Mirang Wonne: A Forest of Stones

by Peter Frank

Is there anything so elemental as a rock? Elemental, that is, not in the molecular sense — any rock could contain many, many minerals, basic or compound — but in the experiential sense, in our apprehension of a rock as an integral entity. Smooth or coarse, shiny or dusty, solid or vein-riven, pebble or boulder, a rock has been fashioned by nature from a piece of something larger into something integral, something that, like any one of us, displays characteristics that link it to a source — a place and a history — without binding it to that source. A smooth stone washes up on a beach, a chunk drops from a precipice, an errant piece works loose from an outcropping in afield, is pushed along by weather, gravity, the passing animal, and winds up miles from its place of formation. It's not hard to understand how rocks (whose essences may be permanent, but whose physical manifestations are in constant flux) can function as metaphors, however mute, for humans.

Conversely, in their very muteness and obduracy, their commonness and their inertia, it's not hard to understand how rocks can function as abstractions, as loci for contemplation. Especially from a meditative point of view, a rock can take on a dialectic relationship to the self — an object of concentration that reveals one's own inner nature (or at least a crucial aspect of it) to one.

No wonder Mirang Wonne's recent work has had rocks, of all imaginable types, as its subject. Nor is it any wonder that she has explored this superficially homogeneous, but ultimately infinite, subject in both two and three, pictorial and solid, dimensions — often deliberately conflating the two, so that the supports for her pictures are themselves volumetric.

What is wondrous is Wonne's further elucidation of duality. For instance, she hurtles many of her rocks through empty, forbidding space. Some of these boulders catch fire, literalizing the space, with its boundlessness and its daunting cataclysms, as astronomical — "outer." Here we imagine ourselves witness to the birth of stars, or at least planets. The cosmological inferences spring readily to mind. Other stones float, bereft now of their weight but still graced with imposing heft. Still others are depicted in such close-up that they become the space they occupy: the rock, a macrocosm as well as microcosm, is nature.

In Wonne's newest interpretations of this concept, these rocks invested with such anima have become either abstracted into near-ciphers or concretized into room-filling objects (whose solidity, however, is illusory). Her most recent paintings and collages flatten and nearly dissolve the rocks into limpid near weightlessness, a condition in which stone seems to be turning to liquid, or even steam. These two-dimensional works recapitulate the forms, methods and materials of north-Asian screen painting and calligraphy, especially Zen brush painting. Indeed, script, Chinese and Hangul, enlivens the already intricate mesh of translucent marks and washes, slab and boulder forms.

Simple but resourceful brush painting recurs in certain of Wonne's new strategies for installational work, a kind of translation to metals and their chemical interaction (acid applied to copper screen resulting in a green patina) of the new painterly work described above. But, as also indicated previously, the rocks now recur as installational presences, too, although not just as boulders or even reasonable facsimiles hereof. While some rocks sit on the floor, as stoic and familiar as furniture, others appear on mounted surfaces, the skins of cubes or ores, even amidst the other patina marks on copper mesh.

As you may be able to infer from all the above description of Mirang Wonne's recent and current artwork, this Korean-bom artist — who has worked between East and West for some thirty years, taking a Ph. D degree at the Sorbonne in Paris and now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area — has effectively reversed the strategy with which an artist working in modernist, post-modernist, and/or neo-mod-ernist contexts establishes her or his professional identity. Typically, such an artist establishes a way of working, a visually recognizable style, and filters any number of subjects through this personalizing system. Wonne, by contrast, has fixed on a subject, an image rich in ramifications, which she explores through a variety of formulations.

There are more than a few artists, including those such as Wonne who have ready access to a multitude of cultural and civilizational models, who work thus. But Wonne's petrocentrism — not a fetish for rocks, but an endless fascination with their resonant simplicity and integrity — evinces a concentration unusual even among her peers. Such concentration, part of Wonne's ongoing challenge to her mental and physical capabilities as an artist, is unusual not in its mere concentratedness (again, Wonne's focus is notfetish-istic) but because, as a result, universes open up inside those subjects of concentration. Wonne doesn't simply paint rocks, she portrays them, in the sense of painting their portraits — or, more accurately, painting them as portraits, as they are by and large imaginary composites.

Then are they imaginary portraits of rocks, or are they portraits of imaginary rocks? That is in fact quite the kind of conceptual figure-ground question that the art of ourtime (modernist and otherwise) poses. It speaks not simply of human alienation, but of the possibility of human re-integration. It manifests as well the ironies in this duality, the ambiguity that actually exists between the alienated and integrated states. Is a rock (and here we can talk of a rock existing in three- as well as two-dimensional space) that stands out starkly from its visual field part of that visual field or separate from it? Does it have more inherent identity in its distinctiveness or does it argue for its identity with its surroundings? Conversely, does a rock that has become space in its partial dissolution (as in Wonne's newer painting-collages) have more or less identity as a result of its physically disintegrative — and at the same time integrative — condition?

It's on these open-ended questions that Mirang Wonne's myriad stones, rocks of all sizes, shapes, substances and substantiality spin conceptually. There, again, is a duality: a very real rendition of one of nature's realest things — the rock, inert but legion, nearly invisible but brimming with variety — developed outward into the nebulous space of our higher thought processes. Mirang Wonne's universe is limited to rocks in order to be without limit.

Peter Frank - is a writer, historian and curator in Los Angeles. He is art critic for the LA Weekly, has written numerous books and catalogues, and writes regularly for Art News on Paper, and other periodicals.

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