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NAM Tchun-Mo

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NAM Tchun-Mo  남춘모

There is a photograph of the entrance to the studio used by Mondrian in Paris in the 1920s which offers a view of an extremely rigorous and bare interior. Alone, in the foreground, an artificial flower in a small round vase, a symbol for the artist of a feminine presence, is like a surprise splash of colour in all the order. Artists are nothing if not paradoxical: if the photo in question suggests that his place was always this tidy, it is said that one of the neighbouring rooms was a quite a tip.

Having visited Nam Tchun Mo’s studio, what I remember is a situation in which the relation between order and chaos immediately reminded me of that photo, and whenever I think of his work I always picture the incredible shambles in which he produces it. It’s an old school building, I believe, tucked away deep in the countryside near Daegu, where every room is literally filled with painting. I remember that visit as if I was travelling to some inexpressible place that I moved around as if in a maze, a place where I would surely have got lost had I not followed my guide. Paradoxically, the work I recall is implacably neat, incredibly rich and colourful with dazzling light. Work that, while founded on the application of precise and time-consuming protocols, is no less full of surprises and invites the gaze to an experience of constant questioning. Work that is cheerful and sometimes playful, manifesting itself through infinite variations.

The art of Nam Tchun Mo is wholly organised around the principles of the series and suite. In the case of the former, an idea is explored in depth, exhausted; in the latter, the investigation occurs on the surface, until it fills and takes over the space. Far from being opposed, these two principles are mutually complementary, ensuring that painting has the possibility of a territory – what chemists, and alchemists for that matter, call a milieu, in the sense that artists are sometimes described as veritable magicians.

 In this light, there is no denying that the works of Nam Tchun Mo result from an approach in which their apparent visual economy is inversely proportional to the labour that went into them. Time is a decisive parameter here, insofar as for painting luxury is to take its time and for the painter it is to give it his time. The artist’s studio is a thoroughgoing laboratory full of all kinds of experiments, and it is cluttered with all kinds of works whose different states tell us a great deal about the procedures used. Here, a blank canvas on a stretcher is laid flat on trestles: it has been covered with a binder which will act together with the elements that will be added to give it a particular relief; there, the graphic outline of a composition is simply drawn on the canvas. Here, a set of U-shaped rods of varying lengths and widths, glued up in polyester resin, await their destination. Elsewhere, piles of little bits of cardboard, cut into squares, all present and vibrate with the same coloured ground.

Here and there are elements used by the artist to structure the plane of each canvas when they are glued onto the surface. This procedure enables him to endow his paintings with a certain relief and enables him to produce a whole set of different propositions. They may play on differences of chromatic intensity, exploiting all the tones of the visible spectrum, from purple to red, to blue, green, yellow and orange. Or they may play on opposing values, multiplying their transitions from shadow to light, and vice versa, in accordance with the angle from which we view the work. This is the case with the Beam and Stroke Line. series, for instance.

There is a photograph of the artist which shows him behind the drawing of a grid painted on a sheet of glass, made of simple milky-white lines that look as if they could have been traced on the camera lens. It is as if Nam Tchun Mo were appearing behind the slats of a Venetian blind, except that here the grid is constituted by horizontal and vertical lines that striate the surface of the glass and divide it into two distinct graphic fields following the interlocking orthornomal markers. This kind of configuration is frequent in this painter’s work, especially in the Beam series. At the point where the two sets of lines touch, the system put in place determines a third set that is diagonal and virtual, which imposes its axial structure on the iconic field and establishes a strict distinction between two qualities of relief.

In a set of variations on this principle, the series in questions sets up multiple graphic interactions to produce more complex surface patterns. Whether lines that are like Us on their sides, echoing each other in parallel along the three sides of a painting and creating the kinetic illusion of depth. Or a set of intrusive vertical lines necessarily penetrating the field of another set of horizontal lines. Or, more simply, the division of the quadrangular surface into two right-angled triangles of equal size by a resolutely immaterial diagonal. Whatever the final design of the composition, on each occasion it is a matter of inviting the gaze to discovery, in a process involving the effect of light in accordance with the position of the viewer and, in equal measure, the intensity of the colours brought into play.

Colour and light are the key ingredients of Nam Tchun Mo’s art. He is constantly playing on them, exploiting the most varied resources of the chromatic spectrum – orange, yellow, purple, blue, vermilion, etc. – while not neglecting the subtle modulations of black and white. If he puts the emphasis on light colours, however, this is because, as Kandinsky points out in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), “they attract and hold the gaze more.” As we know, for the founder of abstract art, colour was “a power which directly influences the soul.” Looking beyond formal intentions, the use of it by Nam Tchun Mo follows the same intentions and the viewer who comes across his work is immediately filled with a rare sensation, that of a clear, luminous space that makes him vibrate in the depths of his being because of the ricochet that the action of colour has on his physical body. “Colour,” notes Kandinsky, “is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

With the works of an artist like Nam Tchun Mo, the risk is that we might consider only the formalist aspect of his approach, and gauge it solely in these terms. If this work is resonant, it is because of Tchun Mo Nam’s decision to refuse everything that does not exclusively serve his painting. Familiar both with a concrete form of art that is conducive to geometrical abstraction and with a minimal art that seeks out inexpressive, simple forms linked serially together, Nam Tchum Mo’s painting paradoxically turns out to be the opposite of these. It has invented the means of a visual diversion, like a composer of objective music who switches the apparently dogged rigour of his compositions into a constantly changing world.

Nam Tchun Mo’s practice of the series is not based on some pre-established programme; it is the work itself that determines the series because it proceeds, fundamentally, from the very exercise of painting. Because there is a state of permanent revelations in painting. During the execution of a painting the artist is constantly assailed by the contrary, the complementary, the almost-identical and the slightly different with regard to what he is doing. Other paintings, other formulations appear to him, which he wants to start on. In the field of the visual arts, the objective is not to demonstrate know-how or its accumulation, but to attain that moment of illumination that makes the work and that comes from a vision won in a quest beyond appearance. In fact, it is about an even more subtle quest, the quest for something indefinable that has no real figurative form, and that can be brought to the fore in a series.

To this end, light is the true keystone that determines the existence of the work and that governs the gaze brought to bear on it. Nam Tchun Mo’s painting is made only to offer him the chance of a test, if not an experiment—the ideal terrain for its radiance. “Painting is nothing but painting, it expresses only itself,” said Edouard Manet. Nam Tchun Mo abandons it to its own dazzlement. He liberates its radiant power, to the point that we are almost blinded. From inside that famous cave, he invites us to look to the entrance, to witness the world’s superb brilliance.

Philippe Piguet : Nam Tchun Mo, Colour and Light

Philippe Piguet

Selected Works

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