BALANCE was a 2013/14 solo exhibition combining painting and culinary arts at Spread in Portland, Maine. Below are the catalog texts by Daniel Kany, Gerard McCarthy and Elizabeth Wilkins Lombardo.
BALANCE: THE PAINTINGS & CUISINE OF JUNG HUR BY DANIEL KANY
As elements of Asian philosophy and religion, yin and yang comprise the fundamental and complementary forces of the universe. While they appear in countless forms, yin is construed as passive, negative or dark while yang is the active, positive and bright force – its inextricably-bound opposite. People who subscribe to the yin and yang world view seek the mental and spiritual acuity to sense these forces and regulate their balance within their lives. These forces pertain to everything – the seasons, a person’s physical surroundings or even the food they eat.
Yin and yang make up the philosophical foundation of how master chef and painter Jung Hur experiences the world.
Raised and educated in Korea, Hur studied painting through college and then graduate school at Seoul’s renowned Hongik University. After graduation, Hur painted with an almost ferocious focus. “It was all I did, and I worked about 100 hours a week; so I lived pretty much like a monk,” he recalls. Despite a successfully blossoming painting career in Korea, Hur, who was married by then, came to America and opened a Japanese restaurant, Kirara (“effervescence”), in New York City’s West Village. Hur was drawn to Japanese cuisine because of its visual artistry. “The forms and colors of Japanese food made sense to me as a painter,” relates Hur, “and because it was always art for me, the ideas for this show began fermenting the moment I opened my first restaurant.” Hur’s approach worked, and he found success in NYC: Kirara made one of Time Out New York’s top 100 lists, and as recently as 2011, Hur had a major solo show of his large paintings (eight feet and more) at White Box gallery in Manhattan.
So what are we looking at when we see Hur’s paintings and what do we experience when we taste his food? He is, after all, a highly educated artist trained in classical Asian brush painting who left Korea for America, where he combines these techniques with acrylic paint to make Abstract Expressionist-scaled works that are steeped in Asian philosophy but that articulate themselves with a largely-American painterly vocabulary. Similarly, Hur learned cooking from his mother in Korea (and learned English from cookbooks) before, in 1998, moving to America, opening a Japanese restaurant in 2000, and then becoming something of a star chef in New York City before relocating his family to Maine in 2008.
Superficially, Hur’s story is an almost comically unlikely.
But it is actually a narrative about an artist motivated by ideas and backed by his own dedicated effort to make those ideas happen. These are the same ideas that have always driven Hur’s painting, that allowed him see the artistry potential in Japanese cuisine and that led him to begin fermenting the concepts for the combined culinary and canvas art experience behind “Balance: The Paintings & Cuisine of Jung Hur.”
From a strictly painterly standpoint, this story makes perfect sense. After all, the world’s dominant voice in painting following World War II was that of the Abstract Expressionists based in New York. Their work not only addressed the spiritual experience of painting, but also opened the door to painterly content stemming from personal symbolism while being set on painting’s broadest international cultural stage in the history of the world. Moreover, Abstract Expressionism’s spiritual content tilted towards Zen, Taoism and Eastern thinking bound to yin and yang dualism. In other words, Hur’s spiritual and philosophical inclinations had found a painterly vocabulary and a commercially viable format with an international audience in the New York art world. Moreover, the New York art world was not only the world’s leading center for art, but it celebrated the syncretistic blending of diasporic culture (emigrant) with its localized impulses. Together, this meant that Hur could blend his Asian, personal, spiritual, culinary, painterly and other inclinations together as his yin and yang sensibilities dictated. All of this ranging and dynamic motion is the very stuff of an international New York-based artist.
With everything coming into balance (however complex the recipe), Hur was able to develop a personal vocabulary of painting that rang true to him; this, in turn, allowed him to move forward freely without having to scout out authentically original territory every time he picked up the brush. At the core of his new painterly vocabulary was a stylized keyhole/key shape that Hur found he could use to both activate and punctuate his yin and yang conceptualism. With his keyhole starting point, Hur found the freedom to paint boldly and loosely precisely because his symbolic forms would, at some point, inevitably call the paintings back with a sense of punctuating finish.
And once he had a completely mature and self-reliant approach to his own paintings, it was natural for Hur to leave the high-octane hustle and bustle of NYC behind and move to Maine. Maine has long been the place New York artists would go (and still go) to get away from the machinations of the New York art world so they can actually work, and Portland – which purportedly has the most restaurants per capita of any city in America – has a growing reputation as a culinary destination: In 2009, for example, Portland was named the “Foodiest Small Town in America” by Bon Appétit magazine.
Going to Maine from NYC is hardly an untrodden artistic path: After all, Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, John Marin, Fairfield Porter, Lois Dodd, Richard Estes, William Wegman and Alex Katz, along with so many other artists – even Jamie Wyeth – have been drawn to the dynamic art world ebb and flow between New York and Maine.
What brings food and painting together as art for Hur is less tied to the idea of a gesamtkunstwerk (an all-encompassing artwork) than his predilection for yin and yang balance. Rather than portraying the two artistic realms as parallels or opposites, Hur creates a dynamic composition between them that flows between the qualities they can share, such as color or the keyhole symbol shapes, and their unbridgeable disparities, such as the fact that paintings are generally intended to live for archival eternity while food – forever fugitive – is destroyed in its delectation. Or Hur plays on the fact that while both are textural, one is tactile and the other is considered something not to be touched. But Hur also brings food and art onto each other’s turf. For example, he employs print-making processes in his paintings to create a dialogue with culinary art: Just as he cuts out pasta in the shape of his keyhole/yin and yang form, Hur stencils the form in an even-spaced grid over the surface of a large canvas so that the negative space around the forms covers all but the wildly painted surface seen through the “keyholes.” This is interesting by itself, but in the presence of a dish featuring pasta shaped like the holes in the painting’s top layer, we can imagine both the making of the pasta and the positive/negative dialogue of the food with the painting. It is an extraordinary thing that this food makes this painting smarter, wittier, richer and deeper than it is when not in the presence of Hur’s related dishes.
While there is whimsical wit to the interplay of some of his forms, Hur never relies on external references or jokes that need to be parsed. Instead of connecting things like roads on a map or scenes in a linear narrative, Hur’s elements come together more like recipes: They derive their richness, depth and flavor from their balanced placement. And because this happens within the variable of time, Hur talks about his painting in terms of “fermentation” rather than “purée.”
Hur’s mobilization of the concept of fermentation activates philosophical and spiritual concepts endemic to both Eastern and Western thinking – all in the discourse of cooking. While the traditional Western understanding of “balance” has been static (two elements facing off as they hold each other in place), Eastern thinking is geared to see this as a system that pulses back and forth over time. But the Western view of equivalents has evolved: As equivalents began reaching out to test each other (think Heisenberg), the images now associated with “balance” have begun to look more like a Newton’s Cradle or a seesaw, and so on. Philosophically, Western thought has shifted from static equivalents to dialectical thinking – from Game Theory in mathematics to scientific dynamism like evolution, climate change or Big Bang Theory.
In fact, Hur’s imagery is directly connected to such ideas. Hur notes that some of his large paintings pair explosive gestural forms directly inspired by the idea of the Big Bang (with a nod to the AbEx paintings of, say, Adolph Gottlieb). Other paintings take this logic in micro rather than macro directions when Hur sets his keyhole symbols towards biological bits (“pasta” in Italian) like chromosomes.
While many Western artists would find their end meanings in the associated dualities such as male/female, light/dark, good/evil, East/West, Hur’s ultimate articulation is the algorithm of yin and yang in which balance is dynamic and alive rather than static and dead. This is why the artistry of food is so important to Hur: It is a realm where it is easier to appreciate things in balance. We appreciate the blend of, say, sweet with salt, and we understand that to experience it, we must consume it – which is to internalize a dish and transform it into our very bodies. Food, in other words, is something like alchemy in the hands of an artist: It’s not enough to turn it into something else; Hur wants to turn it into gold.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Hur uses traces of both silver and gold leaf in his food as well as his paintings.
“My concept is yin and yang,” explains Hur. “I can go everywhere with this: the kitchen, the studio, anywhere. Painting has always been my direct expression of my ideas, and I do it by myself, but my food is broader because it involves more people. The keyhole is like a lens that implies two sides, and balance relates things so they have meaning with each other.”
With such a statement, Hur provides us with a model of dialectical thinking (a core of both Western and Indian philosophy) with the lens – that he pictures literally as the keyhole – as the mediating element. In Socratic terms, any thesis necessarily posits its antithesis; and here we see the keyhole implying the key (and from a painterly standpoint, we find that our perspective through the lens implies a complementary other/object on the other side). To press the Western philosophical idea against Hur’s yin and yang mentality yields more common ground than one might imagine. When we consider the four basic tenets of Hegelian/Fichtian dialectics, for example, we might as well be talking about yin and yang: Everything exists as transient in the medium of time; contradictions comprise everything; everything changes, and change inevitably leads one force to overcome its opponent force (tipping points); and, importantly, change is spiral rather than circular.
On one level, the Eastern spiritual/Western philosophical parallels are uncanny, but from the perspective of the practical person, the common ground simply makes common sense.
I first met the artist over a shared meal with writer Elisabeth Wilkes Lombardo. During that meal, Hur illustrated some of his yin and yang and Zen Buddhist ideas with drawings (for example, a spiral on an x, y grid in contrast to a circle) that could be used to illustrate a lecture about Western philosophical discourse.
Hur is a deep and creative thinker who works hard to turn his ideas into reality – even if they take 20 years to ferment. For him, the spirits metaphor fits because the excellence of the wine is not something that occurs while it sits in the bottle; rather, it happens during that transformational moment when the wine is experienced.
For an artist like Jung Hur, it’s not enough to possess a key: The key is the thing that drives you to find its lock, fit them together, turn them as a single combined duality and then open the door. But whether you choose to step through is ultimately up to you.
Author and art writer Daniel Kany is the weekly art critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram.
JUNG HUR: SPREAD
By Gerard McCarthy
Jung Hur had several one-person exhibitions in Seoul, South Korea before emigrating to New York to run a restaurant with his wife, Sunny. In 2011, I organized his first solo exhibition in the United States at White Box gallery in lower Manhattan. Several years before leaving Korea, Hur’s idiosyncratic thinking about art history focused on the idea of food as art. He was busy with food but he also maintained a painting studio and, when time allowed, made discrete experiments integrating his studio images within his food preparations. This was not so much blending art and life as much as integrating his specific signs as aesthetic and material components along with the colors, textures and flavors of more familiar ingredients.
Hur has reformulated the ying and yang symbol in a form appropriate to a world dividing in multiplicity rather than coalescing toward singularity. He created a sign that features a circle cut into two interdependent parts – unlike in ying and yang where the two halves cannot be separated from the whole circle. You can see this clearly in his paintings where the two distinct symbols (icons or signs) each imply the totality of a circle. Each brings its counterpart – but as an absent form indicated through contour or outline. In fact, when the two parts are returned to complete a circle, the division is lost.
The artist’s exploration of abstract painting as a vehicle for the presentation of signs has resulted in dynamic, beautiful canvases. Hur integrates image and ground through processes that suggest the inexorable repetition of birth and rebirth. In some works a pattern is summoned from chaos, while in others the sign is indicated as a trace; an absence that is always present. The signs in their positive and negative aspects permeate the tissue of Hur’s art. A suggestion of cosmic space expands from compressed layers of paint, paper, pattern and color. These layers can be opaque or transparent and are either randomly spread over the surface or carefully applied. The signs are embedded in these membranes and consolidated within a tactile surface. The rich surfaces cannot be touched but they evoke pleasures of the sensuous world. The signs even appear to transcend their material condition as they are easily recognizable and often repeated in regular formations.
In Hur’s recent paintings, irregular patterns feature individual signs twisted on their axis as if pushing back into the pictorial space or projecting out into the atmosphere. The artist pushes his sign into the space of the world but it remains contained within the formality of an artwork. Integrating the signs into his food, Hur creates a partnership between the aesthetic and the edible through which art is literally, if temporarily, brought to life.
Imagine a reconfigured lazy-Susan that begins as an empty vessel and then becomes filled with what diners give to share with others at the table. Galleries are similarly empty spaces in which artists present their work to be shared by viewers who each offer their own interpretation of what they consume.
The sign, having two complementary identities, complicates the binary code of positive and negative and conveys a symbol universal energy. As food is the sustenance of life, so cosmic forces sustain the spirit and these manifestations of two as one or one as two are offered for material consumption. Enjoy.
New York City-based Gerard McCarthy is a curator in New York City and Korea.
YING AND YANG: THE MARRIAGE OF ART AND FLAVOR
By Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo
Large-scale abstract artist Jung Hur’s first exhibition in Portland, Maine, has been twenty years in the making. It pairs his breathtaking art work with a companion menu devised by Hur that is integral to the show.
Inspired by the shape of an antique keyhole he found two decades ago, Hur has created paintings and culinary works of art that reflect this form as well as the positive and negative space it delineates. Drawing upon his studies of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy, Hur says that the keyhole shape represents a spatial sense of Ying and Yang, and echoes other dualities such as the binary code of 01 and 00.
Each food item was especially created by Hur to reflect the design and philosophy behind his paintings. Hur is a noted chef as well as the owner of Spread restaurant on Commercial Street in Portland – the site of the combined food and painting exhibition. “When creating this menu, I did not only think of the colors and shapes,” said Hur, “but also the tie-in of flavors, textures, and acidic balance of the food and so on.”
Hur has also taken into account the fact that in Asian cuisine, beef, clams and clear broth—foods that are “universal” because they can be paired with many others to create new dishes—are considered “Ying” while pork, lamb and chili—foods that have a unique and distinctive flavor—are considered “Yang.”
To recreate his painting shapes and motifs as cuisine, Hur uses the flavors of lobster, squid ink, scallops, daikon radish, yuzu, lobster mushroom and matsutake, bean sprouts, gold and silver leaf and wild boar, among many others. Hur uses locally sourced and organic foods whenever possible.
Hur’s food appears to have leapt off his large scale canvases. He insists the food is of equal importance to the paintings: Hur balances his visual art with his culinary art.
Elisabeth Wilkins Lombardo is a writer and editor. She lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine with her family.