I first met Seongmin Ahn in 1998, when she was accepted into the MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where I was teaching at the time. In recent years, I’ve seen images of her work on her social media platforms, which made me curious to know exactly what I was looking at. The range of work — from individual paintings to large, wall-sized installations — and an intriguing combination of Asian and Western motifs piqued my interest. However, as she was exhibiting her art in Korea and other locations that were not easily accessible, I did not think I would have much opportunity to see it in person. Luckily, her work made its way to New York for her current exhibition, Seongmin Ahn: Enchanted Reality at The Korea Society (January 19–April 14, 2023).
Ahn belongs to the under-recognized group of intrepid Asian women artists who chose to live in the diaspora and reinvent themselves without forgetting their origins. In this, she shares something with Jiha Moon, whom I met in 2000, while she was in the MFA program at the University of Iowa, after earning her BFA and MFA in Korea. Before relocating to Baltimore, Ahn studied traditional Asian painting at Seoul National University, where she received her BFA in 1995 and her MFA in 1997. Although she could read and write in English, speaking and hearing it were harder. This made communication and assimilation difficult on multiple levels.
Many of the nine works in her current exhibition (four paintings in ink, wash, and pigment on mounted mulberry paper, and five vinyl cut installations) are an imaginative synthesis of images and motifs inspired by the stylized foliage and ornamentation found in Baroque furniture, the precise symbolic forms found in Minhwa (Korean folk art), the monochromatic fields of Minimalism, and the artist’s interest in hyper-dimensional space. This unlikely combination — and its evocation of a miraculous alternate world — is what I found compelling.
The first work I saw, and the largest in the exhibition, was the gold and black “Inverted Frame” (2023), made of printed vinyl carefully adhered to a flat surface. The work fits precisely within an indented space on a long, white office wall. Its baroque flora motifs extend into the empty black space from a trompe l’oeil gold frame, which is also matte. Are we looking at a “painting” of a black surface surrounded by floral motifs or into a depthless black space? Is the black space a Western evocation of emptiness (like Ad Reinhardt) or a space that is both full and empty, as it would be conceived in Buddhism? Or does the large frame also evoke all that exists outside its boundaries? As much as this latter question might seem metaphysical, I think the ambiguity of it reflects Ahn’s sense of living in the diaspora and not feeling completely at home.
Four paintings in a large, gray space with a bench in the center incorporate fluorescent pigment that is modified by a slowly changing, nearly undetectable UV light. In three related paintings, collectively titled Hyper-Dimension Within (all 2022), Ahn divides the composition into squares. Within these three-dimensional recesses are stacks of boxes containing identical Korean books with traditional binding. In the center of the niches in “Hyper-Dimension Within 4” and “Hyper-Dimension Within 6,” she depicts an ornamentally framed black and dark blue, or almost black, space. If we see the black as open space, we cannot see to the end of it, in contrast to the niches filled with books. At the same time, in both the black “portal” and the books, something remains unseen.
In these paintings, Ahn brings together her mastery of traditional Korean painting, her knowledge of Minhwa, and her love of Baroque furniture and Minimalist art — a combination of controlled excess and austerity. “Mindscape” (2020), mounted on three abutting panels, once again displays a mixture of Western and Eastern motifs, and other recurring interests, such as multiple perspectives, water, and her familiarity with Asian art, ranging from the work of classical masters to that of anonymous folk artists. In this aptly titled painting, the center panel shows a mountainous landscape in ink that extends out of stylized, fluorescent green waves, while the two flanking panels each depict a bookcase with open drawers, out of which water spills.
Chongjo, who was the king of Korea in the late 18th century, was a passionate bibliophile. He is said to have surrounded himself with painted screens, or ch’aekkori, that portrayed neat stacks of books, along with scholarly accessories and objet d’art. What are we to make of the green water overflowing from the open drawers and spilling in neat and stylized columns into the stylized waves below, and seemingly surrounding the bookcase? Or of the scroll painting partially visible in a niche on the right panel, and the fact that it repeats the mountain landscape in the middle panel? The lines of sight established by drawers in the flanking panels converge somewhere in front of the painting. Is this point of convergence the ideal spot for the viewer to stand in order to appreciate “Mindscape”? There is also a second vanishing point that exists behind the slanting mountains, and is blocked by them, suggesting that the “mindscape” exists between them.
Perhaps the water conveys Ahn’s vision of reality as a continuum in which certain structures persist, such as bookcases (which represent the accumulation of knowledge) and mountains, but change form. Are the empty niches meant for the knowledge we have yet to learn? Is the steadily pouring water an evocation of climate change and flooding, inescapable destruction and the loss of knowledge? Ahn seems to have taken a particular Korean genre, the ch’aekkori, and updated it, making it into a contemporary object of contemplation. It is not our past we are looking at but our possible future.
Seongmin Ahn: Enchanted Reality continues at The Korea Society (350 Madison Avenue, 24th Floor, Midtown East, Manhattan) through April 14. The exhibition was organized by Jay Oh, Senior Director of Arts and Culture at The Korea Society.