Semiotic Overloads and Proxy Dimensions: Joomi Chung and John Humphries at the Weston Art Gallery

December 28th, 2019  |  Published in *, December 2019

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me now to recite. Inspire me, O gods, and spin me a thread from the world’s beginning…

—Ovid, Prologue to Metamorphoses[1]

In Joomi Chung’s Image Space/Memory Space, there are mountains and motorbikes, traffic cones and tree branches, satellites and skyscrapers, flocks of birds and pedestrians, lichen, barcodes, and jetliners. Meticulously drawn in black ink (with occasional colorations, such as red blood-like spotting), forms coalesce like a delirious Rorschach on transparent acetate — surfaces coiled, furled, layered, drifting across illuminated video screens and in cut rubber teeming across the gallery floor like metal filings to the poles of interfering magnetic fields. Videos’ gentle rumble emanating through the gallery, words by novelist Julian Barnes’ come to mind: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”[2]

Joomi Chung, “Atlas 4” (detail), 2019, ink drawing on clear acetate, 40” x 80”

In Chung’s hands, the noise of time is rendered visible in a terrain of knotted threads, spun from images lifted from the news.  These works — fundamentally drawings — negotiate their own flatness, echoing, too, the flatness of print media: tones of black chosen are similar to the flat, economical black of printed newspapers. The images are often stretched just beyond the cusp of recognition, yesterday’s news as abstract psychogeography. By layering and coiling acetate, placing two-dimensional lines in three dimensional space, the works seem to grapple with depicting something that defies representation: time itself, memory’s non-Euclidean terrain.

John Humphries, “Icarus, Man with Head Aflame”, 2019, watercolor, wood, thread on 42” x 30” paper

In an adjacent gallery, John Humphries’ Rules, Recipes, and Mythology also grapples with the limitations of two dimensional media as proxy working in a non-Euclidean terrain. Eleven works on paper and 21 smaller studies comprise a carefully constructed body of work that deals with various mythological subjects, which Humphries has transformed through a process of “rules and recipes”. We don’t know what these rules and recipes are, and nor should we (I’ll return to this shortly). Taken first as drawings, in schematic pencil line, gradient watercolor washes, and strips of wood built onto the surface of the paper, these works appear as something like architectonic symbols, or figurative elements paused midway through a process of transformation, placed in an uncanny valley between representational and symbolic modes. Icarus, Man with Head Aflame, depicts a head-like form divided by a horizontal flame-like form. Rather than dramatic or macabre, as the scene might typically be rendered, the almost-face bears a comic almost-expression. In other pieces, the forms resist representation while simultaneously suggesting it. It’s evident that meaning is here, but the particulars are less clear. Instead, they’re presented as if they are meaningful[3], existing in an intermediate space, loaded with significance beyond what they’re able to convey on their own. It’s this semiotic overloading that Humphries seems most interested in exploring, cusps flanking an event horizon of meaningful/lessness. To present their meaning in an explanatory or didactic form would be to graft an ontological structure onto the symbols, so it was wise for the artist to withhold any explanatory impulse. In the place of ontological forms, Humphries builds literal forms rising from paper’s loaded surface: Thin strips of wood bend form architectonic constructions held together by colored thread (paging Ariadne!) and fixed to the paper in lines of shoelace-like punctures. The paper itself is cut and folded outward, creating  whole, negative space, and three dimensional forms rising from the surface.

Joomi Chung, foreground: “Atlas 2”, 2010, ink drawing on clear acetate, 10” x 300”; background (left to right): “News #3”, 2018, ink drawing on acetate, 22” x 30”; “News #1”, 2018, ink drawing on acetate, 22” x 30”; “News #7”, 2019, ink drawing on acetate, 22” x 30”; “News #5”, 2019, ink drawing on acetate, 20” x 35”

Chung’s work, too, circles this same event horizon, extending into proxy dimensions. In the Atlas series, three long scrolls of transparent acetate are placed on top of pedestals in varying states of spooling/unspooling. Scrolls are interesting objects that tend inherently to deal with the passage of time. Conventionally, scrolls require either viewers to move their bodies through space or to negotiate the gradual unspooling of the scroll itself. The fact that it cannot be viewed in entirety from a single point in spacetime makes the scroll an ideal metaphor for linear, phenomenological time. I have long been interested in Chinese landscape painting for this reason, where hand scrolls just as often represent the subject of time itself through a complex metonymy of figure and terrain. In many cases, small solitary figures are shown, infinitesimal poet-scholars moving through monumental terrains, unfurling into sublimity. To behold one of these scrolls, and to really engage with them, is to find oneself experiencing the terrain as the figure, entering into a kind of poetic dream space. In Chung’s Atlas scrolls, this metaphor for temporality is present but altered: The same subject/object metonymy exists, but instead of a single poet-scholar moving through mountains and clouds, one becomes a faceless crowd moving through Rorschach archipelagos and rhizomatic urban topography. Beholding the entire scroll simultaneously, seeing through to its transparent core, one feels like the maddened protagonist of Borges’ story “The Aleph”, mining the aesthetic potential of omnipotent confusion.

Displayed on pedestals, the viewer is invited to behold these scrolls as objects and image simultaneously. As objects, their states of coiling/uncoiling creates a pleasing asymmetry, a finite system invoking an idea of the infinite. Crouching from below I imagine myself the size of one of the figures, walking through the coil like one of Richard Serra’s monumental steel sculptures. Standing on my toes and looking from above, the acetate almost disappears. From this vantage point, the drawings are visible only as distorted circular projections on the pedestal’s flat surface. The effect is something like the supermassive black hole in Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, or like what one sees when looking up beneath Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate.

Joomi Chung, “News #4” (detail), 2018, ink drawing on acetate, 20” x 35”

As images, Chung’s works derive much of their power via their poetic use of scale, which is most evident in the News series, also drawn on acetate, layered flat and neatly framed on the gallery’s walls. The vocabulary here is more overtly representational (by contrast, much of what is visible in the Atlas scrolls occupies a middle ground, perhaps adjacent to what Humphries has done with his symbols). Here, the compositions are tightly wound like the Atlas scrolls, but compressed, like a cross section of a specimen on a microscopic slide. The artist’s choice in vocabulary, too, differs. For all their engaging complexity, elements of the Atlas works do share some unfortunate resemblances to trendy graphic design of the early aughts (post OK Computer album art; ubiquitous flocks of birds). The imagery in the News series is equally of-a-time: Cold War-era projections of optimism; pre-climate-change petroleum industry ad campaigns; diplomacy of sport; athletic futurism. Chung plays with scale: racetracks, aircraft, and wrestlers are the same size as mountains, cities, and beach umbrellas. The images seem ever spinning, ever accelerating. Mirages of pre-late Capitalism.

In contrast to Chung’s scrolls, which are experienced differently from different vantage points, Humphries’ works seem only meant to be viewed straight-on. Looking from the side, unfortunately, emphasizes the paper’s buckling — inevitable when loaded with such heavy elements. Though perhaps conceptually justified, the paper’s buckling distracts, particularly in the irregular shadow cast on the wall below many of them.

John Humphries, “Urania in the Orbits of Proximal Constellations”, 2019, watercolor, wood on 42” x 30” paper

There are other shadows, too; in Humphries’ Urania in the Orbits of Proximal Constellation, the wood latticework casts horizontal lines atop a conglomeration of ovals and rectangles. These shadow lines do attempt to emphasize some of the linear elements (a few wood chunks jutting out almost fill out several painted shapes, which is interesting), but for the most part the cast shadows seem meant to be ignored. I’m led to compare the variety of physical marks, which are vaguely schematic and of varying thickness. Dashed and solid lines describe a machine of pendulum spheres and elliptical orbits. Unfortunately, some of the ellipses feel squashed (a lost battle with the edge of the paper?), and many of the schematic-feeling marks project a confidence ultimately undermined by indicators of hesitation, like the painstaking nonchalance of a forged signature. Similarly throughout these works, the artist’s use of watercolor feels overworked. Urania in the Orbits of Proximal Constellation still interests me — it might be my favorite from this body of work. But it’s paradoxical that such attempts seem to have been made to control a medium whose foremost quality is its uncontrollability. In the 21 studies, smaller works on paper presented in grids, the medium is better utilized. Here, there’s a lightness and whimsy that doesn’t completely translate to the larger works.

John Humphries, “Elegba of Roads and Opportunity” (detail), 2019, watercolor, wood, folded paper on 42” x 30” paper

A notable exception is Elegba of Roads and Opportunity, Humphries’ strongest work in the exhibition. Cuts of paper and wood, in varying thicknesses, ground flanking bases of a golden arc of overlapping rectangles. The wood’s shadows cast a grace and lightness to the arc, which seems to spring upward. The watercolor here is effortless rather than overworked, and the lines (in blue pencil rather than graphite) are confident and purposeful (elsewhere, the schematic marks seems to lack function). Other works may rise from their surfaces, but this one comes alive with lyricism and movement that seems to follow me as I move from side to side.

Joomi Chung, “Surfaces” (detail), 2012-19, recycled rubber installation, 28’ x 24’

Joomi Chung’s work comes closest to breaking free from two dimensions in Surfaces, an installation of innumerable pieces of cut rubber filling nearly half the gallery floor. Forms recognizable from the News and Atlas series, enlarged and cut from black rubber, teem and overlap, reaching critical mass at the edges of the gallery, like waves washing on the shore. Viewed from its perimeter, the most recognizable forms (a motorbike; dragonfly wings) are at my feet. Between the rubber’s rhythms and eddies, the gallery’s planked flooring is visible. The waves of its woodgrain contrast with its rectangular grid layout in much the same way that the installation’s rubber pushes against the right angle of the inner corner and the gallery’s square column. I wonder: what lies beneath its surface?

–Steve Kemple

Joomi Chung: Image Space/Memory Space and John Humphries: Rules, Recipes and Mythology — Works on Paper, through February 2, 2020. Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery (lower level), 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati, OH 45202-2517, Tues.-Sat. 10am-5:30pm, Sun. noon-5pm.


[1]  trans. David Raeburn (London: Penguin, 2004)

[2]  Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time, (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016)

[3]  I’m reminded of Charles Yu’s “nonexistent but ontologically valid dog” in his short SF novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2011).

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