Last week an exhibition of new work by acclaimed conceptual artist Michael Joo opened at Blain|Southern’s brightly-lit space in London’s Mayfair. The show consists of a dozen or so objects, mostly canvases, that delight and disturb in equal measure. In the gallery’s first room, a series of works depict what looks like cooking experiments gone horribly wrong, with the contours of blackened, shimmering commercial metal baking trays staring back at you, framing your golden reflection with a dark halo of char.
Adjacent to the trays, a slab of roughly textured marble mounted on a steel frame depicts the coloured strata of compressed earth, a build up of land over millennia. Treated with Joo’s preferred chemical compound—silver-nitrate—one side of the billboard-like slab shimmers, reflecting the light and space of the gallery; a sculpture meets painting meets otherworldly window. In the second room, the intrigue of textures, chemically layered materials and shimmering surfaces grows, with floor-to-ceiling paintings mimicking deep, reflective pools of solidified liquid. Upon vast spans of alluring surface quality you detect paint drips, brush strokes, sculptural grooves, bubbles of silver and, your own silhouette hazily reflected back at you.
These mysteriously reflective yet intricately textured surfaces do not let themselves be taken in easily. Needing more than a casual glance or fleeting thought, the works display the enigmatic conceptual complexity, a layering of both material and meaning meaning that Joo is well known for. Addressing common themes of identity, nature, science, politics and experience, his art is not governed by an adherence to one particular medium or form, but ranges whimsically from video and performance to readymade natural objects, to installation work. Consistent in his oeuvre however, is a deep engagement with the idea of process, with transforming materials and dissolving boundaries – whether physical or conceptual, social or natural (“With the best of art, some of the boundaries between I and we and you dissolve”). Originally trained as a scientist, his chemically treated surfaces and material experiments seem more suited to the realm of science than art. Yet without being required to conform to scientific guidelines, Joo is free to give whatever form he wishes to his most experimental ideas.
At Blain | Southern, the multifariously layered paintings articulate Joo’s consistent interest in the transformative processes of energy. Both its modes of transference, its effects and its more mystical, philosophical dimensions pop up throughout his oeuvre, but have here found their most pertinent expressions. The tray paintings for example, directly address energy as the source of human activity; they attempt to capture it, represent and embody it.
As found ‘readymades’, the ordinary trays were each stamped with a numerical value representing the number of calories individuals would expend performing various human actions, such as lie, stand or drive for a single second. The resulting image was then transferred to canvas to create Warhol-esque silkscreens, upon which Joo enacted a number of subsequent painterly processes. In a play upon subjective experience versus quantifiable ‘objective’ data collection, each absurdly specific number represents an individual second of energy transformed. Joo’s artistic process has digested, melted these values inside the second-hand baking trays, each of which has its own history associated with the transformation of ingredients and energy expenditure.
Beyond our scientific, factual understanding of its processes, energy can take on magical proportions in our collective imaginations; a mystical power with flows that govern the potential for alchemy, for divine miracles and spiritual transformations. Two darkly shimmering canvases on either side of a floating wall embody this. Although also revealing precise caloric values indicating amounts of energy transferred, they reference more the sublime than the mundane. Based on Joo’s average measurements of artistic representations, the artist worked out a basal metabolic rate for The Buddha. Using the calculated weight and height — keeping in mind the tradition of Buddhist ascetic monks starving themselves — Joo then gauged the number of calories used per millisecond as a human body either consumes itself (the canvas entitled ‘Give’) or is offered up as sustenance (the canvas entitled ’Take’). The result is a mixture of visceral morbidity with spiritual exaltation, death represented as both the metaphysical journey of the spirit up to God and the plain physical decomposition of the body.
Interestingly, the title of the current show is Radio Halo, after the geological phenomenon that describes spherical areas of discolouration on natural rocks, caused by radioactive isotopes. This is more than a casual reference to nature. You only have to google the term to discover that radio halo’s have come to be of particular interest to supporters of creationism, who call them ’the fingerprints of creation’, supposedly evidence of the myth of a ‘young’, almost instantaneously created earth.
What to make of this reference remains unclear, which is presumably how Joo intended it. Clearly, there is more to his art than meets the eye, although what meets your eyes at Blain | Southern is more than enough to make you want to keep looking. As testimonies to the complex processes carried out upon their surfaces, the visceral works show Joo blurring the lines between nature and culture, science and religion, experience and myth. His enigmatic references lead to extraordinarily open-ended questions; what is the relationship between ‘objective’ measurable data, our subjective human experiences and the ultimately intangible mystery of our final purpose and destination? Joo’s evocative materiality is both the result and the embodiment of these conceptual meditations; his art the physical expression of things we struggle to even give form to in our minds.