Wall Street Journal

When Paper Feels Like Boiling Oil

May 24, 2013

By Kristiano Ang

SINGAPORE – When Chun Kwang Young arrived in Philadelphia as a foreign college student in 1969, he found himself in a society engulfed by tensions over war—again.

“I had a similar memory from having experienced the Korean War. It was a devastating era to live in,” said the Korean artist, now 69 years old. He expressed his conflicted emotions in heavily patterned paintings, made with the prominent brush strokes he saw in the works of Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns and other Abstract Expressionists he was studying.

After he returned home, however, Mr. Chun opted for techniques and materials that felt more native to him. Since 1995, he has worked with the mulberry parchment used in old Korean textbooks, dyeing the pieces of paper and wrapping them with thread around tiny Styrofoam squares. The end product resembles the herbal medicine packets that he recalls from his uncle’s old pharmacy. He uses those pieces in free-standing sculptures and glues them onto wooden canvasses to create “reliefs,” which look like paintings from a distance.

Twenty-two of his reliefs will be on display at Singapore’s Art Plural Gallery, and a dozen of them were created for this solo exhibition (prices start at roughly $100,000). One of the biggest ones, “10-MY016 Blue and Red” resembles a lunar landscape. A background of white and gray triangles jut out awkwardly from the canvas, while more prominent pieces in black, blue and red fight for space.

The harsh environment of the relief recalls “scars of our bodies, man’s exploitation of nature, and nature’s suffering from it,” Mr. Chun says.

Characters from the old schoolbooks are still visible on many of the parchment pieces, an intentional remnant. “You cannot read those printed characters because they’re folded, but in the absence of meaning, you find new meaning,” says Carole de Senarclens, Art Plural’s director.

Mr. Chun’s work is not meant to be easy on the eyes, she adds. “He wants to have his work received like boiling oil and fire,” she says, “to carry the message that we live in a world of conflict.”