The Balancing of Opposites
Jungran Noh's paintings defy any strict classification. Her brush strokes are bold and gestural but at the same time measured and deliberative. Her colors are bright and sensual but at the same time mysterious and cerebral. Her shapes are apparently simple but reveal further complexities the longer they are viewed. Her large canvases are weighty but give an impression of delicacy
One is tempted to classify Noh's paintings as expressionist-except that they reveal a sensibility which is subtly different from the stereotypical western notion of so called "unmediated expression". Part of their intrigue in the way they draw attention to the misconceptions that surround popular definitions of expressionism. These definitions are linked to notions of masculinity and Western (usually German)angst. Expressionism is described in terms of thrust, vigor, force and power. This conception of angst - in - the - pants is based on a Western system of binary opposition which excludes women as active subjects. This elaborate apparatus of binary oppositions - Active/Passive, Subject/Object, Same/Other - was identified as the basis of Western culture by Simone de Beauvoir, 41years ago. Yet this elaborate apparatus of patriarchal oppositions continues today - not (usually) through force, but more insidiously, through the symbolic processes that structure our thinking. As Helene Cixous commented, "the complete set of symbolic systems - everything said, everything organized as discourse - art, religion, family, language - everything that seizes us, everything that forms us - everything is organized on the basis of hierarchical opposition, which come back to the opposition man/woman."
When an Oriental woman - who occupies the position "other" in relation to both Western and masculine discources - negotiates a speaking position within an artistic language based on this Eurocentric oppositional thinking, some ruptures are bound to occur within the syntax of that language. Noh's paintings manage to visually suggest an Oriental feminine perception of the world, which perceives balance between apparent oppositions. As she says, "I want to remain alert at all times, both mentally and spiritually, in order to continue my search for a synthesis between reality and the ideal. I am working to attain this synthesis in my paintings, which, I hope, will evoke in the viewer the harmonious response symbolized by the Yin Yang". According to the Oriental philosophy of Yin Yang, the feminine is defined as complimentary to the masculine - rather than as lack or absence. Noh's paintings express this Yin Yang philosophy through the tensions and balance.
She creates through the use of negative space which surrounds her highly suggestive shapes. Her paintings are emotionally charged - but the emotions are directed, rather than uncontrolled. As she says, "Life is full of joyous beauty and mournful sadness - I keep wandering between the two". Noh often uses a serpentine shape to symbolize this life flow, which blances different energies and emotions. The blue peach motif which re-appears in many of her paintings has association of female fecundity but its color creates a strange poignancy. The recurring motifs of tear drops are related to the human search for the ideal, while the small nails symbolize human sacrifice. Together these motifs and symbols suggest the joy and pain involved in the human quest for the ideal.
During the 80s Noh painted a series of canvases entitled "Mindscape". The title is an apt description for almost all her paintings because she continuously strives to articulate an interior rather than an exterior landscape. The spreading horizontal lines are a metaphor for a flow of thoughts which spreads outward like water. However, these expanding circular rhythms have the effect of pulling the viewer inside the canvas. Noh's paintings not only synthesize opposites, they also synthesize Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions. Noh trained in classical Oriental brush painting techniques in her native homeland, Korea (graduating with a M.F.A from Ewha Women's University, Seoul) before immigrating to the United States, where she studied Western techniques (graduating with a M.F.A from California State University, Long Beach). Her paintings seamlessly blend techniques acquired from these different traditions to combine their respective strengths. Color is Noh's primary vehicle for creating different emotional inflections. According to Oriental ideas, color is not simply seen - it is FELT. Noh's palette consists of a vibrant mix of gold and silver metallic colors, cool blues, deep reds, ethereal turquoises, deep purples and bright yellows which she uses for dramatic effect against somber blacks. Her bold brush strokes owe a debt to expressionism yet they are tempered by the Oriental principle of "spontaneity and control".
The deliberative quality of her brush work, dispels popular ideas about the underlying basis of expressionism. Hal Foster brilliantly deconstructed the fallacy about the basis of expressionism by arguing that expressionism is a rhetorical convention based on an outmoded humanist metaphysics which privileges the self as the originator of so called "unmediated expression". He concluded that "even as expressionsism insists upon the primary, originary, interior self, it reveals that this self is never anterior to its traces, its gestures, its "body". Whether unconscious drives or social signs, these mediated expressions "precede" the artist : "they speak him more than he expresses them". Interestingly, Noh's paintings make no claim to an unmediated source of inspiration. The Oriental tradition insists upon control at all times and the emphasis upon technique ensures that Oriental artist are always aware that they art interpreting an ancient language - rather than inventing their own through a spontaneous overflow of creative urges of regression into infantile subjectivity. Since the publication of Foster's well - known essay there has been a trend toward dismissing expressionism, as a politically incorrect genre. But the real issue raised by his article would seem to be the terms and concepts demonstrate that expressionist painting can derive from a careful, thoughtful process which aims to balance - rather than re - create - opposition and admits a place for the feminine.
Lita Barrie / art critic,1991