MICHAEL JOODRWN, Carunculatus (28), 2015, Graphite impregnated urethane, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Blain|Southern, London.


Michael Joo

Korea, South United Kingdom
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Standing in the cavernous, brightly lit interior of London’s Blain|Southern in early February, one was reminded of the whitewashed, futuristic rooms used in sci-fi films to denote some sort of alternate zone outside of the space-time continuum. Think “The Construct” in The Matrix (1999) or the Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). At Blain|Southern, the all-pervading whiteness was strangely awe-inspiring—appearing half laboratory, half art gallery. A series of small, dark canvases hung snugly in a row along one wall, like cabin portholes into another dimension; further ahead were vast canvases measuring more than three meters high. Behind hovered an enormous, marble-made billboard, which seemed to float in space despite the dramatic metal struts that supported it. The piece loomed over visitors like the otherworldly monolith from A Space Odyssey, triggering the opening strains of the film’s iconic overture to play in one’s mind.

In the context of this exhibition, “Radiohalo,” which featured New York-based artist Michael Joo’s new works, such space-age analogy isn’t so far off. Born in 1966 to scientist parents, Joo centers his practice on an almost empirical study of process. In the early 1990s, through works such as The Saltiness of Greatness (1992)—an installation based on the lifetime caloric outputs of Genghis Khan, Bruce Lee, Chairman Mao and Tokyo Rose—Joo investigated the consumption and yield of energy. Further exploration of this concept, along with Joo’s decade-long interest in silver nitrate, became the focus of “Radiohalo.”

The exhibition presented a series of Joo’s small “caloric paintings,” which involve calculating the energy used in random tasks such as driving and sleeping, offering a snapshot of what it is to be human. For these paintings, he imprints and etches caloric figures on canvases, by applying various techniques used in photography, silkscreen and printmaking, before treating them with silver nitrate. In some of the works, this process has darkened and distorted the canvases such that the digits themselves are half obscured, resembling instead ancient text on archaeological tablets. In his larger canvases, the silver nitrate imbues a luscious, Renaissance richness—like burnished panels of sumptuous, metallic satin. Once their caloric figures are recorded, the random tasks that serve as the paintings’ basis are considered complete. This sense of fragility makes each of the etched caloric figures at once permanent and completely ephemeral. Fragility was also present in a series of graphite casts of cranes’ legs, which sat at the bottom of spidery, graphite lines that ran down a wall. DRWN, Carunculatus (28) (2015), which at first seemed like a random addition to the show, in fact deftly displayed Joo’s interest in process. Just like the caloric “paintings,” DRWN examines the “residue of action,” where each leg was dragged down a wall and eroded away, leaving behind trails of graphite.

However, it was a three-meter-wide marble slab, mounted like a highway billboard, that was the highlight of the exhibition. Prologue (Montclair Danby Vein Cut) (2014–15) is a result of Joo’s interest in boundaries and, more specifically, Cameron’s Line—an American suture fault defined by a subterranean belt of marble. On the front side of the installation, discolored rivulets run down from a fissure like radiohalos, a phenomenon wherein radiation damage in minerals manifests as discoloration. The fissure itself is stapled together with dramatic, Frankenstein-like metal bolts. On the back of the slab, a layer of silver nitrate presents a soft, reflective surface. Not quite mirror-like, or positioned low enough for one to see oneself in it, the surface is rather like a window. In a sense, this metamorphosis of material and function represents Joo’s desire to transcend what he describes as “acts of will imposed upon inflexible and unaware imperatives of nature.”

In recent years, Joo’s work has moved more toward abstraction, while retaining the ability to speak directly to the viewer. The generous space of Blain|Southern allowed his works to breathe, but also, rather alluringly, made one less aware of one’s own presence at the gallery. As visitors looked up at Joo’s vast marble window, they saw not themselves but a glimpse into another world—as though stepping into “The Construct” of the Matrix.