a surprising discover at the Berkley Art Museum

by Termeh Behbahani

That's where I went

Strolling around the new Berkeley Art Museum, which opened under the multi-show theme of “Architecture of Life,” I thought that I was going to get some snazzy and iconic architectural drawings. Instead, I saw spider webs, wooden sheds with abstract films showing in them, Saul Bass inspired video art, a charcoal map of China, not very accurate although I haven’t been to China, textiles from Nepal: and it all made me think what is architecture, what is life, what am I doing here, I’m very mad. Just as I was about to leave and go to Top Dog across the street, instead of the fancy third floor vegan cafeteria for the dowagers of Berkeley, I turned a corner into a new room, I hadn’t noticed. In front of me was something I might call art.

Three minimalist flat paintings with single objects painted on them, occupying one third of the room. From afar I could see a well-rendered wooden staff with a piece of white cloth hung from it and the background was one simple smooth neutral greyish, green color. Walking closer I realized that I was greatly mistaken. The well-rendered staff was just one simple brush stroke! Same with the cloth: it was a combination of simple brush strokes. This is amazing. I had never seen anything like it before, so simple and elegant. Who is this artist? Her name was Song Hyun-Sook, a Korean artist living in Germany.

What's real and what's fake?
Her work instantly reminded me of another painting that I had seen in Elins Eagles-Smith Gallery at 49 Geary in San Francisco. The gallery isn’t very spacious, which limits the wall space dedicated to artists. But just as you walk in, you are confronted by two big paintings that seem nothing more than basic color studies. At first I thought “Great! More one-color paintings, fantastic! Is there any good art at 49 Geary? But, just like at the Berkeley Art Museum, I walked closer and found that the “simple color studies” were actually thick brush strokes. Naturally I asked myself for the second time “how have I not seen this artist before?” I looked around and saw the woman behind the counter eyeing me very closely. Why? I stared at her uncomfortably as if silently asking her why she is looking at me. After a good 20-second stare down (I’m not scared of rude people) I turned my head back to the painting only to realize I have been looking at myself—in the painting, almost touching the surface with my nose. I step back. Again. And again. This 78 x 120 inch painting requires more space for viewing. So I go to the farthest end of the gallery and awkwardly try to peek at it from behind a wall that was blocking my view. The woman was eyeing me again. I guess I do look rather suspicious.

The artist was Richardo Mazal from Mexico who currently has a studio in Santa Fe. Even though they are oceans apart, I thought these two painters have to know each other. Did they go to the same school, or had the same teachers. But no, their only connection is that they’re both born in 1958. Mazal was previously known for his colorful and single brush strokes paintings, noted for their white backgrounds and heavy gobs of paint. You can also tell that he went back in and painted some parts by hand. It has the feel or the effect of photographic landscapes, infused with texture.
Everything can become strange and art
Song’s process, though startlingly similar, is actually quite different. In a video profile, Song explains that it’s all about the mental preparation and the spontaneous unloading of the brush and its colors onto the canvas. She also uses tempura, which is an ancient, highly pigmented, opaque medium, whereas Mazal uses mostly oil paint to create his gestural strokes. When you look at Song’s strokes they give you the same nostalgic feeling as the objects they are creating—simple, calming, and almost soothing. The empty space around the painted objects is a perfect stage for her delicate brush strokes and the neutral colors are a great compliment to her loaded, multicolor strikes of paint. Nostalgia is a big part of Song’s work.

I noticed that Mazal uses places for his titles, like Bhutan Abstractions, Kailash Black Mountain or Kora. It made me curious to know why. He travels a great deal and obviously finds a tremendous amount of inspiration from the natural world. His Kailash exhibition in Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Singapore 2014 is a great example of this style. The painting “Black Mountain MK1” is 98.5 x 150 inches and tries to capture the intense darks and lights of a mountain with thick and wide strokes of paint. These strokes are laid on top of big patches of color. They represent the light that you cannot see with the naked eye, a rather abstract and heady concept. Even though he doesn’t play with value in the background colors, he uses flatness to convey the idea of light. Now, that’s tricky painting.

Song draws from her memory and history in Korea to create a sense of nostalgia in her work. She mentions that for her the painting is either a success or a failure; and if it’s a failure then she wipes it off and starts over! She plans out every step, every color and the full composition before starting a painting. But even with all of the planning the most important for her is being in the moment and having the ultimate control and focus on the painting. She mixes her paint and loads her brush by applying multiple color of paint on the brush. Different colors on the same brush! Not unheard of but still unusual. She then walks over to her canvas barefoot and gets on a flat piece of wood, which is laid over her painting on the floor. The piece of wood floats not more than a couple of inches over the canvas and bends as she walks on it with her brush in her hand. She positions herself at the right spot, extends one leg completely on the wood by sliding it along the length of the canvas, and bends the other leg half way so that her body is poised and still. From that position of power she starts unloading her brush with intense pressure on the canvas. After the paint runs out she walks off, wets the brush with more colors and gets back on again, all the while counting her brush strokes.

What technique
Mazal has an entirely different approach. His process and materials are more modern and contemporary. He first visits the locations and takes reference photos for later compositional and pallet inspirations. In a video titled “La Tumba de la Reina Roja, 2014” he shows us a glimpse of his process. After preparing his linen canvas he mixes his oil paints with linseed oil to thin the paint in order to manipulate it better. He starts putting down big blocks of color with a large spatula. He then enters the 21-century and uses the computer to recreate an image based on his photos. He takes elements from the photos and flattens the colors and turns them into simple grey tone value. This process is more for the composition and not so much for the pallet. After successfully arranging his image he prints it and goes back to the traditional world of painting.

So really they had nothing in common and I do not know why Song reminded me of Mazal when seeing Song’s work but never the less it did. Even though the outcome of their work is somewhat similar the process is quite different. How could they be similar? Sure they were born in the same year and both are successful artist but so are many others. I guess my mind likes to find similarities between a Mexican abstract expressionist and a Korean minimalist.

©Termeh Behbahani and the CCA Arts Review

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