, creates an uncanny sensation of thinness. The monolithic objects seems to barely touch the ground. The phenomenological shift is acute and lasting: like Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, once boundaries and tonal shifts emerge, one cannot unsee the paper or unfeel the lightness.
The experience is far from trompe l’oeil. Hwang doesn’t attempt to persuade the viewer that the statues are carved out of granite. In fact, she does the opposite: “Foolish,” a small head on the floor by the gallery’s entrance, has a large parallelogram cut out of its protruding top, revealing the empty space inside and traces of paper scraps and glue. Nearby is “A Lying Flower Man,” the only supine, four-part statue, composed of a head, a torso, and two legs, whose ends are open tunnels into themselves.“Crying Shadow” is covered with thick white paint, and some spiky ends are cut off, exposing the jagged edges.
While most works are made of paper printed with what looks like granite, tonal modifications almost obliterate the texture into monochromatic black, white, or more often shades of gray. These are streaked with Photoshop effects that recall erase marks or charcoal smears, evoking the artist’s hand. Some digital modifications are more conspicuous than others — for instance, the backside of “Standing,” in which the textured gray gradates into smooth solid black — and some seem thematic, as in “The Lake”’s print, which recalls rippling water under the night sky.
In some works, Hwang explores material and symbolic nature of paint by overlaying it on digital prints. “Soil” is covered in opaque gray umber as if to hide or replace the underlying surface. “A Day Mixed Color,” three identical heads are partly daubed in yellow, gray, and shades of blue-green, respectively, with patches of opaque paint awkwardly staining the face. With translucent hues, the artist’s hand is more visible. “Riverside,” a small head perched on an aluminum pole, evokes river beds in its colors — bright yellow, green, sienna, indigo — which the artist applies with thin, watery gestures. In contrast to the digital marks, the paint does not illustrate but itself becomes a thing: a film, a mask, a camo, or an ointment, individualizing and concealing.
All of these effects foreground a phenomenological experience of the work. When I was circling around “Lazy,” a funky-shaped head on a thin steel support, I felt an unexpected, brief twinge of vertigo: while it was the face that moved slightly in the air, it felt like my frame of vision had shaken. The statues suddenly looked both rooted and weightless.
Weight can equate burdens, seriousness, or mass, but it is technically a gravitational force with which Earth pulls a mass; and a mass is the sum of matter. It seems relevant to Hwang’s work that the most commonly used expression for “gaining weight” in Korean is to grow sahl, or flesh. These heads and bodies are without flesh, their shells enclosing an empty space. The paper skins only demarcate the boundary, like a theoretical line that separates one side from another.
At the same time, the smeared skin itself is the flesh, the faux surface its own visage, and the emptiness it delineates its identity. For me, the lightness and clunky fragility of the works recalled the experience of seeing an impeccably smooth marble figure. The madness of carving out of stone pronounced veins and perfect muscles of extreme intricacy, of accepting a certain sense of betrayal embedded in reconciling what is with what we see.
Sun Yon Hwang: Humming Head continues at Doosan Gallery Seoul (15, Jongno 33-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea) through April 17.