Present Absence: Dual Realities in the Work of RAN HWANG
Richard Vine: Managing Editor - Art in America

In recent years, the Korean-born artist Ran Hwang, resident in the U.S. since 1997, has developed two related bodies of work: one composed of moderately scaled 3D collages, the other comprising large wall installations that utilize buttons, pins and thread to evoke a hovering figure of the Buddha. In both modes, between which she alternates freely, Hwang addresses current social issues—particularly “menial” labor and its relation to the glamour trade—as well as timeless spiritual concerns. The overall effect of her work is to ennoble commonplace materials, processes and persons, while simultaneously grounding and authenticating two very different types of grandeur-one pop-cultural, the other divine.

The box constructions, usually exhibited in groupings of four to eight examples hung in a horizontal row, employ two superimposed planes separated by several inches of space. The surface nearer the viewer often features a cutout silhouette replicating the over-the-shoulder glance of a Helmut Newton model or the chair-perched form of Marilyn

Monroe. The rear surface bears scraps of paper or fabric—sometimes bright and inviting, and therefore consonant with the figure’s pose; sometimes relatively plain and domestic, thus creating a visual counterpoint freighted with latent, socially critical meaning. Even the internally harmonious works, though, imply a thoughtful commentary on the artifice of extreme gender roles and the self-consciousness with which a "desirable" female identity is constructed. The frills and ribbons that lie beneath these sensuous icons remind us that the entire global industry of fashion production-which finds its ultimate expression in the mythic vamp—contributes only a shapely void. The media-venerated model is, in effect, emptiness incarnate, an alluring fetish devoid of genuine selfhood. (For Monroe, this realization attained tragic proportions, contributing in large part to her pill-addled demise.)

The superficial variety-yet fundamental sameness—of this image packaging is conveyed by the works’ serial installation: the accoutrements of glamour change from one box to the next, but the pose itself, the deliberate contortion of the body into an emblem of erotic appeal, remains uniform, in keeping with now nearly universal fashion conventions. The figures, and the beings they represent, are tightly delimited-literally and metaphorically framed by the box edges and suspended in a limbo setting with no reference to anything outside the specialized world of marketable "beauty”.

Only in the pieces backed with domestic, homey materials do we have a reminder of more mundane facts-namely, that fabricated glamour girls often begin as, and remain at heart, simpler and more vulnerable creatures, perhaps closer in nature to the seamstresses who work behind the scenes than to the femmes fatales that camera-ready girls are asked to impersonate. Who can deny the poignancy-and, more darkly, the predatory lust—that arises when a hint of Norma Jean peeks through the ritualized persona of "Marilyn"? It is in the gap between these parallel planes, these disparate universes—the conceptual icon and the workaday material industry-that Hwang's sharpest insights are generated.

In this respect, Hwang resembles her German contemporary Regina Frank, who in 1994 meticulously beaded a gown in the window of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York while an LED board specified the value of such underpaid labor in various Third World countries where designer clothes are manufactured. Yet Hwang, again like Frank, regards her time-consuming handiwork as more than just a commentary on global inequities. She also experiences it as a meditative discipline conducive to the inner peace espoused by the Buddah.

In the installations, Hwang's customary Buddha figure seldom sits centered and fully visible on the wall. Rather, depending on the site, it may partially overlap a window, evoking the Buddha's dispassionate survey of human activities and his penetration of the individual consciousness. Or it may occupy a corner, recalling the soul’s ability to elude all external confinement, to move, even when the body and the daily self are restricted, into realms of infinite freedom. If tethered to a log by multiple threads, the figure seems to strain its bounds and rise transcendent. Though she always presents the famous silhouette as a religious sign, Hwang is not sanctimonious in her treatment of the traditional form. Indeed, in several new works, the Buddha’s head sprouts antlers or is replaced by a Duchampian urinal-tropes that bespeak an easy confidence in this esteemed personage's self-deprecation and adaptability. Humor, apparently, can meld smoothly with conviction, art with spirituality, in a hybrid expression that is at once light and profound.

There is, then, a teasing, peek-a-boo quality to Hwang's evocations of the Buddha. In some works, the great teacher is a presence, a distinct form in positive space, created from thousands of small items-usually buttons and pins-concentrated to imply a solid mass. Other pieces show only a haunting linear outline. Still others offer a field of tiny elements within which the Buddha is a virtual knockout, a phantom of negative space. Beyond its innate formal intrigue, this technique has a major thematic import. The absence of one who is nevertheless very much there implies that spiritual substance resides in the mind and the heart of the willing perceiver. Every religious devotee, like every lover, knows the paradox of a being who is compellingly present even when materially absent, and whose fleshly manifestation seems only a token of an immeasurably finer, untouchable essence.