Essay on Don Ahn (Dongkuk Ahn): Recent Work, March 9 – March 28, 1996

Jeffrey Wechsler, Chief Curator Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University

This group of recent paintings by Don Ahn stands at the newest point along a sustained, logical progression of technique and imagery that has run through the artist’s career virtually from its conception. Always concerned with both representation and abstraction, and retaining the East Asian notion that all art is to some extent abstract, Ahn has allowed natural imagery and the process of abstraction to find varying levels of balance within his work. At times nature comes to the fore, at times abstraction does so, the relative proportionality between them creating the basis for a fresh aesthetic equilibrium.

At first glance, abstraction seems to dominate in the recent paintings; jets and bursts of color, streaming in ragged gestures, flash across their surfaces. However, these works are direct outgrowths of a set of paintings by Ahn from about three years ago, which contain quite realistic, though stylized images of tree branches. Flattened and consisting of curving linear elements, the branches gave the impression of great agitation and contained energy, with the highly twisted arcs and filigree traced by the branches further emphasized by the writhing line work within them. The rushing gestures in the new paintings are, in effect, close-ups of fragments of these branches, their contained torsion set free to evoke a more spatial effect.

Spontaneity seems to be uppermost in these semi-abstractions, and areas of pigment appear to have been flung or swiftly stroked across the composition. Even the colors give the impression of kicking away restraints; bright oranges and yellows, acid greens, hot pinks plus brilliant violets and purples all jangle the view’s eyes. Yet with some study of the pictures, one begins to realize that the spontaneity, though certainly implicit visually and conceptually in the work, is also the product of calculation. Explosive first gestures are carefully highlighted with contrasting color to add structure, developing a weight and overall compositional coherence to the rushes of attenuated blotches, lines and gestures. Indeed, some of the works are actually based on smaller spontaneous studies, which are then enlarged with a combination of free and controlled techniques.

Ultimately, forming the essential underpinning for it all, is the vital presence of nature. This is acknowledged in the titles – Twilight II, Morning Beach, Stormy Sunrise, for example – which also reveal the source for the incendiary colors. The artist has reveled in the most coloristically ostentatious display nature offers us on a regular basis: the heightened spectrum of daybreak and sundown. Thus Don Ahn’s recent work shows how nature can be simultaneously the venerable source of traditional inspiration and a jumping-off point for modern expressions of the abstract and the ecstatic.