Hyunae Kang paints in a singular style that channels parallel lineages from Korea and the West. Although she has been associated with Dansaekwa, an art movement from late twentieth century Korea characterized by monochromatic austerity and minimalist aesthetics, Kang is not representative of the movement but a departure from it. What Kang has in common with Dansaekwa artists is the contemplative repetition central to their practices. This concordance is a reflection of their shared inheritance within Korean art which was shaped by East Asian philosophical traditions, notably Taoism and Seon (Zen) Buddhism. While Dansaekwa artists embraced monochromatism and minimalism, Kang is a maximalist in her approach, exploring the full gamut of color, luminance, and texture in her works.
Kang’s unique style is distinguished by her dynamic and kaleidoscopic use of colors. While Kang’s earlier works from Korea tended toward muted earthones, her more recent works exhibit a prismatic burst of bright hues. Kang credits this polychromatic turn to being able to study first hand works by color-field artists while living in America and experiencing in person the absolute power and primacy of color. However, unlike color-field painters who express pure color by covering their canvases with solid tones, Kang adds depth to color by exploring its luminance and experimenting with texture. Kang paints by layering webs of overlapping brushstrokes of varying thickness and colors. This technique, which borrows from divisionist color theory, juxtaposes complimentary hues with one another to enhance their luminosity and endow her works with an aura of glowing vibrancy. Kang also heightens the intensity of her colors with her use of texture. The topmost layers of Kang’s works are often done in impasto. Thick layers of paint are overlaid with heavy strokes in order that the raised marks appear to leap from the canvas. The ridges created through this process not only make a more dynamic and tactile surface, but they also catch light, thereby creating a luminous effect as though the entire painting is emanating light from within. And it is precisely in this respect that Hyunae Kang is a departure from Dansaekwa and other minimalist art movements of the late twentieth century. While minimalists seek to achieve clarity through reduction and elimination, Kang strives to express the power of the sublime by overwhelming the viewer with a profusion of vibrant colors, reverberating light, and visceral textures.
Art as Act of Faith
Art is an act of faith for HyunAe kang. As a devout Christian, Kang believes in art’s capacity to mediate on the experience of the divine. Although her practice is deeply rooted in faith, Kang does not center religion in her art in the traditional sense. Eschewing explicit religious imagery and iconography intended to proselytize or exhort, Kang instead chooses abstraction as a means of engaging with the sacred. Referencing a statement by Kandinsky in which he describes art as “an expression of mystery by means of mystery”, Kang views art as “an expression of the infinite by means of the boundless.”
Hyunae Kang describes her works as prayers and art as the search for the divine. Art is thus for her an act of contemplation. In theological studies, contemplation refers to a broad array of religious and spiritual practices that seek a direct awareness and experience of the divine through meditation and prayer. Within the Christian tradition, it draws from both concepts of theoria (beholding) from ancient Greek philosophy and transcendence from early mysticism; contemplation is understood to be an ecstatic revelation of the Absolute.
The Christian conception of contemplation, which intimates the significance of visuality in transformative experiences of the divine, provides the most apposite framework by which to understand Hyunae Kang’s art and practice. The act of painting is for Kang a meditative ritual that enables her to seek the face of the divine. Kang paints by meticulously building layers of varying mediums, mindful of the materiality of each medium and how it adds to the overall tone and texture of her works. Following the initial strata of underpainting, she then covers the canvas with layers upon layers of prayers. Kang’s prayers are comprised of both texts written in her native Korean and symbols that she has developed as part of her own language of the Sacred. The prayers are composed by painting countless painstaking strokes of different colors, shapes, and sizes on top of one another in overlapping layers. Thus although the individual letters and glyphs become illegible—annihilated through the process of continuous superimposition—collectively they create a numinous effect, as though there is a deep resonance echoing from within the work. In this respect, Kang’s practice mirrors visually the way in which in various religions, including not only Christianity but also Buddhism and Hinduism, certain words or mantras are repeated in order to center the mind and reach higher states of consciousness. Kang describes this process as that of inscription, explaining that although she is physically adding material to the canvas, her actions are carving a deeper metaphysical dimension to her works. Kang’s view of painting prayers as an act of inscription not only reflects her background in sculpture—an account underscored by the fact that she often paints with a chisel—but also further demonstrates the religiosity of her practice. The trappist monk and theologian Thomas Merton defined contemplation as “a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent, and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source.” In this respect, Hyunae Kang is a rare artist in today’s world whose works offer us a glimpse into the profundity of spiritual revelations.