Choi So Young often engages denim as the medium of her expansive cityscapes, reflecting a sense of nostalgia for blue jeans. This resonance between subject and medium reflects how Asian artists emphasize landscapes as a manifestation of inner meditation. Creating paintings out of denim poses certain challenges and limitations, and as such Choi has only created three or four works that feature her home town on such a scale. The artist's 2001 Landscape of a Patch (Lot 506), which was exhibited in National Museum of Korea and Busan Museum of Art, represents an important example of such work. The unusual dimensions of Landscape of a Patch allow the work to be a vehicle through which Choi's exceptional talent and emotional depth are displayed. Her deep dedication to her oeuvre and her desire to pursue a completion of each of her major pieces led the artist to continue to rework details of the painting earlier this year, further refining her style as her vision matures.
Historically, the landscape genre has always been an important one for artists in East Asia. As landscape painting developed in China from the 7th century A.D., it spread to neighboring countries through cultural exchange, giving Korean artists a familiarity with the vision and techniques of the Chinese painters. During Korea's Li Dynasty, Korean artist Jeong Seon (1676-1759) advocated a style he called 'true-view landscape painting (chin'gyong sansuhwa),' which emphasized realism, as well as, the subjective personal reactions found in works by Chinese literati painters. But in a series that featured the famous vistas around Geumgang Jeondo (fig. 1), Jeong Seon casted off the derivative thinking and imitation of Chinese landscape painting that for so long held sway over Korean artists, and produced a national style, which is truly representative of his people. On a similar vein, Choi So Young's use of denim is a striking departure from both pure ink-wash media of the east and oil painting of the west. Like her predecessor, Jeong Seon, she abandoned the limitations of traditional pigments through her innovative use of a material that is so familiar to our daily lives. Choi, essentially part of a Korean artistic tradition that has been maintained for centuries, breathes new life to the impulse of past artists who also sought to advance beyond Chinese ink-wash landscapes. In Choi's own 'true-view landscape painting,' the truth of the artist's individualistic feelings fuses with that of the objective scene: her choice of familiar subjects from her hometown reveals a particular depth of feeling as well as a way of melding external forms with subjective perceptions, reflecting the Korean landscape painting tradition.
At nearly seven meters long, Landscape of a Patch inevitably recalls traditional horizontal landscape scroll paintings. Choi ingeniously builds up strikingly three-dimensional architectural forms from the dark and light tannin dyes in her denim material, and while, at first glance, her work seems built around a rational perspective with a single vanishing point, objects also cluster in groups that suggest multiple perspectives. Viewers sense the sheer breadth of her space as their gaze sweep across the composition and perspectives shift, almost as if they themselves were walking through the scene. Choi's concept of shifting perspectives highlights the clarity within her compositional space, even as the vague jumble of front-to-back layering adds yet another subtle dynamic to the scene's overall quietness. Choi's work resonates with the mix of tall buildings and facades in Paul Citroen's futurist collage Metropolis (fig. 2), echoing his vision of chaos and surging energy within a city.
Collages were originally conceived out of the Cubists' desire to overturn the presentation of three-dimensional space that dominated western painting since the Renaissance. They yearned to break free of traditional spatial effects by simultaneously presenting single objects from multiple viewpoints. The first time real-life objects were introduced as the medium for painting was in Picasso's 1912, Still Life with Chair Caning. After this pioneering effort, artists saw that they could go beyond seeking an illusion or imitation of reality, and directly introduce the reality itself, or fragments of reality, into the structured world of their paintings. When artists no longer needed to mimic isolated details of forms but could place them within a newly invented framework, the reality of those objects gave rise to multiple new layers of meaning. Choi here deconstructs normally familiar items of clothing, eliminating their functionality and decorativeness so that the original, separate details of the items of clothing are newly juxtaposed, appearing on the picture surface like the short or flowing brushstrokes of a painting that vibrate as part of a whole. On close inspection, one sees that Choi links the vague outlines and subtle differences of shading in the simple squares of cloth, to create depth and distance. But beyond her deconstruction and juxtaposition, the artist's conversion and re-appropriation of these pieces of second-hand clothing also provides them with new meanings and identities. Bringing the thickness and weave of the denim - with its lines and seams and its buttons and rivets, the two-dimensional space gives the work an almost sculptural feel. The thick bluish cloth forms natural areas of shadow and relief that strongly heighten the realism of the composition, which, with Choi's ingenious control over the placement of its varied tints and folds, radiates a stunning vitality. Pockets and zippers achieve new existences outside of our normal perception of them, symbolically forming landscape elements and joining together in new organizations that create a sense of a continuous landscape.
Through her dexterous handling of denim materials and her quiet and romantic composition, Choi skillfully produces a work with deep and powerful cultural commentaries. After blue jeans were invented in America in the 1800s, they spread rapidly around the world and ultimately became an indispensable part of our everyday lives, and they reflect at a basic level our innate needs for: shelter, protection, peer acceptance, and self-expression. Through her recycled denims, Choi directly transfers human feeling into her compositions; the textures and colors of the fabrics, their fading and tearing, all bear the signs of aging over time. They powerfully project the feelings implicit in their forms and the histories and movements of their previous owners. At the same time they also express something of the artist's feelings about consumerist culture in the capitalist world. Denim undergoes change primarily through contact with the environment, whether through gradual physical deterioration or through dyeing and ripping by human hands, but in all cases, its details reflect the personality of the owner and a record of its own passage through time. Here, the rich colors and textures of the material appear within a meticulously-created, soundless cityscape whose complexity provides a fresh imaginary space to be enjoyed, as well as a glimpse into the riddle of personality and the unique histories of the clothes we wear. Perhaps the artist's spare and elegant utilization of her materials also speaks of an emotional connection with her early habit of wearing jeans handed down from her older sister.
Our modern cities and the speed of technological progress are blurring our sense of reality of space and place. By choosing the globalized sameness of denim for portraits of hometown Korean scenes, Choi further emphasizes the importance of showing the local face of her culture through the use of a medium that intensifies the viewer's identification with the work. As denim offers a feeling of intimacy and bodily contact, it breaks through our rigid alienation from one another and brings us into a seemingly real living space; this in turn makes viewing a work like Landscape of a Patch, like setting out on a leisurely tour through the city. Apart from the beautiful visual effects of her work, the surface textures of Choi's denim and the three-dimensional quality of its details bring multi-layered possibilities for other sensory experiences. The warmth and tactility of the denim, its sun-drenched scents or its dampness after a walk in the rain, can take us away from the world of empty imagination and back to the physical sensations of our daily lives, calling back memories of sights and sensations that we have experienced on our own walks through urban landscapes.