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Kyoung Ae Cho: Rearrangements
August 28–November 7, 1998

Kyoung Ae Cho
Scales-III, 1994
autumn leaves, an old frame
18 x 14 inches
Courtesy of the artist
photo: Kyoung Ae Cho

One of the most persistent issues in 20th-century art has been the role of craft, by which is meant the skillfulness and care in making employed by an artist. Traditionally, it was understood that art would be well crafted. The technical skill of the artist and the time in the work signalled to the audience that a work of art merited concentrated attention. This expectation changed dramatically with 20th-century avant-garde art movements—including dada, minimalism, postminimalism, and postmodernism—in which opposition and resistance were given visual form through an anti-aesthetic that was often dissonant in effect, casually composed, and haphazardly crafted. The history of avant-garde art is the dominant history of European and American 20th-century art chronicled in textbooks and presented in museum displays, but art's long tradition of the beautifully made and well-crafted object never disappeared.

Many artists continued their commitment to aesthetics, beauty, and craft (three qualities which together have been referred to as constituting "quality") through various styles of representational and abstract painting and sculpture and, even more prominently, in the technically demanding craft-based practices of fibers, metals, ceramics, glass, and photography. Furthermore, during the past thirty years a reconsideration of and renewed respect for the role of craft grew out of feminist artists' and scholars' recognition that, in modern industrial societies, craft was often seen as part of the "women's work" of decorative arts and domesticity, which were undervalued in an era celebrating technological progress and modern art produced by scaled-up, self-expressive (typically male) egos.

Since the early 1970s, the results of this renewed respect for the products and procedures of craft have appeared as influences in a diversity of artworks ranging from the repetitive objects and actions of Ann Hamilton's installations to the ornamented ceramic vessels of Adrian Saxe, as well as in the use of fiber and fabric by Eva Hesse and Faith Wilding, and even in the emphatic surface textures of Tony Cragg's sculpture. These varied manifestations of craft's influence and presence in art through materials, process, and skillful procedure provide a context for the exquisite form and high level of production in Kyoung Ae Cho's art.

The beauty that Kyoung Ae Cho's work attains is a source of considerable pleasure as well as a locus of attention promoting a feeling of centeredness in the viewer-an experience that continues to be desired by many though it is increasingly rare in a culture spinning with information and spectacle. For Cho, the material and process influences of craft are fundamental to her way of working for she developed as an artist from a fiber background, which is a continuing involvement as she now teaches on the fiber faculty of Kansas City Art Institute. After traditional training in her native South Korea, where her education stressed technique and surface decoration, she relocated to the United States, earning an M.F.A. in fiber from Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she gradually responded to the emphasis on internal sources for art making.

As the once-distinct boundaries between fine art, applied art, and crafts have partially eroded since the 1960s, not only have the previously discussed artists exhibited influences of craft, but also a number of artists who are associated with craft media have incorporated ideas and imagery characteristic of contemporary art, including the sculptural forms and aesthetic issues in the work of ceramic artists Michael Lucero and Ron Nagle, fiber artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, and glass artist Dale Chihuly, to name but a few. A similar evolution can be seen in the work of Kyoung Ae Cho as, over the course of the past ten years, she gradually shifted from her previous style which was more typical of work in contemporary fiber. Though Cho has retained substantial elements from her fiber training-including absorption in precise processes, the use of materials as metaphors, and a commitment to the transcendental possibilities of beauty-in the past several years her work has incorporated approaches and ideas associated with contemporary painting and sculpture.

In making this shift, Cho has increasingly used materials derived from nature such as pine needles or wood in Ripple, rectangular arrangements that reference painting formats as in Chaos II or Thru, and techniques of display as in Each Other I-VII which utilize the format of serial repetition that blossomed out of postminimalism in the 1970s. In these respects, Cho has made use of possibilities opened up by contemporary art and wedded them to fundamental elements and approaches from her fiber training, while further developing her long-standing concerns with the potential of metaphors drawn from nature.

Kyoung Ae Cho's recent art presents the viewer with materials that initially seem natural but in fact lie between the natural and the human-made-such as sawn and milled wood or fired clay-countering our habit of expecting a clear distinction between nature and culture. Those materials are found and worked and then further altered by being arranged into a rectangle, grid, or linear series that uses geometry to create order while interweaving within that order changes in surface and direction that capture the flux of existence. That condition of flux-the everchanging quality of all things, especially nature-is clearly recognizable when played off against the geometric structures that are the fundamental forms of our attempts to organize and classify the world.

In this series of artworks, Cho has rearranged these materials to refer back to the cycles of growth in the natural world within which they developed, and from which they were taken as a step in their transformation into art. The awareness of a cyclical process that lies beyond the surface can be considered transcendental, offering us a vision of the overarching structures beyond the immediacy of surface that is our visible reality. That sense of a larger order is at once satisfying and humbling, emphasizing the viewer's position in space and time and also within cyclical patterns of nature. Building upon this multifaceted representation of nature, Cho's art suggests interpretations and metaphors drawn from nature as ideas having the potential to shift our attitudes and our interactions with the natural world.

Because Cho's art evinces a concern with nature, it can be interpreted in relation to the growing field of environmental art—including Helen and Newton Harrison, Agnes Denes, Mel Chin, and many others—which means to raise public awareness of and sensitivity toward nature. As with much environmental art, Cho's art is not explicitly activist in intent, but rather has developed out of her fundamental respect for nature as deserving of our fullest concern. Nature, as represented in Cho's art, is seen as complex and not absolutely separate from the human enterprise-for we are, after all, of nature even as we have so often misused and abused it-yet sufficiently distinct from culture that it can be productively considered. Through representing and incorporating nature, Kyoung Ae Cho is suggesting that an understanding of nature can offer us profound metaphors of stability and change, and of constancy and renewal that can enable us to more fully realize our selves and our place in the world.

Robert Raczka
Associate Professor of Art and Gallery Director
Allegheny College, Meadville, PA