“Capturing Sunlight” With Earth and Fire
By Peter Frank
For the last two decades Mirang Wonne has concentrated on natural forms – and on mostly synthetic materials that paradoxically amplify the organic intensity of those forms. Increasingly, Wonne achieves this amplification by treating her materials in unorthodox and often innovative ways, capitalizing on their physical and optical peculiarities.
Wonne’s natural fixation first clearly manifested in her extended series of rocks and rock-based abstractions. These were realized in two and three dimensions – sometimes taking on an almost performative presence – but were fabricated out of relatively “normal” substances, such as pigment and paper, and practices such as painting and collage. Even in these, however, Wonne’s deft and often bold employment of material created an almost unstable feeling of variety and unpredictability: rocks, normally the most anonymous and inert of things, were granted a new vitality.
More recently Wonne has turned her attention to biological, especially botanic, forms. As dense and elaborate as the rocks were simple and forthright, Wonne’s depictions of and elaborations on floral and cellular formations themselves take shape in several ways. As paintings, they comprise thick, compacted fields of delicately spattered pigment in which almost-invisible color shifts suggest atmospheric modulation, in the midst of which trees and other plants emerge, like memories shimmering in a mist. The texturing, the diffuse, almost invisible line, and the monochrome coloration all betray Wonne’s training in Asian art-making, more than has any other body of her mature work. These paintings, tidy and almost traditional, still pose challenges for the artist; they are experiments with standard means and formats that gently push the experience of these works (and by inference the overall perception of their audience) beyond the conventions of western and eastern pictorial art.
But Wonne’s breakthrough bodies of work here, perhaps the most radical and dramatic of her entire career, are the “drawings” – or are they “paintings”? – she fabricates on (not from) fine wire mesh screen. She realizes these stunning objects simply by applying a blowtorch to the surface of the mesh. Where the fire touches the mesh, the screen – already mutable and seeming almost magically to fluctuate in its gossamer translucency – becomes positively incandescent. Whole rainbows of color awaken when the strands of steel mesh are destabilized in this manner, transformed as they are through fire into other mineral alloys and combinations. The images Wonne’s hand describes in fire, whether suggestive of flowers or of plankton, seem neither decorative nor biological, but spiritual, both in the sense of something metaphysical and in the sense of some presence made of ghostly plasma. There is something alchemical in Wonne’s method – alerting us to something alchemical in her artistic vision.
Making art is basically a feat of transformation, turning materials into forms they do not naturally assume and finding images in substances that, until that point of change, are only themselves. Wonne’s screens, whether mounted or free-hanging, make such a spectacle of the results of her transformations that they force us to marvel not just at what she’s done, but to marvel at nature itself – the nature not only of organic forms such as Wonne renders, but of inorganic substances such as she manipulates in her rendering. Wonne’s art, more than ever, does call attention to its own inventiveness and virtuosity, not to mention beauty. But its deeper effect on our consciousness makes us marvel at what nature itself can do, not only because Wonne depicts natural forms, but because she uses – or perhaps we should say “reveals” – natural processes. Other artists have “painted with fire,” and the results are predictably dramatic. But in “drawing” with fire – on a support material more associated with industry than with art – Mirang Wonne achieves results that are unpredictably subtle and intimate, as alluring as gemstones and as transcendent as thoughts.
Los Angeles February 2010
Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum, Associate Editor of Fabrik magazine, a contributing editor to art ltd., former art critic for the LA Weekly and Angeleno magazine, and former editor of THE magazine Los Angeles and Visions art quarterly. In his native New York Frank served as critic for the Village Voice and the SoHo Weekly News, and wrote for Art News, Art in America, and other periodicals. He has curated exhibitions for the Guggenheim Museum, PS1, and Franklin Furnace in New York, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Biennale di Venezia, and Documenta in Kassel, among other venues.