If we consider JEON Byungkoo’s painting as a sort of a window, they are rarely as big as we may cross into the other side of the frame. The size of his painting is mostly as small as our shoulders may pass through but not both arms, or only head can get into but shoulders are blocked. It’s like small window that doesn’t allow the audience to push their bodies through nor embrace their bodies. It just allows their eyes. Generally, small sized paintings are called ‘props’ and often considered as secondary to big paintings. It is commonly said that one’s representative work must be ‘masterwork’ from its size. However, JEON Byungkoo mostly draws small paintings.
He didn’t start his career drawing small ones though. In his early Factotum (2012) series, one is almost a meter wide. Nonetheless, half of this series are as wide as shoulder and some are so small that even a face can’t fit. They were all based on the photos he took at the factory where the artist worked, but there must be artist’s decisions on what to draw big and what to draw small. For example, the painting of a person bending his waist forward to do something beside a cart loaded with boxes in the hallway is very small and the other one about a person sleeping on wrapped boxes is bigger than that. The painting of a person touching a smartphone sitting on wrapping materials in disorder or the painting of a person napping with his foot on a desk is bigger than those works. The bigger a painting is, the more contrast it shows and the more details it depicts. The artist comprised these paintings as a series which must be exhibited in the fixed order. Like film sequences, among blurred people entering a factory, a person suddenly outstands and other people attract our attention one by one gradually bigger and more clearly. JEON expresses this perceptive process in series works starting from small ones connected to bigger ones.
However, the moments catching our eyes are caught in neutralized scenes of ordinary days we indifferently pass through. The repetitive life of going to the factory every morning and going on a pilgrimage to art galleries on weekends are painted in grey color in similar sizes. If asked to choose a representative work in the 〈Factotum〉 series, most people would pick the one, which is the biggest and the clearest painting hung on the center of the gallery. That work present a young man’s arduous days which continues boringly in pale but clear style. After that, however, instead of drawing such serious themes big and sharp, JEON moves toward painting things around himself in small size, repeatedly.
His small paintings, as if drawn after cutting eye-catching parts before his eyes, have been constantly discovered through his previous works. But the reason JEON intentionally started to paint such small works is related with his change of painting method in 2014. From that year, the artist stopped transferring his own experience meticulously like a camera, without revealing emotion as if he were observer. Instead, JEON started to draw fragmentary things caught in his eyes by chance in a faster and lighter way. Naturally, his paintings became smaller and the paints got thinner and what remained at the end was translucent brush strokes and simple shapes as if the scratching sound of brush strokes fell on the canvas. During this time, the artist made his own implicit rule not to give a meaning more than what he actually saw and not to spend too much time to one scene. Accordingly, JEON’s painting started forming itself as something always touchable within an arm, not a magnificent thing placed on higher spot; as a part of the artist’s ordinary days, not as a goal that painter’s life must be devoted to; something like a small window through which light in other world momently shines.
His works around this time are mainly drawn on 32×24cm sized papers and the ones painted on canvas are little bigger than them but not that big. While he tried not to give meaning to his works, media images like film scenes frequently walk into the painting. As a spectator, it is hard to distinguish what’s the media image and what’s the scene the artist saw in person, but from the point of view of artist, that kind of distinction doesn’t mean anything. For instance, let’s say he watches a movie on phone and suddenly raises his head, and there is one person catching his eyes. It is hard to say that which one is more realistic or more close to the artist himself between the scene in the small screen and the one outside the screen. Most scenes just pointlessly pass by before our eyes and stick to our memories with no reason. These are drawn in a short time and become each different painting.
These works seem to be one’s photo library in phone mixed with screenshots, downloaded images from the web, and the ones someone took. If someone asks why they deserve to be painted, few answers may come forth, but I’d like to answer that he needed time. Painting takes time. Though that’s not the only reason, there is time that paintings form. That is long time, rather than one moment, maybe uncountable by a clock. It’s because painting stops the time by its own way, rather than stays within the time or moves it. Like a clock without hands, not a clock stopped at certain moment, JEON’s paintings fill a small part of the wall and don’t move. They don’t offer an entrance toward another world, but it promise that here is not all with the image of right here. From that promise, the painter gets power to keep drawing and earn time to study about painting.
From around 2016, JEON expanded his works to flat paintings, something like the scenes from a far or in a close, half a scenery and half a visual pattern composed of color-fields. This period coincides with the time he entered several residencies and put more time to his works. The scenes in paintings are what was selected from the things he got to see at new places, but at the same time they are chance to develop his own ideas about drawing what he saw through his eyes into such painting. JEON’s recent works seem to pass the stage a little where he has to make a certain rule not to be weighed down by the painting itself but to get closer to the painting. Many things happened and will happen. Anyway, we can observe his stable mind pursuing painting and new concerns and small new tryouts originates from the pursuit.
Something never changes. Something like taking a subway, seeing photos taken by other people with their smartphones, or watching a movie. Seasons change, flowers bloom and fall, cars come into the parking lot and go out. A painter as always thinks about what if he draws them and actually paints them, hangs them on the wall, and looks at them for a long time. During that time, some paintings get bigger and some other paintings take little more time. But still most paintings stay light and comfy, not that big nor thick. There is requirement for appropriate size, temperature and thickness. This is not about the artist’s taste but his attitude toward painting, say, his search for balance between his life and painting, not to break each other but keep moving like a mobil. JEON Byungkoo always says a painting is just a painting as if he makes a promise to himself. But what lightens his studio and the exhibition hall is the light from his small windowlike painting. The artist takes care of the light like a street light keeper.
Wonhwa Yoon is an independent researcher, art writer, and translator based in Seoul.She published 『Can Document re/create time?』(Seoul: Mediabus, 2017), 『1002nd Night: Arts in Seoul in 2010s』(Seoul: Workroom Press, 2016) and translated Friedrich KITTLER’s 『Discourse Networks 1800/1900』(1985), and 『Optische Medien: Berliner Vorlesung 1999』(2002) into Korean. She co-curated 《Human Scale》(2014) at the Ilmin Museum of Art and co-produced Soft Places for the Seoul Mediacity Biennale 2018.