People / Critic

Jeong Deokhyeon : True Heart, Evolving to Be More Accurate

posted 25 May 2021

Chung Hee Young(curator at Arumjigi)

To Deokhyeon Jeong, painting is a space where truth resides. He worries that a true heart might not stay. He remains cautious, because he is keenly aware that his paintings can accelerate rough understanding of the world and hasty decisions. Truth lurks within life, yet one cannot catch it without focusing all their attention on it for a long time. They are missed time and again by artists with busy minds. But there is no way that what we already know contains something that is difficult to catch and that we miss time and again. What is already revealed, what is within our consciousness cannot be a painting. In his pursuit, our artist tweaks his angle a little bit at a time to step closer to truth. He searches for truth and keeps a doubtful eye on found truths. When doubt ends in verified truth, he makes it an object of skepticism once again. In this tumultuous journey is the “power of painting” that Jung seeks to reveal. This writing describes that journey.

What the artist considers his first work of art is the 〈Division〉 series (2011). During his undergraduate course in painting, when his classmates were looking for natural settings for an outdoor sketch, Jung was mesmerized by a cement plant. The use of a cement plant is limited to a set duration, after which it must be built anew. For this reason, the exterior of the factory goes through a repetitive process of division and proliferation. If this can be called a process of creation, it is partly because of the repeated division and proliferation, and also because it touches on Jung’s journey of burying truth in endless doubt and giving it new life again. This is why the artist exclaimed, upon discovering the modern scenery, “It will be a painting!” It might be said again that no truth lies in what is already perceived. The more deeply one is attracted, the body reacts ahead of reason. After the initial survey, the artist returned to the site outside the capital region weekly to photograph the exterior of the factory from which he sensed the process of creation. When he returned to his studio, he painted modern “landscapes.”

<데자뷔>, 2019, 종이에 연필, 먹, 호분, 아크릴물감, 겔미디엄, 91 x 91 cm. 사진제공 국립현대미술관 고양레지던시

〈True Heart〉 2019, pencil, black ink, white powder, acrylic color and gel medium on Korean paper, 91 x 91 cm. Image provided by MMCA goyang Residency

The creation that Jung has shown through the exterior wall of a cement plant is inherent in the plant itself in its production, processing, and abandonment. As the artist captures the exterior, his desire for truth gradually enters the interior. The exterior necessarily reflects what is within. Jung started as an outsider touring the interior of several plants, but he eventually joined the process of creation by becoming a laborer in a machine room at a semiconductor fabrication plant. By wedging his way inside, he must have wanted to affirm the true nature of the thing called “plant” that enticed him. He was part of a team that replacing old parts in a machine room located on the seventh basement floor of a building as large as a gymnasium, factory, or a department store. In the process, his paintings naturally began to mix distant view with close-range view, and true-view landscape with still life. I emphasize, he did not move from one to the other, he mixed one with the other. Between the enormous machinery of desire (plant) and the smallest, humble unit object (nut), his view contracts and expands repeatedly.

In the middle of this involvement, the artist was injured in an accident, and this returned him to being an outsider. This experience turned a screw, which was nothing more than a spiral image, and came to contain the meaning of labor. Objects like screws, bolts, and nuts are parts that are used and discarded constantly to keep the machines running. By the artist’s labor, nails and nuts were engaged in the operation of machines. However, when the artist began to see labor in the spiral image, they began to reflect the reality of society he faced. In this way, props and background of labor takes center stage. The artist spoke about this development in an interview, “The objects I chose, or the objects that chose me, became portraits of me and my colleagues, the weak, and the social system.” Jung started from the exterior wall of a plant, infiltrated the interior, and ultimately portrayed the most intimate stories of laborers in his paintings. From the〈Division〉 series in 2011 to 〈Pietà〉 in 2013, Jung’s working process shows Jung’s ability as a still life painter to adopt certain objects as his medium to capture the deepest truths of society.

〈Pietà〉 is a series of works on women in the 1990s who were devalued as parts, rather than members, of their families. Sewing machines at a textile mill fill the canvas. It is a known fact that the image of the Pietà depicts the grief of the Virgin Mary, who is holding the body of Jesus on her lap after he has been brought down from the cross. But who was sentenced to death in Jung’s Pietà? What has died here is labor. In Jung’s 〈Pietà〉, painting, or paper, brush, and ink, is the Virgin Mary, who embraces the dead body of labor and grieves. Raw materials, machines, and labor are necessary materials for production. However, profit is not generated from raw materials or machines. The two elements are never flexible enough to generate profit. On the other hand, the value of labor is always flexible. Therefore, the profit of the bourgeois is always distilled from labor. In a capitalist society, labor is undervalued, and the labor of living people suffocates in the process of being exchanged into currency or products, and its death fulfills the interest of those who hanker for profit. The artist read a death sentence from outdated sewing machines. However, observing and sympathizing with it is not the extent of his role. Jung believed that art could embrace the dead body like the Virgin Mary. This is perhaps the method he chose to expose the life of labor.

After the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry, no one knew how to return to the time before the incident. The deluge of fake news surrounding the Sewol ferry led Jung to portray a critical mind seeking truth. Rather than focusing on the painting’s conventional task of capturing a subject sensitively, Jung questions the social responsibility and influence of art. Jung’s solo exhibition 《History Repeats the Past Worse》, held at Hapjungjigu, actively generates meaning around these political tasks of art. For example, 〈Wall〉 (2015) and 〈Proxy〉 (2015), which were painted while feeling devastated by the continuous misreporting on the media, express the artist’s contemplation about what he had seen and believed.

Black heart, 2019, pencil, black ink, white powder, acrylic color and gel medium on Korean paper, 91 x 91 cm.

〈True Heart〉, 2019, pencil, black ink, white powder, acrylic color and gel medium on Korean paper, 91 x 91 cm.

French people call the dusk, a time when it is difficult to distinguish whether the approaching animal is a dog or a wolf, a “time between dogs and wolves.” Such a period comes to everyone, and Jung seems to be stuck, during this period, in a time when he cannot distinguish dogs from wolves. Has he learned that the more one learns about the world, one understands that clear vision exists only in the insistence of a fool? Jung soon becomes suspicious of the objects he has captured in his paintings. I repeat. The exterior necessarily reflects what is within. No longer able to believe anything, he places himself in the scope of skepticism. The memory of false gaze would have always surged as bitter pain, and he would have gradually come to hesitate about his own gaze. Even in moments when he lacked conviction, he had no choice but to cling to truth and seek truth. At those times, Jung chose to return to his original state of mind before he had any understanding at all.

To reflect on his gaze, which he had devoted to the unknown, Jung began his 〈Polyprism〉 series. In Polyprism, there is little evidence of the meaning that he had reinforced and interspersed in his earlier works. Rather, meaning is eliminated, leaving only a gaze and angles with which one can question meaning. As time passes, as he came to understand the positions and circumstances that other people are in, Jung’s resolution to see objects from various angles manifested in this work. Through 〈Polyprism〉, the artist seeks to contain different points of view in one image, collecting fragmented gazes into one place. For example, in order to see an upholstered chair, a screw, and other objects from different angles, he painted five points of view on five planes of a hexahedron, leaving out the floor. Here, a totality that indicates a single identifiable object does not exist. Everything is divided and establishes multiple points of view rather than one identity. Grasping all these points of view will not shed skepticism, because there is still the bottom plane that has not been revealed.

The exhibition 《Gathering Fragments》 was an attempt to examine an object from different points of view, while 《A Floor above the Ceiling》 was an experiment on how much of an object one can capture. The 〈Coming and Going〉 series captures the endless movement of the pendulum. The artist, too, repeats himself in order to capture the appearance of the repeated movement of the pendulum. This might seem to be a simple attempt to capture the appearance of the movement, but it is based on the visual communion between the moving object and the artist who is trying to capture its essence. This is an effort made to react intuitively to the object and become as sensitive as possible to changes. The artist once moved from outside of a plant to the inside. Later, he distanced himself from it and examined multiple points of view. The artist returned once again and mixes in to move forward. From examining the pendulum movement from various points and angles, he involved himself in the movement through repetition of painting the same object to express the various points of view. The objects that appeared in Jung’s early works as principle agents have now transformed into objects that commune, communicate, react, and sense.

Not knowing where truth lies, Jung focused on objects, but the artist still cannot stop doubting. In his desire for clarity that doubts everything, he loses his way. Doubt cast on everything ironically generates conviction. This might be called methodological skepticism. Even if one doubts everything, the entity that continues to doubt always exists. Even when nothing can be free from allegation of falsehood, the continuing doubt itself is truthful. After backing away, the artist recognizes this as the reason that he had devoted himself to the truth and gladly returns to being a participant. Doubt about painting itself will always remain, as in the 〈Still life with 00 series〉 (2020). Knowing this, I cannot ask how he continues to paint while doubting painting itself. As long as he doubts no more than painting itself, the painting and artist can both remain truthful, and the work can continue. Now the artist paints the last remaining truth, his doubt of painting.

To Jung, objects are not things that are used and discarded. The objects chosen by the artist rise from the position of props and background to that of a central figure. The journey of infiltrating objects, turning them inside out, transporting them, and enlarging them allows trivial objects to stand firm as a central figure. In this journey, the many aspects of objects, which are polluted by the filth of reality, are elevated from the lowest point to the highest point, to the water’s surface, revealing their hidden sides. Jung did not give buoyancy to the objects. The objects likely already had inherent buoyancy. All objects tend to float in water. What he did was cast doubt on the public opinion that they would sink to the bottom. This prompted the objects to rise. The objects show off their beauty as a living thing that communes and communicates with people and society. The objects selected by the artist are driven. Social messages attach to and detach from the objects time and again. However, this attachment and detachment does not signify inconsistency of objects. In fact, this change makes room for truth to reside in. An image may be obsessed with meaning, or contain only points of view without meaning. However, truth announces itself only in the difference between attachment and detachment.

※ This content was first published in 『2020 MMCA Residency Goyang: A Collection of Critical Reviews』, and re-published here with the consent of MMCA Goyang Residency

Chung Hee Young

Curator at Arumjigi

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