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Ran Hwang: Blossoms and Spiders

By Thalia Vrachopoulos

January 6, 2024

Dreaming of Joy, 2008, Buttons, Pins of Wooden Panel, Steel Cage H240cm x W120cm x 6panels / H95 x W195 x D101 inches (cage)

Ran Hwang’s latest show at Asian Artworks Gallery in Busan, South Korea includes the artist’s two-dimensional works, three-dimensional sculptures, and site-specific installations whose subject speaks to the artist’s engagement with the life cycle. 

Both Hwang, and the Asian Artworks’ owner Cristal Kim, have strong ties to New York City; the former having been educated and maintained a studio in Soho, and Kim having owned 2x13 Gallery in Chelsea, while also establishing and twice mounting the Asian Contemporary Art Fair. Hwang and Kim began spending more time in Seoul and Busan about ten years ago when a considerable sector of Korean avant-garde artists repatriated as the Asian market expanded. More recent events such as the reabsorption by China of Hong Kong have proven providential for Hwang and Kim, as a large part of this art market moved to Seoul.             
Hwang’s art is embedded with the idea of transient ephemerality in living beings as seen in Buddhism as well as the philosophies of Japanese wabi–sabi or mono no aware, and the Korean aesthetic of Mak and bium. The artist’s lifelong practice of Seon Buddhism infuses her delicate and meticulous hand-work with an evanescent beauty of bittersweet impermanence. Her use of buttons driven almost endlessly into the surface of her works is akin to Seon Buddhist meditative practice, for it espouses the idea that through repetition of ordinary labor, one can find enlightenment or nirvana

Hwang’s large pieces at the Asian Artworks Gallery sublimate her iconography of fleeting forms even further. Consider for example her archetypical work “Healing Forest”; a floating gust of scattered red-white plum blossoms --– a typical symbol of impermanence –-- that gently spill onto a milky white plane of colorlessness. The twisted branches, artfully made of delicate paper buttons, snake delightfully onto the white substratum. In Beyond the Winter Wind, Hwang’s stylized flowers are fused with embroidered images of traditional dwellings juxtaposed against vast surfaces of vivid color.  In this work, Hwang beautifully externalizes her deep microcosmic vistas of fading nature into breathing artworks of a dreamlike multi-dimensionality. 
The multimedia installation “Dreaming of Joy”, is comprised of a caged life-size red bird made of buttons, more densely situated in its upper body and less so towards its tail. The placement of buttons that disperse gradually very effectively conveys ephemerality. At the same time, the image itself confounds the perceptual power of the viewer like a post-modern trompe l'oeil. The related 2-dimensional wall sculpture Becoming Again, whose cerulean ground is blanketed in white and violet flower petals, over a maze of cobwebs, can be understood as a mourning tableau of nature’s impending fragility and passing. 

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Beyond the Winter, 2022, Plastic and paper buttons, and pins on wooden panel, 47 x 94 inches

 “Another Moment of Rising”, an enormous rendering (more than two meters high and eight meters wide) of a fierce bald eagle is another example of Hwang’s multimedia practice. The bird unflinchingly appears to soar even while entangled against the spider’s webs. The artist has deliberately emphasized the eagle’s ferocity by using flamboyant colors in wind-like strokes of pulsating violets, blazing auburns, and shimmering greens, that symbolically encapsulate the already vanishing moment of an abrupt ascent through the air. In this work, fragile temporality collides with a mystical manifestation of an eternal now; a scorching phoenix in flight struggling against a suspended horde of scarlet-black spiders, where nature’s brevity morphs into ideal eternity. 

Hwang’s new exhibition commemorates the 20th Anniversary of the Asian Artworks Gallery. Another contemporary show is Gigisue’s “Miracle Rose from Heaven” at 313 Art Project, in Seoul which according to the exhibition statement, also relates to the cycle of life. Gigisue’s maximalist approach to abstract representations of floral bouquets as vanitas paintings --– a mixed media utilization of natural patterns (assemblage, painting, sculpture, etc.), akin to Hwang’s formal practices, which smoothly assimilate into its surface physical objects like cloth or crystals –-- functions in ideological opposition to Hwang’s clear lucidity of delineated yet temporal figures. 

As seen in “Spider Strategem”, Hwang prevails through the unrelenting simplicity of formal execution in conveying the dramatic resonance of nature’s ephemerality.  This is a button-studded and beaded work, comprised of two minimalistic softly-hued spiders within a transparent plexiglass tondo. Here, Hwang represents a self-effacing apex of her creative concerns in that her formal practices are severely reduced to their compositional elements. The short-lived spiders appear on the verge of ‘being’ and yet simultaneously vanishing, providing a tranquil point of contemplation to the viewer thus avoiding the tumultuous polyphony of Gigisue’s vain and fugacious blossoms. 

By selectively adopting everyday materials such as buttons, beads, and threads for her art, Hwang constructs a dreamy world of colorful ruminations, where living transience and ideal eternity cohere into a nostalgic blooming of a single moment – a fleeting reflection of nature’s life cycle. Hwang’s creative oeuvre of radiant opaline forms mirrors her innermost longings concerning temporality and nature’s incessant flux. Hwang’s art truly reflects Seungsahn’s famous words, namely that; everything is impermanent, like the clouds passing us by. 

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The Spider's Stratagem, 2014, Paper Buttons, Beads, Pins on Plexiglas H20 X W20 inches

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