Ran Hwang: Transfigurations of the Commonplace
Eleanor Heartney

In her current work, Korean artist Ran Hwang offers meditations on time, transience and change.   She creates exquisite pointillist compositions “painted” with her trademark medium of tiny buttons, or in one case, little colored papers, that have been painstakingly pinned to plexiglass and wooden panels.  Her images, which draw from Asian and Western sources, are chosen for their metaphoric associations.

A recurring image involvesbranches laden with cherry blossoms, Asian symbols of the ephemeral nature of life. In one such work, the blossomsspread out over the wall, their brilliant red providing a counterpoint to a gold ground that echoes traditional Japanese Edo painting. In another, the blossoms are a more subdued pink, captured within a tondo where they partially obscure a representation of the Buddha. The Buddha appears unobscured in a work composed of colored papers pinned to a panel. In a darker mood, a collection of mother of pearl buttons create the image of a funerary urn viewed from above.

And most spectacularly, Hwang presents an installation that combines still objects and moving imagery. This work consists of a virtual forest spread out over a curved wall of plexi panels.  Affixed with buttons and overlaid with video images, thisforest undergoes the passage from winter to spring to summer and back again, as cherry blossoms emerge from falling snow, change from white to red, and are consumed by an army of black spiders. These latter arepainted on round plexi discs whose swaying motion creates the illusion that the spiders are moving. The spiders are invisible until the projected light allows them to appear.They appear, dissolve the blossoms and disappear, making way for the black void of a new beginningas the cycle begins again.

Hwang’s work is often discussed in the context of Buddhism. This influence is evident in the subject matter of her mesmerizing paintings and installations.These often draw on such traditional Buddhist imagery as birds, blossoms and Buddhist architecture, as well as the image of the Buddha himself. Buddhism also underscores Hwang’s working methods. The laborious process of affixing thousands of tiny buttons to sheets of plexiglassor wood with pins becomes a meditative experience for the artist. Buddhism is further evoked in the larger themes she explores, especially in her concern with the cyclical nature of time and the inevitable alternation of decay and rebirth.

But Buddhism is only part of Hwang’s heritage. As a Korean born woman who has lived in the United States since 1997, her consciousness is amélange of influences,

all of which mingle in her complexly layered work. She notes that while she was brought up in a Buddhist family, she had grown away from Buddhism until she witnessed the events of September 11, 2001. The sight of the burning buildings and falling bodies brought her back to questions of mortality, time and the fragility of life. It was after this experience that the Buddha began to appear in her work, taking his place among other less specifically Asian images. Reflecting on her bi-cultural consciousness, Hwang says, “I use Western objects with Oriental mind.”

The mix of influences is apparent in many ways. Take, for instance, Hwang’s transformation of quotidian materials. Tiny buttons, vestiges of her background in fashion design, are pinned to flat surfaces so that they tremble in the air and glint with shifting light. The results, so magical, are rendered even more extraordinary by the viewer’s recognition that these effects are created by the most ordinary of mass produced items. This state of transformation reflects Buddhist teachings about the illusory nature of the visible world. However, it also seems to owe something to a more Western based notion of the readymade. Introduced by Duchamp, taken up by Warhol and now widely adopted by contemporary artists, the readymade participates in what philosopher/critic Arthur Danto termed “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace”. Danto was interested in how art can be differentiated from non-art. In a manner analogous to Christianity’s glorification of ordinary objects into vessels of divine Spirit, he argued, art is also about this almost alchemical process by which prosaic objects and materials are imbued with meaning and artistic value.  In Hwang’s work, buttons and pins become so much more – in their subtle, trembling movement, they become metaphors for human freedom. The webs that entangle the blossoms in the installation and the spiders that consume them serve as reminders that this freedom is always under threat.

Another important aspect of Hwang’s work is its relation to current debates over the role of craft traditions and aesthetic beauty in contemporary art. Here again, there is an interesting interplay between Asian and Western approaches to art. Craft and beauty are integral to Asian art traditions. By contrast, in the West, Modernism separated high from low art, relegating the craft traditions to the lower strata of the art hierarchy. It was only with the emergence of post-modernism, urged on by feminist artists who challenged the denigration of practices like beading, embroidery, ceramics and sewing as “women’s work”, that craft began to regain respectability in mainstream western art. But craft based work remains a bit of an orphan child, so that artists whose work draws on craft are often viewed with suspicion by “serious” art observers.

The concept of beauty has a similarly troubled history in the West. Modernism embraced beauty as the goal of art, seeing it as the quality that elevated art above ordinary life and experience. Artists reacting against Modernism regarded this as an elitist position, and turned on beauty, espousing an “anti-aesthetic” stance that they believed was closer to their ideals of truth, egalitarianism and moral responsibility.

But in recent years, beauty has made a comeback, as artists and writers have come to understand that beauty addresses a basic human needfor balance and harmony and can serve as a humanizing force.

Hwang sweeps away these reservations about craft and beauty. Her work reflects a full throttle embrace of the power of art to persuade through an appeal to sensory pleasure. This puts her in the company of such kindred spirits as Liza Lou, Fred Tomaselli and El Anatsui, other artists whose work also overwhelms the viewer with the beauty of ordinary materials arranged with an almost obsessive sense of craft. Hwang takes these ideas and reworks them to express a hybrid sensibility that merges East and West. In the process, she suggests that the transfiguration of the commonplace is a cross cultural concept that allows us to grasp a universe that is so much larger than ourselves.